Museums in Europe are intertwined with the colonial project in multiple ways and at different degrees. Evidence of this connection, as Nélia Dias proposes,(1) can be appraised by analysing the provenance, mode of appropriation and classificatory methods of most European collections of anthropology, natural science, archaeology and even art, as well as their donors and funders.

After the fall of colonial empires, museums have undergone a process of erasure of their links with colonialism, representing traces of an uncomfortable past, a strategy that continues to be performed by many institutions in which the colonial lagacy remains disavowed and invisible.(2) However, recently a growing interest and problematisation of this topic is developing, resulting not only in fervent scholarly debate but also in thought-provoking exhibition experiments.(3)

The inherent uneasiness around this problematic past is perceivable both in the case of avoiding the topic and in the attempts to confront colonial histories. Ann Laura Stoler in her analysis of French historiography on colonialism has described this process using the notion of ‘colonial aphasia’ that she describes as follows:

An occlusion of knowledge is the issue. It is not a matter of ignorance or absence, aphasia is dismembering, a difficulty in speaking, a difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things.(4)

Even though Stoler’s concept does not refer explicitly to museums, this notion has been pertinently applied to European heritage institutions in their dealing with colonialism.(5)

The silence about French colonialism in the permanent exhibition at Musée du Quai Branly,(6) the controversies surrounding the closure of the Commonwealth Museum in Bristol (7) or the reported difficulty in approaching Belgium’s colonial history in the project for the renovation of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren,(8) can all be viewed, at least in part, as symptoms of the ‘aphasia’ in documenting the complex, controversial and still compelling historical heritage of colonialism.

The unsettling feeling that characterises what Sharon Macdonald has described as ‘difficult heritage,’ is indeed at play in the material traces of colonialism. There are multiple ways for museums to tackle histories related to the colonial legacy, but a problematic aspect that Macdonald highlights is ‘the particular dilemmas faced in trying to negotiate difficult heritage through art and education.'(9)

In coherence with the scope of TRACES (Transmitting Contentious Cultural Heritages with the Arts: From Intervention to Co-Production) research project, in this paper I will try to investigate the meanings engendered by displaying contemporary art in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, which constitutes a particularly contentious space due to its history as a colonial museum.

More precisely, I will reflect on how the artwork Madonna (after Omomà and Céline) (2008) (IMG. 1) by Dutch artist Roy Villevoye, radically questions and subverts museum exhibition practices, deconstructing the use of life-size mannequins, a museological tool that has been variably used throughout the museum’s history.

The Tropenmuseum, a (post) Colonial Museum: the Use ofMannequins

The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam is one of the most emblematic and stimulating institutions to consider when discussing the heritage of colonialism in Europe. The origins of its collection date back to 1864 when the Koloniaal Museum in Harlem was founded, making it the heir of the oldest colonial museum in Europe.(10) The principal motivation that prompted the Dutch Society for the Advancement of Industry (Maatschappij ter bevordering van Nijverheid)  to establish this institution was to raise awareness of the commercial opportunities that the colonies offered.

Through informative display of raw materials and products from the colonial territories, the museum aimed to ‘promote and facilitate the development of the colonies, by exhibiting their natural products and encouraging people to study them.'(11) Only later the collection was integrated and expanded including artisanal artefacts and ethnographic objects, in order to offer a broader vision of the culture of those lands.(12)

Due to overcrowding and the will for a larger and more central institution, in 1910 the Koloniaal Institut in Amsterdam was created with the support of the ‘colonial élite,’ which, together with public administrations, funded the construction of a flamboyant building that hosted, on the top of exhibition space, a library, laboratories, a theatre, imposing reception halls, etc.

As it is still visible today, the building features sculptures and reliefs praising the Colonial ethische politiek of the Netherlands,(13) propagandising the deeds of the administration in the colonial territories. The mural paintings that still today decorate the entrance of the Royal Tropical Institute by the Dutch artist Hendrik Paulides (1892–1967), clearly illustrate this system of thought, in which a ‘civilised west’ is opposed to a ‘primitive east,’ that can achieve economic and social development through ‘collaboration.’ (IMG. 2, 3, 4)

Anthropology gained an important role when in 1920 the Artis Natura Magistra ethnographic collection (previously located in Amsterdam’s zoological gardens) merged into the museum. On its inauguration in 1926, the Institute was therefore organised into three departments: tropical hygiene, tropical products and anthropology.

