The Mauritshuis is a Dutch art museum with mostly Dutch seventeenth century paintings – it is especially well known for masterpieces like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Rembrandt’s Anatomical Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. The Mauritshuis was named after the man who had it built as his home: Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679). In the 19th century the Mauritshuis became a museum, showing the former paintings collection of the Dutch King. However, Johan Maurits continued to play an important role in the museum. In terms of art history, the museum used to focus exclusively on his importance to art, architecture and science. But he is also notorious as governor of ‘Dutch Brazil’ – a plantation colony in the northeast of Brazil. In this position he played an important role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Johan Maurits’s life story is therefore inextricably linked to Dutch colonial history.
In 2018 a public discussion about colonialism, slavery and heritage arose in the Netherlands when the Mauritshuis decided to remove a modern replica of Johan Maurits's bust from the foyer of the museum. A so-called Twitter-war was the pinnacle of this, with Dutch media, critics and even politicians interfering in the polarised debate. The Mauritshuis decided to continue the conversation with the exhibition Shifting Image - In Search of Johan Maurits. The exhibition examined the perceptions of Johan Maurits’s role in the Dutch colony in Brazil in the seventeenth century, through the means of the famous Mauritshuis collection. The Mauritshuis, OPERA Amsterdam and Studio Louter cooperated in creating the concept and design of the temporary exhibition.
The museum struggled with a challenging question; as an art museum, how do you tell the sensitive story of a national hero with a slave-trading past, that simultaneously is the namesake of the museum, and therefore cannot be separated from the institute? Studio Louter and OPERA Amsterdam were asked to help create an exhibition concept and design that would allow visitors to discover multiple perspectives on this part of Dutch national history. The objective was not to curate one single story, but to show multiple perspectives and contexts, emphasizing the complexity of the so-called ‘Golden Age’. To actively cause a ‘shifting image’, we decided to provide visitors with historical basic information on the life of Johan Maurits on the one hand, and on the other hand present various perspectives on the artworks and their related histories.
We brought the so-called Twitter-war that arose in 2018 into the museum. It served as a bold introduction. Twitter-quotes projected on a wall full of 3D copies of Maurits's bust depict the clash between the progressive and the conservative opinions about the removed statue. The many busts represented the many faces of the man Johan Maurits.
A space for multivocality was created by inviting diverse voices into the museum. An international group of 46 curators, historians, art historians, conservators, anthropologists, biologists, opinion makers, performers and politicians were asked to write new captions for the selected artworks presented in this exhibition. This group of authors included people who had been critical of how the Mauritshuis had previously dealt with the colonial past. An important objective was to contribute constructively to the social debate, with a room for a panoply of opinions.
The selection of artworks on display consisted for a great part of portraits of Johan Maurits himself and paintings from artists who travelled with Maurits to Dutch Brazil. All the works of art were from the permanent collection of the Mauritshuis. This selection deliberately placed the focus on the history – including the colonial history – directly connected to the Mauritshuis. Instead of offering one text per object, there were four to six short texts alongside each work of art. The 55 different object labels show that not only through time the meaning or interpretation of a painting can change, but that this also depends on the viewpoint and (professional and/or personal) background of the people that behold the artworks. By presenting the new object labels interactively in a carousel on Ipads, in no specific order, hierarchy or common thread, the visitors were challenged to think critically and were invited to form an image and opinion of their own. To make sure that all authors could share their authentic narrative, there was a minimum of editing: all authors stayed in charge of the contents of their texts, up until the end. Every text was signed with the name of the author, and visitors could read an author bio, including a picture. No anonymous ‘institutional’ texts, but texts written by people. This polyphony and open approach was a unique undertaking for the museum.
A graphic timeline provided visitors with an overview of information about Johan Maurits’s life and work. An artistic installation of the ‘Sugar Palace’ highlights the nickname of the Mauritshuis, that dates from the 17th century, which was presumably built with Johan Maurits's profits from the sugar plantations in Brazil. Three wall-to-wall projections showed images and short texts that tell the story of Johan Maurits’s life, with a focus on Dutch Brazil. This added an extra layer of both imagery and information to the exhibition. The projections also made it possible to show images of artworks that are of importance to the story, but aren’t part of the Mauritshuis collection, for instance a drawing of an enslaved African woman with a brand mark of Maurits on her chest.
Shifting Image was not the end of a research programme, but a starting point – a moment to reflect on the complexity of the Netherlands’ image of the past, in particular that of Johan Maurits and Dutch Brazil. The exhibition marked the start of the scientific Research Project ‘Revisiting Dutch Brazil and Johan Maurits’ in which a group of international historians researches Johan Maurits’s role in Dutch Brazil. Visitors of the exhibition could contribute to the museum’s in-depth research by indicating on a tablet which research questions they consider most important. The results have already been implemented in the Research Project, resulting in a scientific article to be published in the course of 2021.
In this exhibition, visitors could watch, read, marvel, examine and actively contribute. The visitor experienced that there is not just one story - that history is subject to time and perspective. Former Director of the Mauritshuis, Emilie Gordenker, formulated this open approach in a great way during an interview with the New York Times: ‘What we have learned from this (ed: the twitterstorm of 2018) is that our mandate as a public institution is to offer as many perspectives as possible. It’s up to you, as a visitor, to form your own opinions. We realized that there’s a very large gray area between the two poles, and that’s where we want to be as a museum — in that gray area.’ Shifting Image did not ignite a new ‘Twitterwar’, but instead stimulated constructive discussion and sought connection. The making of this exhibition has had a transformative impact on the Mauritshuis, most prominently resulting in a reinstallation of one of the museum’s galleries, where the core of the exhibition’s selection is now permanently on view.
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