University museum uncovers the UG’s role in slavery (+ video)

As part of the cultural manifestation Bittersweet Heritage, the University Museum (UM) has set up two exhibitions and an encore on Indonesia, reflecting on the UG’s and the Netherlands’ colonial past. But there are critics.

It’s not easy to admit you had a hand in slavery. But that’s exactly what Bittersweet Heritage, a large-scale project involving museums, heritage institutions, and cultural and educational organisations in the city and its surroundings, is trying to: raise awareness of our role in slavery.

Comparative anatomy

The UM focuses on eighteenth-century scientist Petrus Camper. Camper was an academic jack-of-all-trades; he was a physician, anatomist, physiologist, obstetrician, zoologist, anthropologist, and palaeontologist. He laid the foundation for comparative anatomy, where he autopsied corpses to compare them to each other. 

‘He’s a very complicated figure in history’, says museum director Arjen Dijkstra. ‘He is undoubtedly one of the greatest scholars our university has ever seen. But over the course of history, people have adopted his research methods and concluded that white and black people aren’t equal.’

Human specimens

That’s interesting, because Camper himself, who lived during the age of slavery, compared black and white people’s anatomies and came to the opposite conclusion.

By looking at the body underneath the skin, he proved that apart from their skin colour, white and black people are the same and share the same ancestors. ‘That means he basically undercuts the argument for slavery’, says Dijkstra.

Another trace of slavery can be found in the way Camper collected his human specimens. ‘Back then, there were no such things as consent forms. Most of his specimens were people who’d been executed, or who’d died during a miscarriage or stillbirth.’

Art theft

The second exhibition focuses on religious scientist Theo van Baaren, who collected part of the university’s current ethnological collection. Rather than travel to countries himself, he was given many objects by returning missionaries. 

Various objects of his are displayed in the room. ‘We asked our staff member Vincy Kleian to help us out and tell his personal story.’ Kleian, who is of Indonesian heritage, is normally tasked with figuring out whether museum art pieces have been stolen.

‘We focus strongly on Indonesia’, says Dijkstra. ‘That’s why we thought it would be appropriate to ask him for help.’

Student project

A third temporary exhibition on Indonesia was created by an international group of art history students under the supervision of lecturer Joost Keizer. In the exhibition room, a dozen typically Indonesian objects are on display.

‘The students asked various Indonesian people who live in the city to reflect on these objects, and they wrote down their stories’, says Dijkstra.

While this exhibition isn’t an official part of Bittersweet Heritage, it does refer to the Netherlands’ colonial past in one sentence. However, the consequences of that past aren’t addressed.

Missed opportunity

That’s exactly what bothers UG historian Barbara Henkes, co-author of the book Sporen van het slavernijverleden in Groningen and initiator of Bittersweet Heritage, so much. She thinks the museum missed an opportunity to tell people about our colonial past.

‘Sure, you can put out pretty things such as beautiful Wajang dolls. But you’re ignoring the theft and appropriation of these “pretty things” that happened while the Netherlands occupied these countries.’

Classic way of framing

‘Showcasing these pretty things from “our” colonies is a classic way of framing things that doesn’t explain anything’, says Henkes. She also mentions the little boat made of cloves.

It’s not a unique object, she says, because there are many more of them. ‘But it is a meaningful object that connects to the history of our colonial need for money that we were willing to kill the local people for. The fact that it’s being displayed without any of that context is particularly disappointing.’ 

Even though the exhibition isn’t part of the Bittersweet Heritage project, Henkes feels the UM should take responsibility and add explainers to the objects. 


Henkes sent her feedback to the museum before the exhibitions opened, upon which the museum decided to leave the third exhibition out of the Bittersweet Heritage project. She also had her doubts about the specimens of black and white skin used for the Petrus Camper exhibition. People are sensitive to that, she said, and the museum should take that into account.

Because of her critical remarks, the museum made several small changes. ‘We’re always asking various groups and the public for feedback’, Dijkstra said. When the museum agrees changes should be made, they actually make them.

‘We’re learning how to display these objects in a proper manner. We need to have room to learn.’



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here