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  • Writer's pictureMoorea Hall-Aquitania, MA

A Brief History of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam

What is Tropenmuseum?

The Tropenmuseum is a museum of world cultures founded in the mid-19th century that’s located in Amsterdam Oost.


Marcelmulder68, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

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Tropenmuseum History

The Tropenmuseum (or Tropical Museum) is an ethnographic museum that houses a large collection derived from cultures around the world: over 175,000 objects, 155,000 photographs, and 10,000 drawings, paintings, and documents from geographical areas such as Southeast Asia, North Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. It’s one of the largest museums in Amsterdam, and in 2014 it partnered with institutions in Berg en Dal and Leiden to form the National Museum of World Cultures. The Tropenmuseum is based in a beautiful neo-Renaissance building on the Mauritskade quay, next to the Oosterpark and two canals away from Artis Zoo.

It was founded in 1864 by Frederick van Eeden as the Colonial Museum, based in Haarlem. Van Eeden was the secretary of the Dutch Society for the Promotion of Industry. The museum opened its doors in 1871 with the mission of showing Dutch citizens exhibits from the country’s colonial holdings, such as Indonesia. The same year that the museum opened, intensive research was being conducted to enhance revenue from these colonies by increasing production of valuable commodities, such as coffee beans and paraffin. Thus around this time there was a dual interest in the ‘exotic’ nature of foreign countries and the possible profits to be generated in them. Because of increased interest in the lives of people overseas, ethnographers took on a new role in the museum, adding information about the economy and customs of the cultures that were featured.

In 1910, the Colonial Institute was formally established and merged with the Colonial Museum. By this time, the collection had grown too large for the Haarlem location, and so the members of the institute funded the construction of a new building in Amsterdam Oost, designed by the architect J. J. van Nieukerken and finished by his sons after his death. Construction began in 1915 but the building took over a decade to complete due to the start of the First World War, strikes, material shortages, and harsh winters. A decade later, it was opened by Queen Wilhelmina.

In 1950, a few years after Indonesia gained its independence, the Colonial Institute changed its name to the Royal Tropical Institute and the museum continued to be owned and operated by them until 2014. The museum’s scope was widened to include colonial states in South America, Africa and Asia. In the 1960s, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged the museum to focus more on social issues, and in the 1970s a wing for children, the Tropenmuseum Junior, was added.

Today, the museum’s permanent collection is divided thematically, and there are frequent temporary exhibitions. Each month the curators select a few objects from the holdings and attempt to present the whole history behind each piece, tracing its route before it arrived in Amsterdam.

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