Amsterdam museum renames period known as Dutch Golden Age in recognition of colonial wrongs

A museum in the Netherlands has decided to rebrand the period known as the Dutch Golden Age, when artists such as Rembrandt and roaring international trade – but also colonialism and slavery – made the tiny nation one of the world’s leading powers.

The Amsterdam Museum has announced it is going to call items from this collection simply "17th century" in recognition of the fact that the era was not only one of Dutch glories but also many wrongs, and rename its wing in the Hermitage museum too.

Tom van der Molen, its 17th century conservator said: “In Western history, the ‘Golden Age’ has an important place strongly linked to national pride, but the term’s positive associations such as prosperity, peace, wealth and a clear conscience don’t tell the full story of the historical reality at this time. The term ignores the many negative aspects of the 17th century, such as poverty, war, forced labour and human trafficking.”

But the announcement has already sparked a backlash, with prime minister Mark Rutte calling it “nonsense” in his weekly press conference on Friday. “I will carry on calling it the Golden Age,” he said, clearly exasperated. “Let’s not waste our energy on renaming the Golden Age – a beautiful term. We can talk about what wasn’t good, but let’s devote our energies to creating a new Golden Age.”

The Amsterdam Museum, however, argued in a statement that the term contributes to a collective amnesia, meaning stories of the less powerful are forgotten. Later this month it is organising a symposium to tell such stories “in the most inclusive way possible”.

Judijke Kiers, director of the Amsterdam Museum, added that it will continue to reassess historical versions of truth. “These are important steps in a long process but we aren’t there yet,” she said. “We will continue to work with the city’s people to shine a light on little-known stories and perspectives on our shared history.”

Political correctness has been slow to arrive in the Netherlands, where each St Nicholas day sparks stand-offs between people who believe the figure should still have the assistants in blackface known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), and those who call the tradition racist.

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However, four years ago the Rijksmuseum removed racist labelling from paintings and last year the Hague’s Mauritshuis removed a statue of its founder (a slave owner) to a less prominent position. The city of Amsterdam has also voted to make the first official municipal apology for the country’s slaving past at a festival next July.

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