The Dutch canon and Europe
The Münster Treaty of 1648 and the idea of global history
Let me start with a painting by the Dutch artist Rob Scholte. In 1998 the Dutch celebrated the peace treaty which 350 years earlier had been signed between the seven United Provinces of the Dutch Republic, and Spain. Rob Scholte had been commissioned to make a painting about this theme for the Princes’ Court, het Prinsenhof, in Delft. This is where William the Silent, the first leader of the Dutch rebellion against the King of Spain, had been killed in 1584. This Princes’ Court is a museum today, and its main focus in the permanent exhibitions is on Dutch golden age history and culture. The wall carpets, oil paintings, Delft Blue and Chinaware, the creaking flooring, the supposed bullet hole in the wall near the staircase that reminds of the assault; in short the entire location presents a beautiful chromo tope for a historical narrative. This is strengthened by life performances of chamber music; mainly Renaissance and Baroque early music.
Rob Scholte provided the museum with a contrapuntal image of Dutch Golden Age history and culture. The immediate cause for Scholte’s painting was the commemoration of the Münster Treaty. However, and I quote an interview from 1998, Scholte decided ‘to depict Peace in more general terms.’ Only the Dutch and Spanish flag, as well as the Prince Maurits hat from the Prinsenhof collection, which you can see here being carried by Gandhi on a spear, directly refer to the 1648 peace between the Netherlands and Spain.
When we now reread Scholte’s own explanation of the painting, it becomes clear that the celebration, only eight years ago, already has become something of the recent past. While explaining all the elements of the painting, Scholte also mentioned the prominent European lock. It was open, he said, as a reference to Dutch tolerance. However, he stated: ‘Europe is becoming more and more a Fortress. As the 80 years war also was a war between Catholics and protestants, and between the broad minded people and the strict ones, so soon the broad minded Netherlands will get in trouble in Europe, because of its tolerant policies‘ (NRC Handelsblad 8-10-1998). This was his idea about the position of the Netherlands in Europe, eight years ago.
Last year while participating in the Committee for the Development of a Dutch culture and history canon, Scholte’s multi-layered pictorial approach of the past came in my mind as well. Scholte approaches Dutch history as an aspect of global history. We see this in some of his other works as well, like the mural in the unhappy Holland Village of Nagasaki. I mean the series Point of no return, from 1996, about the Dutch colonial and slave trade. In each of these works significant images of the Dutch past are placed in a global, even in a planetary context.
We considered that approach (not exactly these images, but this approach) in our deliberations, because the visualization of a ‘Dutch canon‘ formed a crucial element in our idea of a canon. So let me first briefly explain how we conceptualized this canon.
Basically the canon we designed, exists in a tableau with 50 so-called windows that are supposed to open up at 50 telling aspects of Dutch history, culture, landscape and society. These are presented next to each other on a poster designed for children aged 10 to 12 in primary school as the first target group. The term “windows” of course hints at the role of ICT, and next to the poster we published two books and an interactive website, for teachers, parents and cultural institutions. Together, the books, poster and website of this canon suggest topics for lessons in history, language and literature, religion and philosophy of life, science, constitutional history, geography, environmental issues, art, and or economy. The theme’s on the poster do not offer a concise art or history curriculum, although a historical chronology forms their frame. Basically, however, the themes are placed in the framework of contemporary Dutch society, where each window can be approached in a diachronie way.
King William I and the idea of European history
As such, this canon aims in the first place to help structure a debate about Dutch history, culture and society. It is meant to be a point of contact between teachers and parents, between school and academia, the education system and the politics. And besides it intends to function as a cross media concept, which offers an organized place for experiments in ICT for education where teachers instead of the commercial firms, are in control of content.
In this approach of the canon as “a structure of windows“, Scholte’s pictorial strategy of historicized statements loaded with interpretation, would not have worked. The topics mentioned in the canon stand next to each other, and how and what story they tell as an ensemble, depends on the story teller and his or her interaction with the listeners. When I now will illustrate this here with some examples, I would like to stress that these are my examples, my European reading of this poster, and not an ‘official explanation‘ of it.
