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''Slavery'' exhibition confronts Dutch's dark past

A machete used for cutting sugar cane is displayed at the Slavery exhibition Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands on Monday, May 17, 2021.   -  
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Peter Dejong/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved


The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has now opened an exhibition of slavery to the public.

The exhibition seeks to shed light on the cruelty of slavery and the wealth of Dutch men and women who profited from the evil trade.

The opening of the exhibition was closed due to the virus, and for the first time visitors can see the instruments of the slave trade.

A set of leg irons that once chained slaves by the ankles for punishment, a pair of Rembrandt portraits of a rich Dutch couple dressed in slavery-funded finery, as well as dozens of objects like these are on display in the museum.

"We wanted to make the case that this is history that speaks to anybody in the Netherlands, it belongs to all of us. So that's why we chose a really personal approach. The story centres on 10 people who lived in that era, who were slave owners, who were enslaved, who were the people who spoke out against the system so that the visitor can really ask himself, what would I have done if I were in the shoes of those people?", Valika Smeulders, Head of the Rijksmuseum's history department queried.

Amsterdam had a crucial role to play in the global slave trade. The stately mansions lining its canals attest to the fortunes often made by traders with the use of slave labor.

That history has led to calls for a formal apology from the current municipality.

"Apologies are in the air absolutely, and I think with this exhibition as a museum, what we are adding to that is that we bring this story in the most honest way possible for us", Smeulders added.

Curators at the museum want to begin an honest conversation in a country still reckoning with its role in colonialism.

The exhibition is timely amid questions raised by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

"Hopefully that (slavery exhibition) will lead to a better-informed debate and listening to each other. That's one of the goals of our exhibition to provide more information about this history so that there will be a better conversation", said Eveline Sint Nicolaas, Senior curator at the Rijksmuseum.

Simply called ''Slavery'', the museum uses songs and oral sources, which visitors can listen to on an audio tour, to fill the gaps where no records exist.

The Netherlands has never formally apologized for its role in the slave trade.