The use of mannequins and dioramas is documented in the Harlem Museum since the late 19th century.(14) Wax or plaster life-size figures have a long history in museums and World Fairs, deriving from a more ancient tradition of wax works.(15) Starting from the second half of the 19th century these displays developed in numerous ethnographic museums across Europe.(16)

As observed by Westerkamp, the first director of the Colonial Institute in Amsterdam, J.C. Van Eerde (1871–1936), was particularly interested in the use of realistic mannequins and ‘life groups’ (17) in his tour of European ethnological museums in 1910. He thus commissioned to the Dutch artist Kees Smout (1876–1961) the realisation of a series of plaster mannequins, that he regarded as the most successful tool in order to give to the visitor an ‘authentic’ appraisal of the colonised peoples.(18) Van Erde stressed in his notes that these representations needed to have a close resemblance with ‘real people’ and encouraged specifically the use of moulds, measurements and photographs to realise them, emphasising the importance of details, as clothes and facial expressions.(19)

This process is evident when observing the rigorousness of Smout’s reproduction into a three-dimensional plaster sculpture based on a scene taken from an ethnographic photograph (IMG. 5), while the label in the museum only mentions generally: ‘New Guinea.'(20) (IMG. 6)

These representations used to turn a specific person into an anonymous ‘ethnic type,’ with explicit classificatory and racial purposes, as Westerkamp puts it, ‘deprived of individuality, the mannequin becomes a specimen.'(21)

As the Dutch Empire came to an end and Indonesia gained its independence in 1949, the Tropenmuseum was established as part of the Royal Tropical Institute, managed and financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A slow process of transformation started aiming at concealing its colonial heritage,(22) obtained at first by expanding the geographical scope of the collections, which included objects from other regions of the world (except of course Europe).

While the ‘colonial’ mannequins were discarded (or stocked in the reserves), the ‘environment approach’ was still used to recreate living scenes. At the end of the 1970s, a renovation project made development aid and international cooperation the renewed focus of the museum; its mission turned to raising awareness on the socio-economical conditions of the areas of the world known as ‘underdeveloped countries’ in contrast with the developed West.  In order to represent the lifestyle in those areas, mannequins performing everyday tasks were included in the museum displays to give the visitor ‘the feeling of “being there”.'(23) This is visible for example in the recreated souk in the permanent Middle East and North Africa Exhibition (1990–1998), in which stylised characters together with large-format photographs created a paradigmatic exotic fantasy. (IMG. 7)

The ‘Third World’ narrative was gradually abandoned and, after a major renovation, in 2008 the new semi-permanent exhibition The Netherlands East Indies:  A  Colonial  History finally critically discusses Dutch colonialism. In particular, the installation the Colonial  Theatre (IMG. 8) explicitly refers to the tradition of using mannequins in the museum.

As the curators explain, the seven mannequins of real and fictional characters are conceived as ‘historical archetypes, with individualised traits, representing seven positions within the colonial order: the highest colonial official, the artist, the soldier […].'(24) Directly commenting the museum’s use of mannequins in colonial times, the figures in the ‘colonial theatre’ are not only given an identity but also ‘a voice’, through a recording that the visitors can hear in headphones describing these characters’ experience during colonialism.