Europe is present in the poster, it is visualized not as Rob Scholte’s opened lock, but as a Euro. It provides a window view on the history of the European Union and the Dutch: from the European Coal and Steel Community and the Rome Treaties, until the recent referendum on the draft European Constitution. But of course, Europe is also visible behind almost each other window: the book printing and cartography, the wars on land and sea or the peace keeping missions, colonialism and slavery, the economic developments from the so-called Hanseatic League to the Port of Rotterdam, the railway, social security, archaeology, philosophy, art, law, and a lot more could be mentioned, related to almost all 50 windows. All these elements of a Dutch story developed in the context of European developments. They refer to what has been labelled as the spiritual and moral heritage of the Union in one of the first clauses of the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union that was signed in 2000. Other windows, like the archaeological ones, illustrate what the draft European constitution describes as Europe’s cultural heritage.
In this European Dutch story one window deserves a special mentioning In my view: the window on William I, almost in the middle of the poster. After the Congress of Vienna, which settled the post-Napoleon European affairs in 1815, William was appointed King of the Netherlands (which at that time included Belgium). As such he became an exponent of the process of European nation building which is relevant until today. The current discussions about Turkey and Europe, or about the NATO, the not-so-easy relationships between the Mediterranean Countries of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, the recent wars in the Balkans, the political changes in the European part of the former Soviet Union: all these tensions in one way or another have roots in this ‘turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth century history‘.
Relevant in this European story are, in the Dutch case not only the split up of the Kingdom after 1831, when Belgium quitted, the development of constitutional monarchy, and the industrialization. Relevant as well, and maybe even more so, is the change in colonial policies which took place from 1815 onwards.
Let me elaborate somewhat on this theme. With the emergence of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the days of Dutch trade colonialism in the East and the West, were over. In stead, the Dutch developed clear cut expansionist policies which by force and by treaty brought the various regions and islands of the Indonesian Archipelago under Dutch colonial rule. During the most part of the nineteenth century extensive use was made of various systems of forced labour; from the cultivation system in the East to slavery in the West. All these developments are represented In the proposed Dutch canon, because both from a Dutch and a European perspective, understanding the nature of the many connections between modern nation building and colonialism is crucial to any approach of today’s postcolonial societies. The colonial past of the nineteenth and twentieth century and our reflections on that past today, form a crucial historical influence on Ideas about self and other, about citizenship, belonging, inclusion and exclusion with which we try to come to terms today, and which play a role in the canon debate as well. Chirac’s recent remarks about the French colonial past, Blair’s expression of sorrow about the slave trade, Ben Bot’s public acknowledgment that the Dutch in 1945 had placed themselves at the wrong side of history by not accepting Indonesian independence – these statements by political leaders confirm that the colonial past is something to be faced. Colonialism has contributed to undisputed highlights of our cuiture, like the famous Max Havelaar by Multatuli (1864), and it has caused disasters and disruption; it has supported and biased Western scholarship and science, contributed to the wealth of our countries, informed both our knowledge and misconceptions about non-western culture and religions like the Islam, and many more could be added to this.
In short, colonialism is an inherent part of Dutch and other national histories as part of a European history and this is not something of the past. It has contributed among a major part of the population to long lasting personal historical bonds which are located in other places than the nation where one lives. We still lack a common understanding of the public meaning of what I would call this personal “transnational past-awareness” among our citizens. It exists in many private homes, both among descendants of former colonials and among postcolonial migrants, and it also creates new transnational links within Europe that not uniquely are related to national histories. Think of the relationship of Dutch youngster of Berber descent to France, or Hindustani youngsters to England. I am convinced that addressing this transnationalism which is rooted in past colonial experiences that are not exclusively linked to postcolonial immigrants, is important to understand the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that we witness in today’s society.
In the Dutch canon we placed colonialism as a theme behind various windows. Besides, we have tried to touch on this contemporary issue by directly addressing the young children to whom this canon is meant in a window on Cultural Diversity. I will not explain how exactly we did so. For now it may suffice to point out that we deliberately tried both to historicize the various immigrant experiences in today’s society, linking them to other national histories as well as avoiding easy oppositions between bright and dark sites of Dutch national history.
