NEW YORK — In May 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic, the king of the Netherlands opened a landmark exhibition devoted to the history and impact of slavery at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Although the global health crisis limited travel and tourism, some 80,000 people saw the show, which connected 10 personal stories of enslaved and free people to artworks and artifacts gathered by the museum. A smaller version of that show, focused on the narratives, is now on view at the United Nations.
The Rijksmuseum isn’t alone in its effort to deal with the legacy of colonialism and slavery, reflected not only in the objects it holds but also in its status as a revered steward of the nation’s cultural wealth.
The Museu de Arte de São Paulo and the Instituto Tomie Ohtake in Brazil organized an exhibition devoted to the trans-Atlantic history of Black and African people, including the Atlantic slavery trade, in 2018. That exhibition was seen in a revised version at the National Gallery of Art last year. Also last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art explored the representation of enslaved people through a small but potent exhibition devoted to Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s bust of a woman of African descent, titled “Why Born Enslaved!" Smaller museums and universities have also taken a lead in honest confrontation with the material legacy of slavery.
But the Rijksmuseum went further and deeper than other museums, and the exhibition seemed to be a genuine national reckoning.
The country has had angry clashes over whether to retire its blackface representation of Zwarte Piet, a folk figure who is part of traditional holiday celebrations in December, and use of the gilded royal coach that includes a racist painting known as “Homage From the Colonies.” But the slavery exhibition offered a new way to rethink the past, and reassurance to other museums that may consider the subject too fraught.
It showed both the erasure and the hiding-in-plain-sight of the iconography of slavery, connecting key works, including beloved paintings by Rembrandt, to the legacy of slavery. Rather than compartmentalize the discussion of slavery or leave it to contemporary artists to create new visual narratives, it used deep research and dispassionate narrative to reinterpret its legacy collections. This included adding text panels throughout the museum to make connections with slavery to works in other galleries.
Curators were willing to ask hard questions, and when answers were lacking, they left the questions open. Two magisterial 1634 Rembrandt portraits, of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, prompted perhaps the most essential query: To what extent did Dutch elites know of the cruelty of slavery? Oopjen Coppit’s first husband came from a family that owned the largest sugar producer in Amsterdam, the raw material for which came from the slave colonies of Brazil. Her second husband lived for a while in Brazil, and raped an African woman there, who later gave birth to his child. How aware of this was Oopjen? What moral obligation did she have to question the sources of her wealth?
I remember seeing the Rembrandt portraits shortly after they were acquired, in a 2019 Rijksmuseum exhibition commemorating the 350th anniversary of the artist’s death. And I remember being mesmerized by the lace rosettes on Marten’s shoes, and the ostrich feather fan in Oopjen’s right hand. Erasure sends us down the wrong rabbit holes and obscures essential subterranean truths.
The exhibition at the United Nations tells Oopjen’s story but doesn’t include the Rembrandt originals, only texts and reproductions on large panels. There is only one substantial object in the show, a set of wooden stocks for pinioning the legs of multiple enslaved people. It rests on a low display platform, mute yet horrifying evidence of the tools and techniques of bondage.
The substance of this exhibition is also available online, well-organized and presented. The main reason to visit the show in person is to see it in the context of the United Nations. By some estimates, there are nearly 50 million people who live in slavery, or slave-like conditions around the world, including domestic workers, victims of sex trafficking, and laborers who surrender many of their basic rights and sometimes their passports to work in another country, building soccer stadiums or raising the glittering new cities of the world’s petrostates and kleptocracies.
The United Nations, a flawed and often toothless organization, nonetheless represents international ideals antipathetic to the ongoing atrocity of human bondage. It has a global purview, which is essential to seeing the interconnection of slavery and wider economic, cultural, religious and demographic forces. If nothing else, the architecture of the United Nations reminds one of the faltering 20th-century belief in modernism, reform, liberation and progress.
Bringing a national exhibition into an international context also points the way to what should happen next. The legacy of colonialism and slavery is too vast and complicated for any one institution to untangle it, yet so far, this legacy has been addressed piecemeal. Collaboration across institutional and national lines is the next step. Museums and archives devoted to history, science, technology and music have an essential role to play in this, and the public would be better served by deeper, more collaborative engagement rather than myriad small efforts to address the subject.
There is an important precedent for convening international exhibitions that range freely across multiple disciplines, including art and science: the world fairs and grand expositions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like so many things connected to ideas of progress and development, these conclaves often served to reinforce existing power structures and basic ideas of race and otherness that grew out of slavery and colonialism. They put so-called exotic people on display and flattered Western ideas of intellectual superiority.
But they could be repurposed to confront and dismantle the very things they buttressed more than a century ago. One can imagine a Hall of Nationalism, in which individual nations put on view the cinematically scaled canvases and superheated sculpture that dramatize the essential myths underlying the state. And a Hall of Colonialism to explore not just the culpability of particular nations but also the enduring reconfiguration of the world map and economy, with so much lingering misery and discord.
The logistics and financial challenges of a 21st-century exposition would be substantial, and perhaps the greatest hurdle would be to engage actors of good faith. The habit of reverting to colonial attitudes is alive and well, in old practitioners, new superpowers and decaying empires reflexively defensive of their self-image. Countries that suffered from slavery and colonialism are not immune to political opportunists, who use past grievances to distract from their own incompetence and corruption.
But there is no better way to expose propaganda and cant than by juxtaposition with honest discourse. And the Rijksmuseum slavery exhibition shows the power of honest discourse, and the urgent need to expand that conversation in a new international forum.
Ten True Stories of Colonial Slavery is on view until March 30 at the visitors’ lobby of the United Nations in New York City. For more information, go to Visitor Centre New York | United Nations.