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How can we tell the story of multivocal the Netherlands?

At a time when statues of figures from history have an uncertain future Valika Smeulders has just become Head of History at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. What changes does she want to make? And how does she look back on her Languages and Cultures of Latin America degree programme in Leiden?

Throughout your whole career you've been committed to achieving a more inclusive approach to heritage. Where does that drive come from?

‘It's partly because of my family history. Earlier generations of my family came from all over the world - Europe, Africa and Asia - to settle in the Americas and the Caribbean region. If you look at family photos taken in our home, you can see all those different influences. I was born on Curaçao, and my parents were born in Suriname. My forebears were migrants; some of them were plantation managers or had been forced into slavery, and others were contract workers. That family history meant I was always thinking outside conventional borders. My parents brought us up as world citizens; when we were very young, the stories they read to us were about travel and how different regions were connected with one another. And that also became my own personal experience. My father's studies and work meant that I went to infant school in three different countries: the Netherlands, Suriname and Curaçao. And then there was my own choice to study in Leiden.' 

Did you ever imagine you would become Head of History at the Rijksmuseum ?

‘Definitely not. In fact, I never actually had a clear idea at all about what I wanted to become. But I've always been interested in how society evolves and the idea that we're all in it together. This job is an amazing opportunity.'

Valika Smeulders (1969)
Degree: 1988-1993 Languages and Cultures of Latin America (Now Latin America Studies) 
Since July 2020 Head of History, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
2017-2020 Curator of History, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
2016-2020 Postdoc researcher, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeasat Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)
2011-2020 Owner of Pasado Presente, research on colonial history and heritage
2012-2013 Research, Tropenmuseum (museum of world cultures)
2005-2012 PhD research on heritage, Erasmus University Rotterdam

Valika lives in The Hague with her partner and son.

What changes do you want to make?

‘The Rijksmuseum already decided a few years ago that it wanted to be a museum about all Dutch people, telling the stories of all of them. I want to break down the walls of the museum even more, so that we include all those voices from outside. One way we can do that is through thinktanks with people who don't often come to the museum. A major exhibition about slavery is taking place in February 2021, and we want to make sure that it's not just an exhibition for frequent museum visitors, who tend to be white, older and better educated. We really want to reach a broader group of people and involve them in the exhibition. Some of them may well be descendants of slaves.’

Valika Smeulders in front of a painting of the civil militia, by Bartholomeus van der Helst in the Rijksmuseum. Photo: ANP/Judith Jockel

'I want to break down the walls of the museum.'

This is a turbulent year with the Black Lives Matter protests. How does that impact your work? 

‘The protests have made it clear that we, as a museum, really have to make changes. We've been working on that for some time, but we have to move faster and come up with a more inclusive story. Besides the slavery exhibition, we're also preparing an exhibition on the shared history with Indonesia. At the same time we're focusing on issues like religion and gender, and life outside the major cities. I'm really looking forward to integrating all these subjects in the permanent exhibitions. We have to think about how we can the story of the Netherlands in a multivocal way, not presenting the different stories side by side, but as  voices that come together harmoniously to create a choir.'

With so many historical issues being so explosive right now, does that make your job as Head of History difficult?

‘It does. History is a different subject from when I was a student; things were a lot calmer then. Now just about everyone has an opinion and we also have to be in closer contact with the world outside. As a museum, you need to have a good feeling for what is going on in society, but at the same time you have to contribute to societal debates on the basis of academic research.' 

'History was a lot calmer when I was a student.' Photo: Andy Kleinmoedig.

Tell me about your studies in Leiden. Why did you choose Languages and Cultures of Latin America? 

‘I found it really interesting to look at that whole region, its history and how Latin America developed. What fascinated me most was the indigenous history, which is why I studied for a year in Mexico. When you're studying, you have the time to look at things in more depth. It's wonderful spending a few years reading and being stimulated by all those books, and then thinking about the questions that haven't been asked yet, and what questions will take you further. Although, I have to say, I wasn't one of those students who had my nose in a book all the time; I was actually quite lazy, in the sense that I didn't want to have to resit exams because I preferred to see something of the world. So, I made sure I studied just enough.' 

What was student life like for you?

‘I didn't join any of the student associations because I knew I was going to travel a lot and much of my social life was outside Leiden. I had a fantastic student house on the Tweede Binnenvestgracht. We often cooked together and would sit in the garden until late at night. Sadly, the house reunion couldn't take place this year because of corona.' 

During her student time (1988) standing in front of Molen de Valk.

How inclusive did you think the university was then? 

‘When I arrived as a first-year student I thought: huh? This isn't the world that I recognise and see around me, so I started looking for people with a broader outlook. There were a lot of students and lecturers from a Latin American background on my programme, and some of the lectures were in Spanish or Portuguese. That meant my social group was very internationally focused.' 

After your studies you did a lot of research on how heritage is represented. Your PhD and post-doctoral research was on heritage in Suriname and Curaçao, for example. What really strikes you when you study heritage?   

'At the KITLV I worked on post-doctoral research on Caribbean heritage in the Netherlands and the kind of image the Netherlands presented of itself in collections. Our book on this subject will be published shortly. What stands out is that Dutch history is never told as a whole; instead, you find local history in history museums, and colonial history in museums like the Tropenmuseum. What's interesting is that the stories do come together in museums of modern art.'  

Does it affect you personally when a history is told from a too one-sided perspective? Does it ever make you angry?

‘Not really. I'm more the type of person who thinks: OK, well then we have to do something about that. If things are too narrow, I look more broadly and try to change something, preferably from the inside. I want to contribute to how stories are told from the institutional world.' 

Text: Linda van Putten

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