National canons and European civilization
Through this approach, we made quite other choices than did the Danish, who some months before us had published both a Kulturkanon with twelve significant works in eight cultural domains, and a Historikanon which listed historical facts that everyone should know. The two approaches differ fundamentally. To put It strongly, the Danes presented a list, whereas we presented a structure with windows, the Danes intend to teach an understanding of essential meaning and selection criteria for quality, we stress the context of creative processes and generalize on this. And the most important difference between the two approaches, concerns the interaction proposed for the workings of the canon, and the implicit concept of the Danish or Dutch national framework that defines the arena for these two canon debates.
This brings me to the question as to whether the Dutch national canon has any meaning in a European canon discourse. Can we just turn our framework; can we Imagine that the same structure with 50 windows, that from a Dutch perspective offers a view on Europe, at the same time offers a starting point to look at Dutch history and culture from a European perspective? I would say that this is not the case. Europe is not, or not yet understood as a scenic view point which offers a common ground to all Its inhabitants for a diachronie view on culture, history and society. Yes indeed, the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union quoted before refers to common values and to ‘the diversity of the cultures and traditions of the peoples of Europe as well as the national Identities of the Member States (…)’ Note, however, all the plurals: peoples, cultures, traditions, identities. Nowhere is it made explicit what this pluralism means. It will be difficult to raise a common awareness of the European spiritual, moral and cultural heritage celebrated In our European charters and treaties, as long as in fact this heritage basically is perceived as the sum total of national histories.
One Dutch Rietveld chair and one Danish PH-lamp do not form a start for a European design history. Kierkegaard, Erasmus and Spinoza, mentioned in the different context of the two respective national canons, do not offer a starting point for an understanding of Europe’s spiritual and moral heritage to which the Charter refers.
The same is true for even more complex issues like the colonialism mentioned before. Some years ago, the Dutch historian Wesseling compiled an extensive comparative history of European colonialism in the nineteenth century. It provided a wealth of information about the various colonial strategies and regimes exerted by European nation states in the East and the West. However, it did not reach a conclusion about what was ‘”European” about this history. What was European colonialism, for instance, as compared to Ottoman, or to Russian colonialism; or what is European with regards to the colonial political Ideas of nation and citizenship; to mention just two issues that still have a deep Impact on society.
Locating the canon
And this brings me to the last issue which I would like to just briefly mention: the very location of the national or European canon. Where should we develop the debate on Europe’s cultural canon: in books, in schools. In art, in museums? Where do we address the community that we want to involve In this debate? And who are we?
When I showed you Rob Scholte’s paining, I introduced it as a counterpoint to a canonized lieu de mémoire, as an individual interpretation of history within a so- called site-museum – which as a site location in itself has meaning as an expression of history. It Is remarkable that some three months before we published the Dutch canon, a majority in the Dutch Parliament voted for a new national history museum, where the expected Dutch canon should be put on display in a spectacular architectural design, with the aim to engage visitors and school children in active citizenship. It will be clear to you that these 50 windows do not offer a very good starting point for such a new museum, but this is not the point I want to make here. My concern here. Is the political urgency that was expressed in the wish to present a national history in a new museum as a means to strengthen social coherence in postcoionial society.
There are many more examples of such political initiatives in the cultural realm, national, and European as well, like the Bauhaus Europa in Aachen, Germany, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée in Marseilles, France, or the Belgian initiative for a Musée de l’Europe. This last museum has been conceptualized by Krzystof Pomian and others. The fate of the museum still is somewhat unclear, if I am well informed. I mention it, because I am not sure what all these museums mean, in the context of this canon debate. Working myself in a museum, I know that an exhibition is not a debate. And of course, modern technology allows for a lot of innovative ways to turn museums into debate arena’s. Let us check, however, whether we are talking about something new, or just restore elite confirming strategies of self expression and mass education that are rooted in the very same process of nineteenth century nation building that we now evaluate in the light of a European canon.