This installation is impressive in its character of ‘paradoxical self-reflexive museum representation'(25) that interestingly reveals itself as a museum tool through the use of some transparent limbs added in the mannequins, countering the seduction of Tussaud’s waxes (26) and the ‘myth that the museum can tell the story of people.'(27)

ContemporaryArt at the Tropenmuseum

The category ‘contemporary art’ has established itself in scholarly discourse to designate as Arthur Danto proposes, ‘more than simply the art of the present moment.'(28) Arising in response to the premises of western modernism, contemporary art is inextricably linked with the globalised economic, technological and geopolitical system in which it is produced, exhibited and commercialised in particular from the end of the 1980s. Hans Belting identifies contemporary art as a ‘global art,’ pointing out that:

Rather than representing a new context, it indicates the loss of context or focus and includes its own contradiction by implying the counter movement of regionalism and tribalization, whether national, cultural or religious.(29)

The Tropenmuseum has raised the question of including contemporary art,(30) in particular non-western art, in its collection already in the 1980s in dedicated symposiums and exhibitions. (31) However, this point has never raised unanimous consent, in the conference Tropenmuseum for a change! organised in 2008, art critics and curators expressed contrasting views on the relevance of acquiring contemporary art, Susan Vogel for example, maintained that ‘if ethnographic museums start collecting modern, non-Western art, they let modern art museums off the hook,'(32) whereas Okwui Enwezor suggested that the Tropenmuseum should only exhibit it temporarily but not collect it.(33)

However, as proposed by the curator Mirjam Shatanawi, contemporary art may be regarded as a coherent direction for the renewed positioning of the Tropenmuseum, (34) enhancing its character as ‘a platform for diverse views, including those that take a critical stance toward the museum and the particular discourses on which it is founded.'(35)

The museum has taken the path of actively displaying and acquiring contemporary art both in temporary exhibitions and within the museum’s semi-permanent display and since 2008 contemporary art has been officially included among the museum’s acquisition priorities.(36) While in a first phase the geographical origin of the artists played the most prominent role for new acquisitions, the policy has changed to assign more weight to the thematic focus of the artwork, which must be relevant and in relation with the Tropenmuseum’s scope. As Wouter Welling, curator of contemporary art at the Museum, explains, although the consistency of the acquisition is evaluated case by case, the artworks should ideally ‘merge local traditions with international orientations.'(37)

New artworks are often acquired at the Tropenmuseum in connection with the themes of the museums’ temporary exhibitions, being thus contextualized within a wider discourse, and in this way are perceived as more accessible for a larger museum audience and not only for an art connoisseur élite.(38)

Madonna (after Omomá and Céline), 2008

The hyper-realistic sculpture Madonna (after Omomá and Céline),  2008 by artist Roy Villevoye (Maastricht, 1960) has been acquired by the museum in 2010 and has been since on display in the museum in different locations. This work is particularly interesting because it has become iconic in the museum (39) (IMG. 9) and its analysis well raises the crucial questions about the implications of displaying contemporary art within the Tropenmuseum’s contentious ‘exhibitionary complex.'(40)

After having experimented with conceptual painting,(41) since 1992 Roy Villevoye has regularly travelled to the Asmat Region in Papua New Guinea. The encounter with this remote, hardly accessible area and the communities that inhabit it has irreversibly influenced his artistic practice. Through the use of photography, video and installation he investigates a territory that has been under the Dutch colonial rule, reflecting on ‘the mutual interests, confusion and fascinations that underlie when cultures meet.'(42)

Spending every year several months with the Asmat people, Villevoye was able to raise close relationships there, remaining yet aware of the discrepancies and frictions that this encounter entails, that he thus describes:

The harsh conditions that hold sway are clearly visible in the way of life and the world view of the people who live there. Violence and the control of violence play an important role in their culture. Going there means coming face to face with the essential questions of your own existence. So, for an artist, it’s like starting from square one all over again. It’s taking a risk. And in spite of the distance it’s still possible to gain access.(43)

His artistic research moves in this sense from a questioning and a deconstruction of the assumptions, conventions and systems of thought that have characterised western representation of the ‘other.’ As the artist explains, he aims to overturn ‘stubborn expectations about primitive savages in their exotic surroundings,'(44)revealing instead the complexities, contradictions and multiple sides of a contemporaneity that significantly varies from the western paradigm.

