Case study: Reflection on Sharing Stories on Contested Histories 2024

The following text was published in the Cultural Heritage Agency's (RCE) publication Tijdschrift in February 2024.

You’re young, you work in a museum and you’re surrounded by objects with a traumatic past – objects with ties to slavery, for instance. How do you tell visitors about these harrowing histories? How do you deal with cultural heritage that pours salt into wounds that haven’t closed yet? Fortunately, there’s a knowledge exchange that can help you navigate these issues.

Written by Arjen Kok

Last November, 24 young museum and heritage professionals from around the world gathered in Cape Town for Sharing Stories on Contested Histories, a week-long knowledge exchange about some of the more painful aspects of cultural heritage. The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and the Reinwardt Academie, part of the Amsterdam University of the Arts, have been organising these meetings since 2018. The goal of the programme is to give young professionals tools they can use to shine a light on histories that have long been overlooked.

How do you ensure that different perspectives on the same museum objects are fairly represented? How do you clarify the traumatic aspects of shared heritage you want to preserve? After two meetings in Amsterdam followed by two online editions due to the pandemic, moving the meeting to South Africa caused a profound shift in perspective: Amsterdam is the home of the coloniser, Cape Town that of the colonised. This made for a different conversation. Participants felt this, for example, at an exhibition titled Breaking Down the Walls at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Founded in 1872, this museum was modelled on the National Gallery in London to project the supposed global dominance of European civilisation.


A circle of women with a wall full of framed artworks behind them.
Image: ©Reinwardt Academie / Ruben Smit
At the Iziko South African National Gallery, participants discuss ways to tell visitors about the stories behind controversial objects.

Andrew Lamprecht is a curator at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Together with his team, he decided to present three works side by side in the exhibition. First, there’s young Prince Maurice, looking somewhat dazed as he stands at the deathbed of his father, Prince William of Orange. The fate of the young Republic of the Seven United Netherlands weighs heavily on the boy’s shoulders. Standing next to him is Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, who would later become grand pensionary and play a decisive role in the founding of the United East India Company . Over the century that followed, the Company’s supply station on the southern coast of Africa grew to become the Cape Colony. To Maurice’s right, two young princesses – Elizabeth and Margaret – present an altogether different image. It’s an impeccable portrait that leaves no doubt about the class to which the women belong, even in South Africa.

By the time the portrait was painted, the Cape Colony had evolved into South Africa, an independent country within the British Commonwealth. Apartheid had already been fully formalised into a grim system of laws designed to bring about complete segregation on the basis of skin colour. The third and most recent work shows artist Thania Petersen adorned with a bridal crown traditionally worn in the Cape Malay community. The Cape Malays are descendants of the many enslaved Asians brought to South Africa by the United East India Company. Behind Petersen, the wasteland created after the evacuation of District Six can be seen. This neighbourhood, adjacent to Cape Town’s historic centre, was razed by the apartheid regime to drive out the Cape Malays’ vibrant community.

Cursist Phumzile Nombuso Twala points at a black and white picture of Ernest Cole while explaining the story behind it.
Image: ©Reinwardt Academie / Jorne Vriens
Participant Phumzile Nombuso Twala of the 2023 edition, shares her knowledge about the photos of Ernest Cole on display at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town.

Painful story

The three paintings are part of a collection that today tells a controversial and painful story  – a story that stands in stark contrast to the one told by Lamprecht’s many predecessors, about Europe’s exalted culture and its many triumphs. But Lamprecht simply couldn’t ignore the gaping void left by everything that wasn’t included in the collection. That’s why the most impressive part of the exhibition is a room Lamprecht left empty and painted black. Because after 150 years of collecting, that’s the most poignant and harrowing story that can and should be told about the collection: the absence of art by Black artists for most of that period.

Over the past decade, museums have become increasingly aware of their one-sided view of heritage, but there’s no clear consensus yet on what a better approach would look like. We still have a lot to learn from each other. To facilitate this exchange, it’s vital that we talk to one another about our experiences and insights. The Cultural Heritage Agency believes that it’s important for young people to get together at the beginning of their careers to talk about the dilemmas they face. Not to solve them, but to explore them.

Arbitrary criterion

The District Six Museum was founded in 1994 by the community expelled from its own neighbourhood by the apartheid regime. During a tour of the museum and then the neighbourhood, participants were told about how segregation in South Africa was aimed at concentrating wealth among a small group. This was done by excluding others from the pursuit of prosperity based on an arbitrary criterion: the colour of their skin. The effects of these policies are still visible today, as the group learned when they visited other places in and around Cape Town. With the formal abolition of apartheid over 30 years ago, inequality did not disappear.

The dilemmas faced by the participants resonated surprisingly well with the experiences they had during their week together. How do you navigate the colonial and racist structures at the heart of many collection catalogues? How do you deal with images of controversial figures? And what about the stories that aren’t visible, that have either disappeared from heritage collections or were never even included in the first place? Where’s the line between what’s yours and what isn’t, between shared heritage and the spoils of oppression? Since the start of Sharing Stories, participants have continued to seek each other out to exchange knowledge and share their stories and experiences. The latest cohort will get together again for an online meeting in early February. Because even though remote meetings have their limitations, there’s still an urgent need to stay in touch on these issues. Interested in participating in the next edition? Registration will open soon at

Participants are being welcomed by Calvyn Gilfellan, director of Castle of Good Hope.
Image: ©Reinwardt Academie / Jorne Vriens
Participants in the most recent edition of the exchange also visited the Castle of Good Hope, built in 1679.