A cheerful, sunny walk through the Oosterpark led me to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. Temperatures higher than normal for the time of the year didn’t bother me at all and it suited my destination, the museum of the tropics. The exposition “Things that Matter” was my goal. A splendid title to attract an audience, don’t we all want to be informed about what matters? Curious to get to know what was exhibited I entered the building for the very first time. Strange because the museum has been mine landmark for many years since I lived close by. Yet, due to my prejudice I had never entered afraid to find dusty tribe scenes in front of clumsy modelled huts. Corridors containing mummified representatives and artefacts of tropical tribes brought in by Dr Livingstone, I presumed. Little did I know.
Entering the ticket desk and cloakroom at basement level the display at the wall revealed the ongoing exhibition themes, “Things that matter” was one floor up. Other expositions were at display too; ’World Press Photo pictures, focussed on Africa’, ‘Presents why? About the gift culture’, and ‘Healing Power, Winti, Shamanism and Witchcraft’ on level one and two. Going up I entered an impressive entrance hall. Looking over the full length to the other side I saw two stairs going up in both directions, to the left and right, repeating the construction to the top floor. The mirrored zigzagging wire stairs gave the museum the grandeur of a palace. Behind the balustrades of the two open floors which run all around the high entrance, a glimpse of the other museum’s exhibitions could be seen. The high ceiling, a semicircular arch of glass reminds me of pictures of the ‘Crystal Palace’ half way the 19th century although one can not see through.
The official opening of the museum was in 1926 but the gathering of the collection started much earlier with artefacts from the Dutch colonies. This aspect of ‘colonising the world’ brings along some negative connotations which also had withhold me from visiting the ‘Tropen Museum’ before. It is the idea of the appropriating of artefacts from cultures considered ‘underdeveloped’ and from ‘distant fantasy territories’, in historical perception. Blinded by arrogance, there was (and I argue still is) this misconception of Eurocentric domination of the world. With the occupation of America, Eurocentric arrogance equals Western arrogance. Note: I write ‘occupation’ instead of ‘discovery’ (by Columbus or Vikings?) since, it did not have to be ‘discovered’ by the native Indians living all along in their territory. This colonial aftertaste still haunts my mind when I visit the building that, to this day, exudes this paternalism at least in terms of architecture. The brick and mortar building is clearly build to impress as palaces are designed to do.
Inside at the ground floor my negative thoughts vaporised in the bright open space. While wondering where to find my exhibition I was drawn in by a booth with Arabic calligraphy, graffiti-style on a wall, so I entered. Language struck me as a ‘thing that matter’. The importance of listening to the meaning of what is written. Can we understand the Arabic scriptures without knowing the culture? I tinkered. Or the poems written in Chinese characters, not being a Chinese? Exiting the booth again I was still wondering where the exhibition was. Then on the sides of this immense entry hall I noticed more booths like the one I had just left. Ahhh… the ‘things that matter’ concept became clear. They where concealed in these giant boxes. I took a peek in all of them, only a few got my special attention, and it quickly began to draw out to me what would become the ‘thing that matters’ most for me with this visit.
Special attention I had for the big box sized exhibit ‘copying cultures’ and a big box expo still too small, I wondered, for such a huge theme as ‘Climate change’ that was housed in it. Again, inside the importance of listening struck me. Now, listening through seashells functioning as earphones, telling a story that is happing as the seashell speaks: “the Marshall Islands are disappearing underwater due to rising sea levels.” Only seashells shall soon be able to tell what once was. Realising that the Marshall Islands are a part of the same planet as Shanghai, New York and Mumbai are. No longer a distant fantasy territory but as close as Amsterdam is, for sure a thing that matter.
I had completed my ground floor tour and looked up at the balustrades and what more is to be seen. Curious about what matters more, at least to the museum, made me climb the stairs and walked both floors. It is a lot to digest when attempting to study everything with equal interest. As with all museum visits it is wise to pre meditate your visit and focus on the genuine goal of your visit. Mine was ‘Things that matter’ and the musings I had on the ground level brought my contemplations to a higher level when I was on the top floor in the expo ‘Healing Power, Winti, Shamanism and Witchcraft’ that I found in the most distant corner thirteen year old Otghono protecting a fawn. It was if I stepped through the picture frame and stood there in front of her in the vast rolling fresh green grass fields of Mongolia. This photo is also the poster picture for this exposition. Otghono is gazing past me in the distance as if something is coming, not yet recognisable what it is. Looking around me I saw the narrative of this theme told by all kinds of indigenous artefacts. From a Western perspective it would be labelled as primitive, but stepping in to the frame with Otghono and out of my arrogant aura and complacency I suddenly had an insight by the message written in craft, decorations, authenticity. I recognised the love and respect put in these objects. Looking back at Otghono my heart was breaking, because I knew what she was gazing at in the distance.
Surrounded by the artefacts all made of natural things; coconut, skin, wood, horns, rock, shells, recognisable pure things one suddenly see how far away we Westerners have driven away from reality. How we live with our high designed technological stuff of which we have no clue how it functions and therefor have to buy new when broken because we can not fix it. Extra worrying is that in our ‘high culture’ artefacts are made meant to malfunction after a period of time. To buy the latest watch, car, microwave, shoes and I don’t even mention clothes because that is too obvious. Standing in the middle of these spiritual and nature related artefacts amulets, drums, singing bowls, one suddenly realises that we are lost in reality, from nature and the bond we once had with which is real. When talking about humans, who are we? Aren’t we Westerners already evolved into a new species? In a Homo Evolutis, which directly and deliberately controls its own evolution and that of many other species. Isn’t Otghono the beautiful pure species we can call human?
Slowly the perception dribbles down in our society that we have lost contact with nature. We have never been modern according to Bruno Latour, a contemporary French philosopher. The awareness of our direct connection to nature comes rather late he noticed. Thirty years ago Latour suggested to give a voice to humans and non-humans (nature) that have no voice in the geo-political arena. Also the indigenous people who are so shattered and disconnected from the ‘civilised’ world that their voice is never heard, should get a voice. He proposed ‘a parliament of things’, a democratic forum to discuss the way we want to go, all humans and non-humans included. A democratic healing power from disastrous Anthropocene effects.
Unfortunately this never happened to date, leaving us now at the mercy and submission of nature. Standing in this exposition in which every artefact has a deeper meaning, is connected with the universe, shared in its use with spirits. Changes the perception of value. The artificial life Westerners live in our artificial surroundings is damaging also the habitat of Otghono and the little fawn she is trying to protect, without realising what comes over them. The fresh green rolling landscape will soon turn into yellow sand dunes. It’s the yellow glow on the face of Otghono of what she sees coming. The rolling waves of the ocean are swallowing the Marshall Islands without the indigenous people to blame.
The healing power of this visit and the thing that matters the most is to realise we all live on the same planet, should care for nature of which we are part of and in the proces get reconnected with the spirits and universe, to become the human again.