Madonna (after Omomá and Céline) is a life size sculpture in synthetic resin of Rodan Omomà, a Papuan man, holding in his hands a naked Caucasian baby, that Villevoye has named and conceived after his daughter Céline, when she was six-months old. The small black man is represented barefoot, dressed with a red t-shirt with the writing ‘Fighting Korea’ and green shorts. Omomà is a woodcarver Villevoye met during one of his numerous journeys in Asmat and who he describes as ‘a true friendship.'(45) This is exemplified by the fact that Omomà named his two children after the artist and his wife.(46)

The sculpture was realised starting from a series of photographs of Omomà that the sculptor Remie Bakker faithfully reproduced (IMG. 10). This is the first of a series of hyper realistic sculptures realised by the artist; the artist conceives this technique as ‘an unsettling border-crossing tool where imagination and reality seem to change constantly.'(47) Hyperrealism, a genre that spread in photography, painting and sculpture since the 1970s (48) has been in fact described by Baudrillard as the ‘simulation of something which never really existed.'(49)

Villevoye senses that the particular medium of hyperrealistic sculptures allows him to raise as concretely as possible the thrill of a possible reality, confronting the viewer with a presence to which you can relate to or even identify with, as in a one-to-one encounter (50). The work Madonna arises in fact a strong impact in the viewer, enhanced by its provoking title. Tackling probably the most traditional iconographic theme of western art, Villevoye operates a complete inversion of this powerful image, in terms of gender of the two characters and of the adult’s skin colour.

Villevoye explains that when asking Omomà to make his cast for the sculpture he felt that ‘for him it was crossing a line, that it was somehow unnatural to him. Later on I came to realize that they only depict people who have died.'(51). In our interview, he pointed out how he had explained to Omomà that in the western tradition living loved ones are depicted as in a form of homage to them, a point that he understood, also by having travelled to the Netherlands (52) and thus agreed to Villevoye’s plans.

Villevoye’s practice, defined as ‘an art of exchange'(53), critically explores the processes and relations entailed in the making of his art. In The Video Message (2009) Omomà is filmed in Papua while addressing a filmed note in which he explains to the artist that the ancestral spirits have warned him in a dream of the fatal consequences that would await him for having broken a great taboo in his society, asking ‘Omomà, why did you allow your soul to be copied and taken to Holland?  This is a taboo'(54) (IMG. 11). He therefore asks to the artist further financial compensations, describing how his life is in danger.

Villevoye shares in the interview that in 2011 Omomà abruptly died (55), the sculpture turned into the commemoration of a friend, symbolised by the gesture of entrusting him with his daughter (56), at the same time representing a disturbing self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the beliefs of Omomà had become reality. Being aware of this personal story, the viewer is confronted with a deep discomfort that Villevoye explores without censorship and reticence as part of his work. This is further demonstrated in the video Voice Over (2014) in which the filmed images of the construction of Omomà’s funerary monument in Papua are associated with the audio registration of a telephone discussion between Villevoye and his gallerist on economical matters.

The themes and processes that Villevoye consciously in his artistic research are extremely sensitive and controversial, dealing with some of the most difficult topics in western society (57). The dangerous verge on which his work is positioned crosses the boundaries of political correctness discourses and explores with awareness the contradictory themes characterizing contemporaneous living.

On this point his background as a white male artist might complicate even further his position. In fact, as very recent debates demonstrate (58), artists’ racial background might play a legitimating role for their art when dealing with sensitive topics. This is a slippery ground, on which Coco Fusco has expressed her concern, pointing out that the understanding of an artwork requires ‘more nuanced evaluative criteria, ones that do not essentialize racial identity, impute intent, or ignore the way distinct cultural forms hold differing degrees of power when it comes to racial relations.'(59)

Sven Lütticken has underlined in fact how Villevoye’s work may be ‘vulnerable to the charge of neo-colonial exploitation’ since he ‘enlists the cooperation of Papuans to produce artistic commodities that enable him to survive as an artist in the West.’ However, he suggests that, ‘On the contrary, it reflects continually on the complex interaction and interpenetration of two cultures which are also two very different economies, and on the inevitable frictions and dilemmas that accompany the production of the work.'(60) Hal Foster has warned about the controversies raising in contemporary art’s ‘ethnographic turn'(61), nonetheless Villevoye’s practice does not project truths and authenticity onto a constructed other, working on the contrary on the unpredictable ‘in-between’ zones of presumed polarities.

