The Mauritshuis in the The Hague.

Removal of Bust from Dutch Museum Sparks Debate About Colonial Heritage

The removal of a replica bust from the lobby of one of the Netherlands’ major museums has raised questions about the country’s colonial legacy, reports The Guardian. This week, the Mauritshuis in The Hague uninstalled a plaster statue of the museum’s founder, Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, who funded the property’s construction in 1641 with a fortune accrued by enslaving Ghanians and making them work on sugarcane plantations. The Mauritshuis, now owned by the government, houses a vast collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings, including Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, 1665, and Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, 1654.

Many Dutch conservatives defended keeping the bust in place. Prime Minister Mark Rutte first called the decision “crazy” and then cautioned against “judging the distant past through today’s eyes.” Dienke Hondius, a historian at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, suggested that public monuments should be “left standing and put in context,” citing a movement in Barcelona geared toward dismantling a Christopher Columbus statue. “We are importing the American tendency to oversensitivity,” said politician Antoinette Laan.

Other recent efforts to reckon with the country’s violent past include the renaming of a primary school in Amsterdam named after Jan Pieterszoon Coen—a former governor known as the “Butcher of Banda”—as well as the installation of a plaque under Coen’s statue near the council of his birthplace, acknowledging his 1621 conquest of the island of Banda, in which fourteen thousand of the island’s natives were massacred. In September of last year, the Witte de With Center in Rotterdam also pledged to abandon the part of its name that refers to the controversial Dutch naval officer Witte Corneliszoon de With, who led violent expeditions into India and Indonesia for the Dutch East India Company. 

Although some commentators have drawn parallels between the discourse in the Netherlands and the recent controversies in the United States surrounding Confederate monuments and tributes to problematic historical personages, the museum claims it never had intentions to erase the presence of its founder. Mauritshuis director Emilie Gordenker said that the original bust is displayed in a new gallery in the museum dedicated to Maurits van Nassau-Siegen. “This is about improving the way we tell the story so that we can share all aspects, positive and negative, with our visitors,” she said. “Once we’d done that there was really no need to have this plaster replica in between the toilets and the cash desk.”