Decolonizing Cultural Institutions in the Netherlands

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Articles , , , ,

Slavery addressed at the Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, well-known for its collection on Dutch 17th Century art, is also the national museum for Dutch History. For the first time in its history, it is now hosting a temporary exhibition on slavery. The exhibition focuses on the personal and real-life stories of enslaved people from different former colonial Dutch regions such as Suriname, the Caribbean, South Africa and Indonesia. The acknowledgment that slavery also existed in the Dutch East Indies is relatively recent; the Dutch colonial context has typically only addressed slavery in Suriname and the Caribbean, making this an important and innovative step.

The Dutch colonial era is spanning approximately 350 years, and slavery has been an integral part of this history. A time when indigenous peoples as well as people were reduced to property, to objects, to items in the accounts. An online Symposium addressing Sources on Slavery and Slave Trade was organised on 23 April and remains available for online viewing. The wide range of the speakers gave global insights into the opportunities and challenges for museum collections and historical archival resources when addressing a topic such as slavery. Traditional collections normally do not contain materials relating to this topic. Consequently, that means finding alternative solutions for creating permanent as well as temporary addressing slavery.

Online exhibition on personal stories

Unfortunately, the physical exhibition in the Rijksmuseum is still closed due to Covid-19, however the museum envisages reopening in early summer. However, the exhibition also offers interesting digital opportunities. Under the title Ten True Stories you can find ten personal stories from people who were involved in slavery in one way or the other. Issues such as different experiences of enslavement, resistance, as well as the role of slave owners are addressed.

Wider efforts at decolonizing the Museum

This exhibition showcases items from Dutch and foreign museums, from archives and from private collections. The curators used typical museum artefacts such as paintings and documents but also oral sources, poems and music. The Rijksmuseum is simultaneously in a process of decolonising its incredibly rich permanent collection. This process is supported by the publication An unfinished guide to Words Choices in the Cultural Sector written in cooperation by several cultural institutes in the Netherlands.

Related to the current exhibition, the museum has started to add extra information labels to objects in its permanent collection, which highlight and explore hidden links to the topic of the temporary exhibition. An English publication on slavery is also available featuring the unique exhibits.

Archives and education

Moreover, the Dutch National Archive in cooperation with Metamorfoze, the Netherlands' national programme for the preservation of paper heritage, has published a digitised collection of almost 2.000.000 documents, originating from important archives on slavery. The original archives are based in the Netherlands, England, Guyana and Suriname.

Education is also in focus. The educational publishing house Thiememeulenhoff and Rijksmuseum have published a magazine with active learning lessons about slavery under the title Slavernij en nu?. The magazine focuses on the age group 10-14 and aims to support teaching about slavery and racism in the classroom. The magazine is freely available for all Dutch and Dutch Caribbean students in this age group.

Let’s hope that the current interest in the topic will not end when the temporary exhibition in the Rijksmuseum closes. Slavery deserves a permanent place in the national Dutch narrative on its colonial history and visible through its public cultural heritage collections.

Written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EuroClio Founder and Special Advisor.


Image: Anoniem, Tot slaaf gemaakte mannen graven trenzen, ca. 1850 Rijksmuseum, aankoop met steun van het Johan Huizinga Fonds/Rijksmuseum Fonds, 2013

Decolonising the History Curriculum: Considering National Narratives in History Textbooks from a Global Perspective

Written by Tina van der Vlies

Tina van der Vlies is an assistant professor of history at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In 2019, she successfully defended her PhD dissertation ‘Echoing Events. The Perpetuation of National Narratives in English and Dutch History Textbooks, 1920-2010’. Since her research provided a better understanding of the potential mobilizing power of national narratives in societies, it was awarded with several prizes.


Decolonising the history curriculum is a topical issue.[1] Decolonising in this context means a call for what Meera Sabaratnam describes as a "better historical awareness of the contexts in which scholarly knowledge has been produced".[2] Especially since the nineteenth century, knowledge about the English and Dutch nation has been built on colonial and racial structures. Sabaratnam asks us to look at our shared assumptions about how the world is.