Villevoye’s research plays with the irreducible distance between two cultures’ systems of thought (the Papuan and the Dutch), questioning at the same time through this association western traditions and mindsets. By revealing the asymmetries and clashes of his encounter with the Asmat culture, Villevoye expresses the paradoxes and intersections of a contemporary society that profoundly deviates from the norms set by the West.

Madonna at the Tropenmuseum:AnImage of ‘ColonialAphasia’

It is important to note, as Heidy Geismar has argued, how contemporary artworks, as much as other objects in a museum, are ‘historically and culturally constituted.'(62) Therefore, it is crucial when unravelling Madonna’s meaning to evaluate the nuances of the artist’s position and perspective and locate it within the discursive and economical dynamics of the contemporary art system.(63) I will now try to untangle the multiple meanings and references that this artwork generates by being exhibited at the Tropenmuseum, in particular in relation to the institution’s colonial legacy.

As Koos van Brakel, former Head of Collections, points out ‘what makes this work special is the way it forces viewers to ask questions.'(64) The visitors of the museum are indeed confronted with the realism of an unexpected scene that encourages a reflection on how stereotypes and preconceptions influence their perceptions. In particular, the museum audio guide invites the viewer to reflect on how the scene would assume a different sense if the skin colours of the two characters were reversed.(65) In other words, as Iervolino and Sandell have observed, this artwork ‘holds the potential to prompt viewers to reflect on, even confront, unconscious, deeply ingrained racial prejudices.'(66)

At the Tropenmuseum Madonna is a strong and direct reference to the tradition of using life-size mannequins in the museum. Villevoye plays consciously with this reference, in fact while developing the idea of Madonna he was interested in the historical use of dioramas and life-size reproductions in museums.(67)

This sculpture explores both a taboo in the Papuan culture, being it the replica of a living person, and on the other in the artist’s own culture as these representations are now considered inacceptable. However, Villevoye’s aim is to reanimate the same technique of mannequins but to overturn its meaning, in order to create a personal portrait with very personal, intimate motives.(68)

In this sense Madonnaacts as an effective counterpart to the mannequins in the ‘colonial theatre.’ Both installations propose in fact an inversion of this medium and technique, stirring at the same time a reflection on how ‘colonial subjects’ have been typified and racialised in the museum. However, differently from the ‘colonial theatre’,  Madonna  does not provide the visitor with a straightforward educational or informative message, nor the sculpture is associated with a linear story that the visitor can relate to. Its ambivalent nature captures the visitors’ attention, which in turn is confronted with a singular yet powerful scene that has multiple interpretations, aiming to provoke doubt and uneasiness rather than proposing a reassuring truth.

Even though not explicitly, the sculpture evokes Dutch colonial past as well as its present legacy. In this sense, the artwork Madonna within the Tropenmuseum may be considered as incarnating Stoler’s notion of ‘colonial aphasia.’

Madonna symbolises in fact the difficulty in speaking and comprehending colonialism’s entangled histories within linear western constructs, demonstrating instead how it emerges in unruly ways through unexpected, ironic and dramatic images.

I argue that by questioning how far the colonial past still affects everyday perceptions and interpretations of reality and by revealing the frictions between post-colonial and post-imperial cultures, this artwork acts powerfully in the museum context in revealing how colonial hierarchies and economical subjection cannot be comfortably relegated to a specific historical past, but belong to our globalised present. By being exhibited within a non-art museum, as the Tropenmuseum, the status of this hyper-realistic sculpture as an artwork is not clearly demarcated. Villevoye explains how the choice of the position and lighting of the sculpture in the museum aimed at avoiding as much as possible a theatrical mise-en-scène, encouraging instead a personal confrontation with the visitor.(69) The explicit choice by the artist of not using traditional artwork display indicators, as pedestal, lighting and protections (the label although present is not immediately visible) blurs the status of the sculpture, that thus assumes a performative dimension.(70)

The visitor’s first impact with this striking life-like object is on an emotional level as the museum environment acts not by imposing an interpretation, but rather encourages to freely approach the artwork. This is demonstrated by the popularity of the sculpture among the public,(71) in spite of Villevoye’s work still being little known in the official art system.

