Whose history is it anyway? Curating the ‘Good Hope’ exhibition

In South Africa, we continue to come to terms with our colonial history and the artifacts that linger from this complex and traumatic legacy. After Rhodes has fallen, do we place him in a museum? And how do we curate the fallen? At the same time, some former colonial powers have begun to reckon with their own ambivalent histories.

It may come as a surprise that the Good Hope exhibition held recently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was the first public exhibition in the Netherlands which considered the effects of Dutch colonialism in South Africa.

Sunday afternoon’s Think!Fest panel used this exhibition as a starting point to consider how our histories are written and by whom: the title of the panel was aptly, “History is in the Eye of the Beholder.

This provocative and extensive discussion was chaired by Calvyn Gilfellan, CEO of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, itself a fraught monument of slavery and oppression. He signalled some of the challenges surrounding the curation of uncomfortable histories – how do we get the public to engage with the past, while making sure that all voices are heard and that we are fair and accurate in our storytelling?

Martine Gosselink, Head of the Department of History of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam explained the process of curating the ambitious Good Hope exhibition, which ranged from the first Dutch settlement and trading at the Cape, up to the post-apartheid moment.

Gosselink provided a fascinating overview of the exhibition’s key sections and artifacts, from San rock paintings and early Dutch postal stones in the Cape, to contemporary photographs of recent protests. The reaction from the Dutch public was positive, she said, and “opened up an understanding” of the longstanding connections between Dutch and South African history.

martine gosselink
Martine Gosselink, Head of the Department of History at the Rijiksmuseum

Dr Matloleng Matlou, Director of Excelsior Afrika Consulting, built on Gosselink’s summary and defense of the exhibition’s aims by locating the history it recounts within a broader system of capitalism and economic oppression.

Matlou also raised questions about the Dutch government’s policy of “shared history” between South Africa and the Netherlands, which at least somewhat underpins the creation of the exhibition (although Gosselink insisted she never uses that term, preferring less idealized phrasing that underscores the historical colonial relationship). He asked: “Is this shared history written from a Dutch point-of-view?”

Matlou also emphasised how this imbricated history should be contextualized in terms of the slave trade, and through this point he raised upcoming events in 2020 to mark the end of the UN Decade for People of African Descent, which will trace the history of slavery and its ongoing legacies.

While Matlou trained his critical gaze on the project, he also expressed his support for the openness with which the Dutch government and heritage sector has begun to address these issues around our entangled histories.

The final speaker in the panel was Soweto artist Simangaliso Sibiya, who provided a challenging perspective on the exhibition, which he visited in Amsterdam. His assessment of its success was slightly less optimistic than its curators’, as he characterized it as “framing the boot that kicked you”. He felt anger in response to the show, which he criticized for re-centering the colonial subject. “It starts with Jan Van Riebeeck and it ends with Jan Van Riebeeck”, Sibiya said, referring to the quote at the end of the exhibition from President Jacob Zuma, who claimed that South Africa’s problems began in 1652 with the arrival of the Dutch settlers.

Sibiya also critiqued the inclusion of works by South African photographer Pieter Hugo rather than a black South African artist, and the use of Nelson Mandela as a meaningless “poster boy”.

Sibiya’s perspective is evident in the print he produced in response to the exhibition, which shows Nelson Mandela looking at a reflection of Jan Van Riebeeck against the backdrop of the Rijksmuseum.

Sibiya also raised the much-contested question about European museums’ historical plunder and continued ownership of African artifacts, which sparked some heated debate in the question-and-answer session.

The discussion was attended and closed by Dutch Ambassador to South Africa, Marisa Gerards, who expressed her support for both the exhibition and the ongoing conversations around such difficult but essential projects.

Listen to the presentation here:

By Andrea Thorpe

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