One way to achieve this aim is to challenge traditional frames in which history is taught and understood. The most well-known frame in which history has been presented in history textbooks is the national one. This is understandable since history is a compulsory subject in many national curricula. National regulations and public discourses about school history are often connected to debates about citizenship and values, in attempts to attribute specific characteristics to the nation and its inhabitants. However, stories from different countries that emphasize national unique characteristics often share interesting similarities. For instance, various politicians stress ‘national features’ in their speeches, while perpetuating nostalgic and heroic images of the nation as well as implicit colonial world views. Hence, this article considers national narratives in history textbooks from a global perspective in order to shed light on some of these resemblances. Transnational narrative structures are easily overlooked when national contexts and their accompanying stories dominate the history curriculum.

National narratives can share the same underlying interpretation pattern. Memory scholar James Wertsch makes a distinction between specific narratives and schematic narrative templates. Specific narratives are uniquely situated in space and time and deal with specific events, persons and periods. These different stories about the past can – although they vary a lot in their details – look like replicas as they share the same underlying narrative structure. Wertsch describes this shared storyline as a schematic narrative template, as a basic building block of collective memory that connects various specific histories.[3] However, Wertsch warns that these schematic narrative templates are not universal archetypes; he explains that certain narrative templates are part of a specific cultural tradition. For example, the “triumph over alien forces” template dominates Russian collective memory and although this template is available to members of other cultural traditions as well, it is not as prevailing as in Russia. For example, it can also be found in the American tradition but will be outweighed by the dominant American “quest for freedom” template.[4]

During my PhD research, I discovered how national narratives in English and Dutch history textbooks overlapped and interfused, and how certain national frames of references were perpetuated over time. Textbook authors narrated different histories as ‘echoing events’ by interpreting them in the same way and by using the same combinations of historical analogies. They gave meaning to history with these recurring connections.[5] Next to the fact that this mechanism was visible in history textbooks from both countries, my research revealed some transnational narrative structures as well.

A first example is interpreting history as a fight between freedom and tyranny. This interpretation is visible in Dutch history textbooks, but also in English and American history textbooks. This interpretation can dominate sixteenth-century war narratives but also stories about the two world wars. Dichotomies often have a great effect on national narratives: the rhetoric is simple, recognizable, and appealing. Sometimes the dichotomy between freedom and tyranny is related to the contrasts between ‘light’ and ‘dark’, or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. However, in both countries the history textbooks hardly questioned the meaning of freedom and tyranny during the colonial period.

Another similarity is the David-Goliath narrative structure, referring to the Biblical story of the shepherd boy David who courageously fought against the giant warrior Goliath who was twice his size. Although the shepherd boy was armed with nothing more than a few stones and a sling, he defeated the heavily armoured and weaponed giant. It is a classical story about how the underdog can champion over a major power. This structure is present in several national narratives as well. For example, Dutch national narratives are often presented in line with the phrase ‘small but brave’. The Netherlands is a small country and its founding narrative is located in the sixteenth century: the low countries revolted against the mighty Philip II and this resulted in the independence of the Dutch Republic. It is interesting that the same narrative structure is present in the southern low countries, nowadays Belgium. In 1999, ‘the three Belgians’ released a modern musical version of the Belgium national anthem and the phrase ‘small but brave’ plays a key role in this song.[6] More recently, in 2014, the Belgian author Mark De Geest published his book Brave Little Belgium.

In England the same narrative structure is visible, although the exact phrase differs from Belgian and Dutch national narratives. English history textbooks emphasize how England had repeatedly ‘stood alone’ against a superpower, for example against Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars or against Hitler during World War II. The latter interpretation was reinforced by the British prime minister Winston Churchill’s wartime speech on 20 August 1940 in which he stressed: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’. This myth of ‘standing alone’ has dominated in various English history textbook series. Although the myth is debunked and various new textbook series have been published without the myth, it still appeals to people and continues to play an important role in English collective memory. That is why the well-known expression also surfaced several times in the Brexit debate, which is based on nostalgic images of Britain as a colonial empire: "Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves”.

A third similarity between history textbooks from various countries is the “quest”, such as the quest for freedom, tolerance or progress. The idea of a quest is a well-known storyline of several novels and films, such as Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan. A hero needs to overcome several problems during the journey to reach the ultimate goal in the end. It is certainly not my goal to downplay history textbooks – it is extremely hard to compose a textbook that suits a certain age-population and their interests. Next to contents, textbooks need to be pedagogically in line with the audience and – also important – the text and the assignments need to be read and accomplished in a limited time frame. Moreover, politics and society are demanding as well. What I would like to stress in this paragraph is that the story-form of national narratives can intertwine with ideas about history itself. (National) history can be defined as a process towards freedom, tolerance, or progress. This is also visible in academic historiography: in 1931, Herbert Butterfield published his well-known book The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he criticized historians’ retrospective creation of – especially national – progress.