Even though positioned in the domain of contemporary art, Villevoye’s research shares methods and practices with anthropology, (72) demonstrating as proposed by Schneider and Wright, (73) how these two domains of research may overlap. Therefore, by overcoming the ethnographic museum’s traditional categories based on dichotomies as artwork/artefact, art/anthropology, sculpture/mannequin, reality/fiction, Madonna leads to a broader questioning of the museum systems of representation.



(1) Nélia Dias, “Musées et colonialisme: entre passé et présent,” in Du Musée Colonial au Musée des Cultures du Monde: Actes du colloque organisé par le Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie et le Centre Georges-Pompidou, 36 Juin1998 (2000), 15.

(2) Different authors express the concept of ‘colonial amnesia’ in reference to museums, among others cf. for example Elizabeth Edwards and Matt Mead, “Absent histories and absent images: photographs, museums and the colonial past,” Museum & Society 11 (1, 2013): 19–38.

(3) A list is beyond the scope of this paper, most recently cf. for example: ‘Artist and empire’ at Tate Britain, London, 25 November 2015–10 April 2016; ‘Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente seiner Geschichte und Gegenwart’ at Deutsche Historische Museum, 14 October 2016–14 May 2017; ‘Nous et les autres’ at Musée de l’Homme, Paris, 31 March 2017- 08 January 2018

(4) Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France,” Public Culture 23 (1, 2011): 125.

(5) This concept has been applied to the Dutch case in Bijl, Paul. “Colonial memory and forgetting in the Netherlands and Indonesia,” Journal of Genocide Research 14 (3, 2012); Wayne Modest, Museums and the Emotional Afterlife of Colonial Photography. Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs (Farham: Ashgate, 2014).

(6) Among others Cf. Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Benoit De L’Estoile, Le goût des autres: de l’exposition coloniale aux arts premiers (Paris: Flammarion, 2007); James Clifford, “Quai Branly in Process,” October 120 (2007): 3–23.

(7) Cf. Corinna McLeod, “The Remains of the Day: The British and Commonwealth Museum,” in Museums inPostcolonial Europe, ed. Dominic Thomas (London: Routledge, 2010).

(8) Cf. Guido Gryseels, Gabrielle Landry and Koeki Claessens, “Integrating the Past: Transformation and Renovation of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium,” European Review 13 (04, 2005); Bambi Ceuppens, “From Colonial Subjects/Objects to Citizens: the Royal Museum for Central Africa as Contact-zone,” in Advancing Museum Practices,eds. Francesca Lanz and Elena Montanari (Turin: Allemandi, 2014), 83–99.

(9) Sharon Macdonald, DifficultHeritage:Negotiating the NaziPast in Nuremberg andBeyond (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009), 122.

(10) Daan van Dartel, “The Tropenmuseum and Trade: Product and Source,” Journal of Museum Ethnography 20 (2008): 82–93.

(11) Marieke Bloembergen and Beverley Jackson, ColonialSpectacles:The Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies at theWorldExhibitions, 18801931 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2006), 34.

(12) Daan van Dartel, “The Tropenmuseum and Trade: Product and Source,” Journal of Museum Ethnography 20 (2008): 83.

(13) Cf. Susan Legêne, “Enlightenment, Empathy, Retreat: The Cultural Heritage of the Ethische Politiek,” in Colonial Collections Revisited (2007), 220–45; Susan Legêne and Janneke van Dijk, The Netherlands East Indies at the Tropenmuseum: A Colonial History (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2011), 10.

(14) Willem Westerkamp, “Ethnicity or Culture: The Career of Mannequins in (Post)Colonial Displays,” in Sites, Bodies, and Stories: Imagining Indonesian History, eds. Susan Legêne Bambang Purwanto and Henk Schulte Nordholt (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015), 91.

