The Mauritshuis in The Hague is one of the world’s much-loved museums, a jewel case for such artistic gems as Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”
It’s also the former home of a man who made his fortune through slavery.
The Mauritshuis is reckoning with that complex identity as it turns 200 this year. The museum is housed in the elegant 17th-century residence of Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, one of the instigators of the Dutch involvement in the slave trade.
That back story is certainly not keeping visitors away. In the last week of May, the Mauritshuis had 15,000 visitors, a record after Covid, while in all of 2019 (before Covid struck), 480,000 people trapped through the house and a modern extension (inaugurated in 2015) that doubled its size.
The bicentenary year kicked off with an exhibition of flower still life — a popular 17th-century genre that brought fame and fortune to female artists who were otherwise excluded from the scene. The display walls are (for environmental reasons) made of recycled flower bulbs, and all year, the building facade will be covered with (sustainable) imitation flowers.
In a summer exhibition that opened this month, 16 photographers — including Erwin Olaf, Rineke Dijkstra, and Anton Corbijn — are each showing an image inspired by the collection. And in the fall, 10 treasures from the Frick Collection in New York will hang temporarily in the Mauritshuis, including Rembrandt’s celebrated 1658 self-portrai, as part of the Manhattan Masters show opening Sept. 29.
In an interview, the museum’s director Martine Gosselink, who took over in April 2020, spoke of the joys and challenges of her job. The following conversation has been edited and condensed
The Mauritshuis has no problem attracting crowds at this anniversary year, despite the pandemic. How do you stay relevant?
In multiple ways. First of all, with the “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” I would almost say: Forget the Mona Lisa, because this girl is the new icon of our age. If you watch the internet, you’ll see thousands of memes of girls and boys and men and grannies dressed up as “The Girl.” It’s amazing.
Our audience is very young and very broad. With Covid, many young people turned to older art. And with projects this year such as a street art exhibition and the photography show, we’re attracting a whole new range of visitors. They see our efforts to show that art belongs to everybody, not just to a certain group who were raised by their parents — as I was — to go to a museum every month.
Can you talk about the challenges of dealing with the house’s original owner and his ties with the slave trade?
I’m happy to. In the times we’re living in, we try to look at our past, and we do that in several ways. One of the ways is to keep talking about what really happened. This part of the story of Johan Maurits has been covered up for a long time.
At the time that Maurits started his slavery campaign, ordered by Dutch officials, there were many people who were against slavery. You cannot easily say — as I was taught when I was a student — that this was normal at the time. No, it was not normal. In the beginning of the 17th century, there was a huge debate in the Netherlands among people from the church, high-ranking politicians and people from the Dutch East India Company, who were all very much against slavery.
Maurits was the very first person to conquer the two biggest Portuguese slave depots of the early 17th century, in present-day Ghana and present-day Angola. By conquering those, the way was open. Of course, he followed orders. But he himself also captured enslaved people and smuggled them on board a ship with a Portuguese flag. He made a lot of money by doing that, and in part with that money, he built the Mauritshuis.
How does it make you feel to run an institution with problematic roots?
It’s necessary to tell this story. We write articles about it. We give museum tours on this topic. People ask me, “Do you want to keep the name Mauritshuis?” The answer is yes, because if I name the museum differently, then I lose the ability to talk about it.
We cannot deny it. It’s part of our past.
How recently did the Mauritshuis start informing visitors about its owner?
In 2019, there was an exhibition on Johan Maurits. My predecessor [Emilie Gordenker, now the director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam] asked many from outside the museum to talk about him. There were many opinions, contradictory ones as well. She used sources from outside the museum.
We now make our own statement. Last year, we opened a room dedicated to Maurits. With all the new research being done, we will amend wall texts and labels when we come across something that we didn’t know before.
It seems that Western museums have only recently woken up to the realities of their past — since the Black Lives Matter movement. Would you agree?
I previously worked at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and I tried to raise the subject for a long time, before Black Lives Matter. I know a lot of other people who were working on these issues: on the question of colonial-era terminology, for example. That subject kept me really busy already in 2008 or 2009. Looted art was also a topic that I worked on for a long time.
But I agree with you: Black Lives Matter sped things up.
Are there objects in your collection that have restitution claims on them?
Yes: objects that belong to Jewish families. We don’t know who they are. We are very open about these objects, and open to claims.
We know as a fact that there were at least 25 or 26 paintings looted between the period of 1933 and 1945. We say that in the galleries. There’s a wall text explaining that the work is looted, and that we don’t know to whom it belongs. So we’re still questioning that.
In this 200th-anniversary year, you must be feeling pride but also circumspection to be running a museum such as the Mauritshuis.
The two go together. I cannot change history. The only thing I can do is make people aware of it. It’s part of our DNA.
There’s also beauty, and the beauty of the museum is comforting and healing. It’s perfectly fine to admire the works of art. Maurits commissioned artists to make works of art, and I can enjoy them still.