The intention behind Our Colonial Inheritance is to highlight how creativity and resistance brought colonised people together. We want to bring attention to how people resisted and subverted the colonial system through places, customs and rituals and, thus, maintained control over their own lives. These Spaces of Togetherness foreground perspectives from outside, between or against the colonial system and form the basis of our design concept. We tell the story of Our Colonial Inheritance in nine scenes, each with its own theme and Space of Togetherness. On the floor plan, you see the circles and squares where we made space for these new stories in the Tropenmuseum. Their presence alongside the museum’s colonial stories and collection creates space for dialogue. This dialog also invites the visitor to question: what are the stories here that still need to be told?
Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam (NL)
The colonial legacy has an impact on just about everything in our daily life, from the macroeconomic system to our language use, religious beliefs and food consumption. Our Colonial Inheritance at the Tropenmuseum aims to reveal and question this impact. Originally built as the Colonial Institute, the museum itself is part of this colonial legacy. Though it has now become a museum of world cultures, much of its collection comes from the former Dutch colonies – given, stolen and collected from a colonial perspective. As in the normative colonial narrative written by colonisers, perspectives outside this norm are still rarely considered. That’s why this exhibition deliberately holds space for those perspectives.
We also want to denounce colonial power structures with form. From the first glance, we use poetic metaphors to make this tangible. In the first space, circles of blue voile fan out like drops from a central point. Objects in showcases shaped liked boats gravitate to this central point, visualizing the colonial powers’ attraction to the indigenous cultures’ “treasures”. Here, we centre the indigenous culture rather than the colonial position. Further on, we created a modular space made of green supermarket crates. This installation communicates the colonial worldview of the earth as a supermarket, in which everything is readily available and for sale.
Like our client, we are also part of a system that – unintentionally – maintains power structures. Our Colonial Inheritance’s story requires a critical attitude, and we wanted to incorporate that critical attitude into our working method. That is why we organised a polyphonic process. We developed the exhibition’s design and concept together with AFARAI. Our intensive collaboration, which also involved the museum, experts and countless partners, ensured that all the ideas and choices were constantly questioned, examined and turned upside down.
The boundaries between a Space of Togetherness and the colonial system are often porous. It’s not a binary system, and we show that. For example, the church was initially part of the colonial system. But with time, it gradually mixed with indigenous spirituality. Sometimes, the church even became a hotbed of resistance against the colonial system. In the final room, we invite visitors to shape the colonial legacy together. What do you want to take with you? What will you leave behind? What will you do yourself? You can vote with your feet by standing by the approach that fits you best. If most other visitors vote the same way, you together choose which film will be played in the arena. It is a metaphor for how we make change happen, how we deal with this inheritance: together.
We wanted to give the colonial building a prominent role in Our Colonial Inheritance’s scenography. To organize the complex content in a clear, substantive and spatial structure, we used the building’s architectural layout as a guide. The museum consists of open gallery spaces surrounding an open, monumental hall. Its neoclassical arches provide rhythm and structure. Spatially, this asks for a linear narrative, but we still allow for cross-links by staging sightlines that enable visual connections across all nine scenes. For instance, we placed the Digital Names Monument for enslaved people from across the former Dutch colonies in a central location so that it is visible from all other museum galleries. We also use colour as an important structuring tool, giving each theme its own colour. Because Our Colonial Inheritance is a continuous experience with hardly any partitions, the colours help you navigate.