Shifting Image - In Search of Johan Maurits
The Mauritshuis is a Dutch art museum with mostly Dutch seventeenth-century paintings. Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679) is the name-giver of the museum’s building. But he is also notorious as governor of Dutch Brazil. In this position, he played a role in the transAtlantic slave trade. Because of that, Maurits’ life is also part of the Dutch colonial history. In 2018 a public discussion about colonialism, slavery and heritage arose in the Netherlands when the Mauritshuis removed a replica of Johan Maurits’ 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’ role in the Dutch colony in Brazil in the seventeenth century, through the means of the famous Mauritshuis collection.
The museum came 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 Golden Age. To actively cause a ‘shifting image’, we decided to provide visitors with historically correct information on the life of Johan Maurits on the one hand, and on the other hand present various perspectives on the artworks, the reading of history, and the man Johan Maurits himself.
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’ 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 polyphony was created by inviting diverse voices into the museum. Curators, historians, art historians, 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 also 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. The 55 different object labels show that not only through time the meaning or interpretation of a painting can change, but this also depends on the viewpoint and backgrounds of the people that behold the artworks. For example the painting Girl by a High Chair by Govert Flinck. One writer pays particular attention to the pictured wealthy Dutch girl, another focuses on the artistic skill of the painter, someone else notices the bits of sugar next to her hand, a 17th-century luxury and a product of slavery.
A graphic timeline provided visitors with an overview of information about Johan Maurits’ 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’ profits from the sugar plantations in Brazil. Three wall-to-wall projections show images from the man’s time that tell the story of Johan Maurits’ life in an esthetic and objective way, but not excluding unsettling images, for instance a 17th century drawing of an enslaved woman bearing Johan Maurits’ brandmark on her chest.
The exhibition was also the starting point of a scientific in-depth study in which the museum researches Johan Maurits’ role in Dutch Brazil. Visitors 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 2020. In this exhibition, visitors could watch, read, marvel, examine and actively contribute. The visitor experienced that there is not just one story and that history is subject to time and perspective.
By presenting 55 new object labels, written by 46 different people with different backgrounds, 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 and brave undertaking for the museum.
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.’
After the opening on April 4, the exhibition has attracted many visitors and received a wide media attention. Here are some quotes from the national press and visitors:
NRC Handelsblad: ‘The Mauritshuis couldn’t have picked a better moment for this exhibition.’
Iamsterdam: ‘Shifting Image is a fascinating insight into Johan Maurits and Dutch colonialism. (…) This exhibition responds to criticisms by exploring the issues rather than shying away from them, and facilitating an open discussion of this period of Dutch history.’
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- Concept & Storyline Studio Louter
- Exhibition Design OPERA Amsterdam
- AV & Interactive Media Studio Louter
- Graphic Design OPERA Amsterdam