(15) Although wax models have been produced in the Indian subcontinent since 3,000 BC, their first appearance in museums is usually associated with anatomical models displayed starting from the mid-18th century. Cf. Pamela Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud and the History of the Waxwork (London: Hambledon and London, 2006).

(16) The use of mannequins in ethnographic displays is documented in the Chinese Collection (1842) and the Oriental and Turkish Museum (1852) in London. Cf. Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London: A Panoramic History of Exhibitions, 16001862 (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap P. of Harvard U.P., 1978). One of the first museums, starting from 1873, to exhibit these figures in tableaux vivants was Artur Hazelius’ Museum of Scandinavian Ethnography in Stockholm, which later became the Skansen Open-Air Museum. Cf. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, “Objects of Ethnography,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Smithsonian Books, 1991), 39.

(17) This museological tool was strongly advocated by Franz Boas in order to display the museum collections in a more ‘authentic’ setting. Cf. Ira Jacknis, “Franz Boas and Exhibits: On the Limitations of the Museum Method of Anthropology,” in Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture, ed. George Stocking (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 81.

(18) Westerkamp, Ethnicity or Culture, 93.

(19) Ibid., 93.

(20) David van Duuren and Steven Vink, Oceania at the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2011).

(21) Westerkamp, Ethnicity or Culture, 98.

(22) Susan Legêne, “Identité nationale et ‘cultures autres’: Le musée colonial comme monde à part aux Pays-Bas,” in Du musée colonial au musée des cultures du monde: actes du colloque organisé par le Musée National des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie et le Centre Georges Pompidou, 36 Juin 1998, 2000, 101.

(23) Christina Faye Kreps, “Decolonizing Anthropology Museums: The Dutch Example,” Museum Studies Journal 3 (1988): 59.

(24) Susan Legêne and Janneke van Dijk, The Netherlands East Indies at the Tropenmuseum: A Colonial History (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2011), 21.

(25) Felicity Bodenstein and Camilla Pagani, “Decolonizing National Museums of Ethnography in Europe: Exposing and Reshaping Colonial Heritage (2000–2012),” inThe Postcolonial Museum: The Arts of Memory and the Pressures of History, ed. Ian Chambers (London: Ashgate, 2014), 43.

(26) Legêne and van Dijk, The Netherlands East Indies at the Tropenmuseum, 25.

(27) Ibid., 98.

(28) Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 87.

(29) Hans Belting, “Contemporary Art as Global Art: A Critical Estimate,” in The Global Art World: Audiences, Markets, and Museums, eds. Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg and Emanoel Araújo (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2009), 2.

(30) The term ‘contemporary’ is used interchangeably with ‘modern’ in some publications of the Tropenmuseum. See for example: Koos van Brakel and Susan Legêne, Collecting at Cultural Crossroads: Collection Policies and Approaches (20082012) of the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2008).

(31) See for example the exhibitions Modern Art in Africa, Tropenmuseum, 1980 and India in Print: An Impression of India, 1983. Moreover, in 1985 a symposium was organised on collecting non-western modern art.

(32) Daan van Dartel, Tropenmuseum for a Change! Present between Past and Future: A Symposium Report (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2009), 67.

(33) Ibid., 67.

(34) The Tropenmuseum is defined in its website as ‘a museum about people,’ featuring ‘objects that all have a story to tell about humankind.’ Accessed April 27, 2107, Since 2014 the Tropenmuseum together with the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal and the Ethnological Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, is part of The National Museum of World Cultures and shares the management of the collections and a research centre

(35) Mirjam Shatanawi, “Contemporary Art in Ethnographic Museums,” in Global Art World: Audiences, Markets, and Museums (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2009) 370.  Wayne Modest and Paul Faber, Encounters: hidden stories from the Tropenmuseum’s collection (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2012) 21.

(36) Koos van Brakel and Susan Legêne, 2008.; Wayne Modest and Paul Faber, 2012; Encounters: Hidden Stories from the Tropenmuseum’s Collection (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2012), 21.

(37) Telephone interview with Wouter Welling on 1st December, 2016.