Please see for references and examples on the Dutch European Canon: http://www.entoen.nu
dare2connect | SICA & Eunic – A European Cultural Canon to Unify European Politics: The Inspiration, Report of Part 1, Conference, 8 december 2006, Felix Meritis, p. 44-52
Patriotten en een koning als beschermheer
Felix Meritis, Europees centrum voor kunst, cultuur en wetenschap, op de Keizersgracht te Amsterdam (foto ifthenisnow.eu)
Met de inhuldiging van het pand aan de Keizersgracht begon voor Maatschappij Felix Meritis een nieuw tijdperk. Het ledenaantal groeide, men ging voorzichtig om met patriottistische stemmingen en Felix Meritis groeide uit tot een populaire ontmoetingsplaats voor de Amsterdamse elite. Het gebouw verwierf internationale faam door zijn uitstraling, de buitensporige bals en de bijzondere Concertzaal.
In 1795 trokken de Franse troepen Amsterdam binnen. Hoewel Felix Meritis zich in de jaren daarvoor diplomatiek had opgesteld naar het Oranjegezinde stadsbestuur, werd de intocht door de patriotten in Felix Meritis toegejuicht. Velen kregen een functie in het stadsbestuur, maar het genootschap bleef voorzichtig. Ook in Felix Meritis stonden patriotten en orangisten (aanhangers van de stadhouder) tegenover elkaar. In de politiek onrustige jaren rond 1800 werden de titels van de voordrachten in het departement Letterkunde niet genoteerd. Het nieuwe regime werd op afstand gehouden.
In 1806 werd Lodewijk Napoleon, de jongere broer van keizer Napoleon, benoemd tot koning van Holland. In zijn jonge jaren bij Felix Meritis hield hij zich graag bezig met spannende natuurkundige projecten. Bij zijn aantreden als koning schonk hij 41 kisten met afgietsels van antieke beelden, busten en basreliëfs aan het genootschap. De leden van Felix Meritis namen het geschenk dankbaar in ontvangst, maar Lodewijks verzoek om beschermheer van Felix Meritis te worden werd afgewezen; hij werd benoemd tot honorair lid. Ook weigerde het bestuur het gebouw als vergaderruimte aan de Fransen af te staan en mochten Franse hoofdofficieren er geen bal organiseren.
Pas in 1811 stelde het bestuur – niet geheel vrijwillig – het gebouw ter beschikking aan de Fransen. Op 22 oktober werd er een groot keizerlijk bal gehouden, georganiseerd door de gemeente Amsterdam en met morrende goedkeurig van het bestuur. Keizer Napoleon en zijn vrouw waren in Amsterdam en werden in Felix Meritis welkom geheten. ‘Toen de breede gang onder de druk zijner schreden kraakte’, zo schreef ooit iemand over het keizerlijke bezoek, ‘was Felix Meritis de ondergang nabij’.
De terugkeer van Oranje na 1813 drong ook door bij Felix Meritis. Waar Lodewijk Napoleon werd geweigerd als beschermheer, kreeg koning Willem I wel deze benoeming. Felix Meritis veranderde steeds meer in een gesloten genootschap voor de happy few. Het werd een typische vertegenwoordiger van ‘de deftige beslotenheid van het culturele uitgaansleven’ van die tijd, bijvoorbeeld door de luxueuze bals en besloten concerten, die werden gehouden. Felix Meritis stak andere genootschappen naar de kroon met het grootste aantal hoogste belastingbetalers.
Een roemrucht departement
De grandeur van Maatschappij Felix Meritis had vooral te maken met het departement Muziek en zijn ovale Concertzaal, tot 1830 de belangrijkste muziekzaal van Amsterdam en in Europa bekend als architectonisch en akoestisch wonder. Felix Meritis’ orkest bestond uit ongeveer zeventig musici, die vanwege de lage lonen ook actief waren in andere orkesten. Er waren talenten bij zoals bassethoornist Vincent Springer, voor wie Mozart speciaal partijen schreef in zijn Maurerische Trauermusik (KV 477), maar het algemene niveau was laag. ‘Liebe Leute aber schlechte Musikanten’, meende Johannes Brahms. Als een van de latere musici, die optrad in Felix Meritis, kon hij het weten.
Felix Meritis, Europees centrum voor kunst, cultuur en wetenschap, woensdag 27 maart 2013, 10:41 uur