On a rather wet morning last Monday 24th February, I made my way from Wageningen to Amsterdam. My goal? To see ‘A Gran Sranan Presenteri – The Great Suriname Exhibition – De Grote Suriname Tentoonstelling’ (Sranan Tongo, English and Dutch respectively) at De Nieuwe Kerk in the centre of Amsterdam. De Nieuwe Kerk with its long chequered history from 1408 and its current transformation into a tourism space offered an apt location to stage this touristic experience. More than just a curious tourist, I went there as a researcher interested in the transformation of historical sites(events) into heritage tourism spaces (experiences). I am currently resurrecting and making anew an old research interest of mine. This old-new interest is centred on the narratives of slavery and colonialism within historical-sites-turned-heritage-tourism-spaces. I am particularly interested in how narratives within such spaces stimulate public memories and raises questions/engagements of the affect/effect of the past (of slavery, colonialism) on contemporary social issues of identity, belonging and racism. In all this, I seek to emphasise the transformative potential of tourism in addressing these questions/engagements. But now I digress too much so back to the exhibition….
I enjoyed seeing the exhibition and learned a lot about Suriname in the process. I spent over 3 hours going multiple times around the exhibits, reading almost all the descriptions and listening to the visual/audio tour guides. The exhibition has proved to be a huge success in the Netherlands for all sections of Dutch society – especially among residents with Suriname descent/background. It is reported to have received 183,000 visitors making it the most visited exhibition of De Nieuwe Kerk in this century.
As was to be expected, I was also left with many questions and musings that need to be followed up. I currently have a research grant application under review which (when successful) would allow me to follow up on some of these questions as the proposal involves research in Ghana, Suriname and the Netherlands. A quick bullet of key musings from the this visit include:
- “…lives were conceived, continued and completed”: I found this most repeated phrase in the audio and video tour very peculiar and intruiguing. This phrase was repeated at the end of narratives such as “…and so under the silk wool tree lives were conceived, continued and completed”, “…amidst the conditions of plantation slavery, lives were conceived, continued and completed”. There is a worth of analysis to be mined from the choice of this particular phrase and its repetition.
- The Portuguese-Jews and Spanish-Jews settlers with plantations: how did they come by their plantations? Where did their labour force come from?
- Michiel de Ruyter: Dutch squadron leader and seafarer who in 1664 led the capture of Elmina Castle from the British was granted a tomb in the Nieuwe Kerk
His assistant on this military operation got an oil painting done for him in which the Elmina Castle can be seen in the background.It took another two years after the capture of Elmina Castle in Ghana for the Dutch to also take over Suriname from the British. How related are these 2 events?
- Bauxite and WW I/WW II: The boom in the bauxite industry in Suriname in part is attributed to the World Wars and demand for aluminium needed to make planes and other weapons. This made me wonder if there are any links with bauxite development in Ghana vis-a-vis the World Wars and/or Dutch colonial linking through Suriname
Perhaps my biggest critic of the exhibition from the vantage point of my research interests lies in the ’embodied absence’ (I develop this concept in my research grant proposal) of the dwellings of the enslaved on the plantations. The exhibition offers a nice critique of the visual arts of the era including oil paintings, particularly diorama which privileged plantation houses and fields at the expense of representations of the slaves working on sites. The diorama example below for instance shows the ‘nice’ setting of plantation life with the plantation house at the centre, a few slaves tending the front gardens and no representation of the housing of the slaves or their workings on the plantations.
Surprisingly, in the same breathe of critiquing, the Great Suriname Exhibition somehow perpetuates this same erasure of the lived experiences of the slaves on plantations. This is in terms of the model housing of plantations that were exhibited – there was no model house of what the slave housing quarters on plantations might look like. The grandeur of the slavers’ housing (often built from the sweat of the enslaved) is again given prominence over the housing situation of the enslaved. I searched around this exhibition area again and again but did not find a replica slave house on show. Perhaps I missed it but I’m not sure.
There is a lot that I still need to analyse and unpack from my experience at this exhibition which I look forward to doing when my grant proposal is awarded.
Enjoy a slideshow of pictures I took from the exhibition…