This article discussed the decolonisation of the history curriculum by showing that ‘unique’ national histories in textbooks from former colonial empires often share remarkable similarities: the stories often include implicit colonial references and images, and contain the same underlying storyline or interpretative structure. It is important that pupils understand how national histories are framed by the selection of specific persons, topics, periods, and sources – while ignoring others – and by the underlying interpretative structure. Although this is a difficult skill, it is necessary to obtain insight in national narratives’ frames in order to genuinely decolonise the history curriculum.



[1] I would like to thank the founder and special advisor of EuroClio Joke van der Leeuw-Roord for her valuable comments.

[2] May 10, 2021.

[3] James Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; James Wertsch, ‘Specific Narratives and Schematic Narrative Templates,’ in P. Seixas (ed), Theorizing Historical Consciousness, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004, 49-63.

[4] James Wertsch, ‘The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory,’ Ethos, 36 (2008), 120–135, 124.

[5] Tina van der Vlies, ‘Multidirectional war narratives in history textbooks,’ Paedagogica Historica 52, no. 3 (2016), 300-314; Tina van der Vlies, 'Echoing national narratives in English history textbooks,' in M. Carretero. S. Berger & M. Grever (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 243-258.

[6] De III Belgen, Zwart geel rouge (1999): ‘O dierbaar België, klein maar dapper, van stad tot vlakke land’.

Knowledge and/or Active Citizenship – What does Dutch Youth know about World War Two?

Jonathan Even-Zohar Articles , , ,

Knowledge and/or Active Citizenship – What does Dutch Youth know about World War Two?

The Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport) is committed to remembrance, research, and education related to the Second World War. On 21 June, it organised a mini-conference, inviting an array of Dutch stakeholders, including museums, archives, research centres, remembrance organisations, and history educators. I also attended this very interesting conference and hereby share my report.

The conference was in fact the launch of a new study, commissioned to the HAN University of Applied Science (based in Arnhem-Nijmgene), led by Dr. Marc van Berkel, which is aimed at helping the Ministry face the challenges of keeping the memories of the experiences of World War Two alive in a society where the eye-witnesses are dying out.

This study (available here in Dutch) puts forward a wide range of research findings. Essentially, around 1200 young people (ages 13-19) were surveyed on their factual knowledge, the sources from which they delve this knowledge, their assessment of these sources, and their attitudes with regard to the history of the Second World War. The survey put forward various names, places, events, processes, and concepts related to World War Two and mainly provides an impression on the state of factual knowledge on this topic.

One by one, representatives of key organizations in this sector commented on the findings:

Kees Ribbens (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) commented on the overly positive results of the survey, stressing that the majority of surveyed youth would like to learn more about the topic. He emphasized how the persecution of Jews is much more well-known than other aspects of the war, such as the military aspect, and that the Western European perspective is clearly dominant in the known narrative.

At the same time, he alluded to the conclusion that many concepts (like collaboration, genocide, antisemitism) are much less known. Since two-thirds of the respondents did not answer that it would be better to forget everything about the war, remembrance is actually seen by the youth as very important. He suggested this could also be related to the societal presence of the war as essentially a collective experience and a moral benchmark in schools, museums, and even in public history, including entertainment such as films.

His overarching conclusion drawn from the report, however, was the need for a more critical foundation to enrich this collective understanding. Yes, it seems youth have core knowledge, which is good for keeping the memory of the victims alive, but societal expectations about what is expected to be known about this war is in flux – for example, the need to understand the worldwide historical processes of the war.

Ton van der Schans, President of the Dutch History Teachers Association, VGN) compared this research to earlier research which had also laid bare how much more importance is given to this topic in history education than to any other topic, and within this topic by far most attention is given to the Holocaust. This situation, in his view, is justified by the way in which citizenship, and related values as freedom and justice, is morally benchmarked in The Netherlands with, and through, deliberation on this history.

