An Exotic Journey

For a low-budget trip to exotic lands, you do not need to go very far: the Netherlands has several amazing museums dedicated to world cultures. Four centuries of international trade and colonial history left the country with a huge collection of strange objects and original works of art, gathered from all around the world. Until the end of the 18th century, they formed the content of so-called cabinets of curiosities. These were fashionable private collections gathered by well-off gentlemen, either for studying or to have something to show off to their guests. In the 19th century, when social sciences developed and local interest in colonies grew, these objects started to be exposed to the public, first on a temporary basis, then permanently in dedicated museums. Let’s take a look at the biggest three of them: the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde in Leiden and the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam. While their origin is controversial (they were seen initially as a way to present the Dutch colonial possessions), their scientific and cultural value cannot be questioned. Today they offer an amazing introduction to different cultures and indeed to different worlds.

The Tropenmuseum was created in 1864 in order to showcase the country’s colonies and their inhabitants. The museum was created together with a colonial institute, whose task was to find ways to increase profits made off these territories. This was done for example by improving the production processes of coffee and other tropical goods. A series of colonial exhibitions followed, and the objects they displayed formed the basis of the permanent collection, which numbered more than 30,000 objects by the 1920’s. The museum’s ethnologists collected also information on the economy, manners, and customs of the locals.

The museum’s current building, inaugurated in 1926, is one of the most monumental public buildings in the city. Following the independence of Indonesia in 1945, the goal of the museum switched to presenting the diversity of cultures from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In the 1960s and 1970s the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged the institution to expand its scope also to social issues such as poverty and hunger in the developing world. The museum currently possesses 175,000 objects, 155,000 photographs and 10,000 miscellaneous drawings, paintings, and documents.

The Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde from Leiden was inaugurated thanks to Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, a former physician who worked for eight years in Dejima, the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki. Starting in the 1830’s, he opened his collection of Japanese objects to the public. It attracted a lot of attention, since Japan was at that time a closed country. This collection of more than 5000 objects constituted the nucleus of the current museum. Later, the smaller collections of Jan Cock Blomhoff and Johannes Gerhard Frederik van Overmeer Fischer, both former employees on Dejima, were also acquired, and the first permanent museum opened in 1837.

From the start, the institution had a modern scientific approach: its stated goals were to collect artifacts, to present them to the public, to do scientific research and develop educational programs. Again however the main long-term objectives were very practical: the development of trade and better management of the colonies. Siebold for example encouraged the development of ethnographic studies “because these institutions could become a means for understanding the subject peoples and of awakening the interest of the public and of merchants — all of which are necessary conditions for a lucrative trade which benefits all.”

Nowadays the museum expanded its collections to include items from most non-European cultures. Together with the Tropenmuseum and the and the Afrika Museum in Nijmegen it operates the Research Center for Material Culture (RCMC), the main institution dedicated to ethnographic studies in the Netherlands.

The Wereldmuseum Rotterdam is the most recent of the three. Its origin is quite surprising: it developed since 1851 at the initiative of the Rotterdam Association of the Royal Yacht Club, whose building it still occupies. The club’s president was Prince Willem Frederik Hendrik, the brother of the Dutch king. The members, who were basically the city’s elite at that time, started to donate to the club maritime objects, model ships and ethnographic objects collected during their trips. Using these donations, the Prince Hendrik Maritime Museum was established in 1873 .

After the prince’s death, the building itself was donated to the municipality, which decided in 1883 to turn it into an ethnographic museum, much as Leiden and Haarlem had done. It was a clear symbol for the development of Rotterdam as a world city. Dutch trade relations abroad, growing colonialism, increased missionary activity, and the newly emerging science of ethnology all stimulated the development of the new institution. On 1 May 1885, the reorganized Museum voor Land- en Volkenkunde- now known as the Wereldmuseum- opened its doors. Currently the museum displays more than 1800 ethnographic objects from various cultures in Asia, Oceania, Africa, the Americas and the Islamic heritage.

While their origins are solidly anchored in the colonial realities of the 19th century, the three museums constitute a window to the world and a good introduction into the breathtaking diversity of human culture. They are a perfect showcase for a global country which is proud to be the home of 180 different nationalities.

Here are the three museums’ sites:


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