A CONTROVERSIAL PAST – Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and the Second World War by Ariëtte Dekker

To coincide with the major exhibition in Rotterdam the Museum, under its imprint Boijmans Studies, has published this excellent, comprehensive and no-holds-barred account of the museum’s attitude, policy, actions and reactions that ensued from the situation in which it found itself during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in general, and Rotterdam in particular, between 1940 and 1945.

The book starts with a brief account of how the museum came about and the acquisition of the works of art that formed the basis of the collection. It charts the preparations and precautions it took when war looked imminent and unavoidable. It tells how priceless works were put in the basement, in bunkers in seaside dunes and even buried in the museum grounds.

As we all know, the Nazis stole thousands of works of art from Jewish families and collectors before they were deported. The works were distributed throughout the Third Reich either to high-ranking party members to adorn their homes or offices or to state sponsored or approved museums.

After the war these works were again dispersed, often acquired by allied troops who passed them back along the line until they finished up in national museums in Europe and the United States. Others eventually entered the realm of respectable commercial galleries and art collectors who then sold them privately or through reputable auction houses to other collectors or museums. Lack of provenance could be satisfactorily dismissed by claiming that records had been destroyed during the war. Many museums across the world still have priceless paintings hanging in their galleries which have a dubious provenance and various programmes and institutions exist to discover and repatriate the works to the descendants of the original Jewish owners.

The Boijmans was not exempt from controversy in this matter and the villain of the piece was its long-term director Dirk Hannema who ran the museum from 1921 until the end of the war. Not only did he continue to mount exhibitions at the Boijmans, resuming only a few days after the city’s capitulation, which was commendable, but he was basically pro-German and connived with the occupiers. But, it must be said, in the years before the war he was responsible for building the collection and for commissioning the magnificent building which is the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.

In 1945 Hannema was imprisoned in Holland as a collaborator and subsequently sacked from the museum. He died in 1984.

In its final section the book takes us through the years following the war with the restoration of the collection and describes the efforts made to establish the provenance of works which had been acquired since 1939. Not only is the text scholarly and comprehensive but there are many photographs, along with reproductions of paintings, documents and other ephemera relating to the events described.

A fascinating, must-read for those interested in the history of art in general and of this particular period in The Netherlands in particular.    Michael Hasted   25th October 2018


A CONTROVERSIAL PAST – Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and the Second World War by Ariëtte Dekker

Paperback  180pp      €25

Boijmans Studies    2018

ISBN 978-90-6918-307-7

Click here to read our review of the exhibition.