An Asian Art department was created at the Rijksmuseum1 in 1952, when the Royal Asian Art Society donated their collection to the Museum.2 Today, a number of objects from the Asian Art department are still on display in the main building of the Rijksmuseum. These include objects relating to Dutch-Asian trade since the seventeenth century, such as the model of a ship of the Dutch East India Company. The majority of the Asian collection, however, is presented in the newly built Asian Pavilion that was opened in 2013, when the Rijksmuseum reopened after its ten-year refurbishment. The Asian Pavilion is a small detached modern building that is connected with the main building by a protracted hallway. The Indian and Indonesian collections are displayed on the upper floor of the two-tiered pavilion. This section of the pavilion is provided with windows that allow daylight to enter. This choice was a natural one, as the artefacts primarily consist of bronze and stone statues that benefit from being viewed in natural light.3 Most objects on display stem from private collections and are on long term loan from the KVVAK or the Royal Asian Art Society, the society that made great efforts to elevate objects such as bronze statues and artefacts that were once wildly collected by the Dutch colonial elite during the early 19th century.
Our experiences of display spaces are deeply personal and informed by the intersection of our oppressions, our tastes and, crucially, the way others interact with us. As evidenced by the display method at the Asian Pavilion, the lack of Dutch colonial narrative and the relationship between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies seems to be biased and perhaps prejudiced.
The museum space is not neutral as it is driven by agendas that are rooted in the hierarchies of the European art historical discourse fueled by European nationalism. Once an object enters the museum context, its meaning is altered. Museums like the Rijksmuseum should be open about their histories of acquisition rather than hiding behind the untouchable sphere of Art and Aesthetics. The problem of provenance, authenticity and ownership is an issue that applies to every museum that displays art from other cultures. Such details are rarely mentioned in the short texts that accompany the displayed objects in museum exhibitions.
Provenance is the history of the ownership of an object as it passes through time. Some objects have extensive, illustrious histories. They may have been owned by royalty, wealthy international collectors, or even foreign governments. Others may have been passed down through a family, uneventfully, from generation to generation. It is the responsibility of a museum to make certain, to the best of its ability, that any object entering the collection has been transferred legally from one owner to another.
Since we are dealing mostly with sculptural objects that were once part of an architectural structure, it is often difficult to ascribe where the object initially came from. Especially since there is little information about the time between when the object was taken from its place of origin and when it was donated to the museum. To achieve a more critical and self-reflective mode of display, the label should state the history of acquisition instead of displaying the objects alongside a text that highlights obvious visual aspects and iconographical details.
The presentation of Asian artefacts in the curatorial context of the Rijksmuseum within the Asian Pavilion and the rest of the museum can be viewed as a supplement; perhaps even a contradiction to exhibits displayed in the main building. There is no explanation, no bridge between the Dutch and the Asian. Asian art in most museums in the West is deeply rooted in the problem of Orientalism and the philosophies that supported colonial missions such as nationalism and xenophobia. To appreciate the other culture merely for its visual qualities is problematic considering the colonial history. As a public institution, the Rijksmuseum sits at the juncture of academia and politics. Such political agendas could perhaps restrain the Rijksmuseum from addressing issues arising from the European colonial past.
Gurian, Heumann Elaine, Civilizing the Museum: The Collected Writings of Elaine
The Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian, Routledge, 2006
Visser, H.F.E., Asiatic Art in Private Collections of Holland and Belgium, New York, The Beechhurst Press and Amsterdam, De Spieghel., 1948
Procter, Alice, The Whole Picture: The Colonial story of the art in our museums & why we need to talk about it, Cassell, 2020
- The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam identifies itself on its official website as a national institute and the Museum of the Netherlands. It first opened in The Hague in 1800 as the National Art Gallery and housed more than 200 paintings and historical objects. In 1808 the Museum moved to Amsterdam and has been in the current building since 1885.
- Royal Asian Art Society in The Netherlands https://www.kvvak.nl/en/asian-art-society/ Accessed on 15th October 2021
- A Pavilion for Asian Art in the new Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Newsletter, No. 64, Summer 2013