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Dutch museum bans 'Golden Age' from exhibitions

Michaela Cavanagh with AP
September 13, 2019

Not all that glitters is gold, the Amsterdam Museum has decided, as it opts for "17th century" instead of "Golden Age." The move to dispense with the term has revived a debate about the Netherlands' colonial past.

Amsterdam Museum bans 'Golden Age,' opting instead for '17th century'
Image: Getty Images/T. Fewings

A Dutch museum is facing blowback for its decision to stop using the term "Golden Age" to describe the 17th century, a period of economic and military power for the Netherlands.

In a move to make the museum more "polyphonic and inclusive," the Amsterdam Museum announced on Thursday that it would refrain from calling the 17th century the "Golden Age."

In a statement, its curator Tom van der Molen said the term is strongly associated with national pride because of prosperity and peace but "ignores the many negative sides of the 17th century, such as poverty, war, forced labor and human trafficking."

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The 17th century saw traders spread across the world, returning to the Netherlands with unprecedented wealth, while painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer produced masterpieces, giving the country a reputation as a hub of creativity, free thinking and tolerance.

In recent years, activists have sought to raise awareness about the dark side of 17th-century Dutch prosperity, specifically the country's role in the slave trade.

'Golden Age' not reflective of colonial past

The museum's announcement sparked a wide spectrum of reactions from politicians and the public alike.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who studied Dutch history at university, called the move "nonsense," but also acknowledged that "there were things you can think of that weren't good in the Golden Age, but I think it's a good name."

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Zohair El Yassini, a lawmaker with Rutte's ruling VVD party, told Dutch broadcaster NOS that the museum had "lost the plot completely."

"First we had to change the street signs, then the statues had to go, and now the whole Golden Age," he said. "I'd rather the museum explain what the Golden Age has brought to our country and what the negative sides of it are. That is also the task of a museum."

A visitor regards the works at Amsterdam's Hermitage museum earlier this year.
A visitor regards the works at Amsterdam's Hermitage museumImage: Getty Images/K. van Weel

Arie Slob, the education minister, told reporters in the Hague he was "a bit tired of discussions about one term."

The hashtag #GoudenEeuw ("Golden Age") began trending on Twitter following the announcement. Some social media users praised the museum for its strides towards a "more inclusive narrative."

Others accused the museum of trying to erase an era during which the small country was highly influential.

The museum will not use the term in future exhibitions, and will change the name of its permanent exhibition from "Dutch of the Golden Age" to "Group Portraits of the 17th century."

One of the foremost museums in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum, has said it won't be following in the footsteps of the Amsterdam Museum. "We do not distance ourselves from the term Golden Age," museum director Taco Dibbits told Dutch broadcaster NOS. 

Amsterdam's city under a city