(38) Ibid.

(39) The artwork was thus included in the 2013 Museum’s Teachers’ Pack and selected for the 2016 Art Rocks contest. Accessed April 27, 2017,;

(40)Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995).

(41) See the exhibition catalogue Karel Schampers and Roy Villevoye, Roy Villevoye, Spatie Schilderijen, Paintings 19881990 (Rotterdam: Museum Boymans van Beuningen, 1990).

(42) Jaap Gudemond, “Introduction,” in Roy Villevoye, Detours: Including Collaborations with Jan Dietvorst (Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2008), 17.

(43) Text by Roy Villevoye published on the Argos Centre for Art and Media website. Accessed April 27, 2017,

(44) Ibid.

(45) From the video interview by Robert Oey, Dutch Masters of the 21st Century: Roy Villevoye,2016. Accessed April 27, 2017,

(46) Extract of Villevoye’s video And the Trumpet Shall Sound (2008) included in the video interview by Robert Oey.

(47) Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

(48) Personal communication with the artist Roy Villevoye on April 10, 2017.

(49) Jean Baudrillard, 1997.

(50) Ibid.

(51) From the video interview by Robert Oey, 2016. Ibid.

(52) Omomà’s travel to the Netherlands is the object of several video works by Villevoye as Owner of the Voyage (2007) andSmoke (2016).

(53) Sven Lütticken, “Roy Villevoye’s Art of Exchange,” in Detours: Including Collaborations with Jan Dietvorst,ed. Roy Villevoye (Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2008), 19.

(54) From The Video Message (2009), 1’15’’.

(55) From the video interview by Robert Oey (2016).

(56) Ibid.

(57) Villevoye has extensively explored the theme of skin colour in Proposal for Skin Transplant (1994) and in Returning 19921995 (1997). He has more recently investigated the figure of Hitler in Reset (Vienna, 1909, 20 year old Adolf Hitler is Homeless) (2016).

(58) I am referring to the heated debate that has arisen in the media on Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) depicting Emmett Till’s disfigured face, exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennal. A petition demanded for the removal and destruction of the painting.

(59) Coco Fusco, “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till,” Hyperallergic, accessed March 27, 2017,

(60) Lütticken, “Roy Villevoye’s Art of Exchange”, 20.

(61) Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?,” in Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, ed. Jean Fisher (1994) 12–19.

(62) Haidy Geismar, “The Art of Anthropology: Questioning Contemporary Art in Ethnographic Display,” The International Handbooks of Museum Studies 2 (2015): 185.

(63) It is interesting to compare Villevoye’s with Yinka Shonibare, an artist who comes from the African Diaspora and whose work Planets in my Head, Literature (2010) is also exhibited in the museum. Accessed April 27, 2017,

(64) From the official website of the Tropenmuseum:

(65) Available on-line at

(66) Serena Iervolino and Richard Sandell, “The World in One City: The Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam,” in Curatorial Dreams:CriticsImagine Exhibitions,eds. Shelley Ruth Butler and Erica Lehrer (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UPress, 2016), 226.

(67) In the exhibition catalogue Detours (2008) at page 128 there is an image of a museum diorama. Moreover, when asked on this topic Villevoye has confirmed this point. Interview with the artist on April 10, 2017.

(68) Interview with Roy Villevoye on April 10, 2017.

(69) Interview with Roy Villevoye on the April 10, 2017.

(70) Ibid.

(71) Villevoye is aware that Madonna has been the object of imaginative stories that visitors have shared for years by emailing them to the museum. Interview with Roy Villevoye on April 10, 2017.

(72) Villevoye has been travelling with an anthropologist during his last travel to the Asmat region in 2017.

(73) Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, Contemporary Art and Anthropology (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 26.


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Giulia Golla Tunnois PhD Candidate at IMT School of Advanced Studies, Lucca / Université Bordeaux Montaigne. Her multidisciplinary research interests investigate the fields of heritage, museum studies and art history in relation to (post) colonial temporalities. Her current PhD research analyses the evolving role and meaning of ‘art’ in colonial museums in Europe.