Van der Schans also wished that the survey would look more into students' attitudes and historical thinking instead of the focus on factual knowledge. Yet, he also unfolded a plea for storytelling in history education, stating that "We, as a society, need a story, a narrative. This is the way in which individuals can actually be deeply motivated for history." Building on this, he expressed his wish that teachers would be able to work more with life stories, and local/regional histories, to make sure that the stories told relate well to the students. If students then have a migration background, he stressed, different stories might be needed.

Norbert Hinterleitner (Head at Education Department at the Anne Frank House) shared his optimistic view that these were impressive results and could be taken to be the result of a lot of care and attention for dealing with heritage and remembrance of World War Two. However, he did share his concern that more attention is needed for the wider historical context. While it is laudable that 99% of respondents can recognise Anne Frank from a photo, much fewer respondents can say that she actually came from Germany. He added that the international aspect seems to indeed be quite unknown, as Eastern Europe and Asia rarely feature in the view of history teaching. He also questioned this need by asking: "Even if all this could be provided, should young people be forced to obtain all this factual knowledge? What space is then left for them to interpret it and apply it in their own lives?" He urged therefore, for future studies, and to explore the deeper understanding related to behavioural patterns in society, as well as the value of the rule of law in the context of the protection of minorities: "Will we score equally important high figures? It will show the value of history and civic education."

Jan van Kooten (Director of the National Committee for 4 and 5 May) also reflected positively on the results of the survey. He discussed in more detail the section of the survey that looked into attitudes – for example, how respondents assessed whether the Second World War is the main influence on the way they think about Freedom (60%), Human Rights (42%), and Racism (34%). He applauded the role of the Ministry in looking at this topic from so many angles and supporting the sector in a broad way, ranging from remembrance to research and education. His key warning, however, was that the survey results may not be able to properly represent all of Dutch society. There seem to be large segments of society which at the moment can hardly be reached. But, with new multipliers, for example, young Dutch rapper Ronnie Flex, with millions of views online, was made Ambassador for Freedom by the committee and this seems to help in reaching difficult target groups.

Kees Boele (Chair of the HAN University of Applied Science) pointed to the fundamental importance of learning history for establishing a personal compass for ethics, which goes beyond the knowledge of facts. He went further to state that this function of education should be made, and seen to be, the very centre of learning. While schools are made more and more to function like factories, and the sector as a whole is seeing education as a feature of the market, with students as consumers of knowledge and teachers as facilitators of learning, he feared that the possibility to think freely in wrestling with concepts of good and evil would disappear. This survey, he held, would need to support that development in education.

Marc van Berkel (Researcher at the HAN University of Applied Science) who led this research stressed the need for more qualitative research to follow up, and - indeed - ensure that empathy, and the ability of people to look beyond their own opinion, should be the prime concern going forward. "It may ultimately not matter if people don't know who Himmler was," he continued, "but if they don't know which activities his policies created, and what kind of trauma these policies left, there is an unbridgeable gap in our understanding of democracy and citizenship."

The final comments of the day were delivered by Erik Gerritsen (Secretary-General at the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sport) who affirmed the current government's support to the development of historical knowledge and transfer of values. He expressed that the recommendations of the study would be taken into account in the further development of measures to prevent intolerance, and to keep retelling the history of the World War Two, as it uniquely provides citizen's alertness to learn from the past.

So, what have I made of all of this? Some conclusions:

The report did not make any particular political news. It was ultimately good news, and did not have media-sensitive 'clickbait.' It surely will be used as an initial measurement and hopefully can continue to function as this in the years to come.

European partnerships and the work of EuroClio, the Council of Europe, and many European-funded projects and frameworks are completely missing from this national discussion. This is especially problematic and worrying because so much thinking about these issues has already been done and did not seem to really feature. In addition, looking at the way in which Europe struggles with democracy at the moment, it would be good to have more governmental (public) cooperation on these issues happen not only on the cross-border levels, but also be visible on the national stage.

It is good to look into how historical topics which feature so strongly in the collective memory are actually perceived by a new generation of young people. This survey indicated some interesting trends, and it could be very interesting to see how this plays out across Europe, where some very concerning developments can be seen, including revisionism and political flirtations with fascist legacies.

On a more social note, with the exception of the chair of the day, Tasnim Van den Hoogen (Director at the Ministry), all speakers were male, white and 'of a certain age.' I admit I only realized this myself when I actually started typing up this report. As inclusion and diversity were mentioned quite a few times, it would have perhaps been good to explore and reflect this in the event itself.