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Reviewed by:
  • Oceania at the Tropenmuseum by David van Duuren, Steven Vink, Daan van Dartel, Hanneke Hollander, and Denise Frank
  • Chris Ballard (bio)
Oceania at the Tropenmuseum, by David van Duuren, Steven Vink, Daan van Dartel, Hanneke Hollander, and Denise Frank. Amsterdam: kit Publishers, 2011. isbn 978-9068327526; 216 pages, illustrations, photographs, endnotes, references, index. Cloth, us $45.00.

This volume is one in a series of catalogs designed to showcase and document the genesis of the spectacular collections at the Tropenmuseum of Amsterdam’s Royal Tropical Institute (Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen). A dozen essays by curators and researchers familiar with the collection provide a substantial context for the images of artifacts and original photographs, and the result is an engaging historical overview of Dutch colonial exploration and collection in Oceania. Oceania, as reflected in the Tropenmuseum collection, largely means Netherlands New Guinea. There are artifacts from Papua New Guinea, Australia, Fiji, Tonga, and Hawai‘i, among other locations, but most of these appear to have been acquired from private collectors or through the exchange of materials between museums. New Guinea was the Netherlands’ sole colonial possession in the Pacific, and the Tropenmuseum collection is above all a record of colonial endeavor.

The introduction provides an instructive genealogy for the Tropenmuseum—its predecessor, the Colonial Museum, had been established in 1871 in Haarlem to educate the Dutch public in the achievements and potential of their colonies. It focused largely on plantation products until the introduction in 1926 of displays illustrating the material culture and lives of colonial populations. By then the collection had been transferred to the Colonial Institute in Amsterdam, which was renamed the Indies Institute (Indische Instituut) in 1945, and then the Tropical Institute (Tropeninstituut) in 1950, after the final “loss” (from a Netherlands perspective) of the Netherlands East Indies. The evolution of exhibition policies and aesthetics is traced through several chapters, from the glass cabinets and mass displays of the Colonial Museum to the 2008 exhibition of Asmat bisj poles, the museum’s largest postwar exhibition on the Pacific. Reports of visitor reception, not all of them admiring, prevent this auto-history from slipping into panegyric.

Two chapters sketch the history of the Netherlands’ possession of its New Guinea territory and of its first collections from the region, housed initially in Haarlem and at the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam. The haphazard collection and documentation practices of the nineteenth century, combined with the processes of attrition that inevitably accompany the transfer of collections from one institution to another, have produced an awkward gulf between many of these earliest acquisitions and the well-documented histories of exploration that generated them. There are intriguing accounts of curatorial attempts to reconcile early artifacts with a fragmentary documentary record, and some of the earliest artifacts, deriving from the Etna Expedition of 1858, have only recently been identified.

The most substantial chapter, by former Oceania curator David van Duuren and visual collections researcher Steven Vink, is a very [End Page 232] useful history of exploration, collection, and photography in Netherlands New Guinea during the twentieth century. By 1903, the coastline had been mapped, and a series of military, geographical, and private expeditions were launched to systematically explore each of the major river systems. These expeditions and their collections are described in turn, from the North New Guinea Expedition of 1903 to the Star Mountains Expedition of 1959. It is evident from the artifacts used to illustrate this volume that the Tropenmuseum holds a significant proportion of these collections. Equally impressive are the photographs that show expedition members, their Papuan hosts, and the processes of field acquisition, and Vink offers a short but insightful account of the role of photography in expeditions to New Guinea. Scattered throughout the text are handy pagelength biographical sketches of some of the key contributors to the Tropenmuseum collection, most of them more famous for their role as colonial explorers of New Guinea, including C B H von Rosenberg, J E Teijsmann, G A J van der Sande, J W van Nouhuys, H A Lorentz, A F Herderschee, H J T Bijlmer, and C C F M Le Roux.

To augment these acquisitions from expeditions, the Colonial Museum...


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