OUR STORY at the Wereld Museum, Rotterdam

“Origin is the ink we use to draw our future”. These are the words spoken by Rotterdam’s city poet Derek Otte in his introduction to the Wereldmuseum’s exhibition Ons Verhaal (Our Story). The museum is currently preparing for the next stage in its history so Ons Verhaal is unusual in the sense that it is held during the building’s renovation.

After being greeted by a friendly member of staff who was interested in where I am from, I pass through into a darkened room, where I am confronted by the highlights of the collection. A video plays, which explains how the Wereldmuseum and its collection came into being. Enterprising Rotterdammers are the foundation of this museum. Upon entering the exhibition, a quote running across the wall by the Rotterdammer, scientist, world traveller and co-founder of the Wereldmuseum Dr Elie van Rijckevorselzaal (1845-1928) grabs my attention. “If you want to be cautious, stay at home and make sure to put on your overcoat when you go out. Then you will most likely not be eaten by a tiger, but you will also probably not write any work that will outlast you”.

The provenance and acquisition of objects can be controversial topics for museums tied to colonial pasts, that display objects from other cultures. However, in the video and in each label, the museum is open about its past – about how objects were acquired and by whom. Walking around the exhibition, it feels as though the museum is building a relationship of trust with you, the visitor. As the video points out, this is what the Wereldmuseum aims to do. Become a bridge builder.

The exhibition is not just about objects. Hanging on the wall alongside important figures in the history of the museum are five present-day Rotterdammers. A digitised version of the lime gourd from Papua New Guinea, which can be seen in the exhibition, appears alongside its description on one of the smaller screens. A second earlier, I had watched a short video about the co-founder of the Rotterdam café Heilige Boontjes, Rodney van den Hengel, who discusses the link between coffee and the stimulating effect of the lime gourd as he pours a kopje koffie. A bridge had been built. In seeing how the objects in this collection can have a relation – in any shape or form – to Rotterdammers, the exhibition becomes as much about people as it is about objects.

The stories of each individual object, of historical figures associated with the museum, of present-day citizens – these are the stories told in this exhibition. The Wereldmuseum aims to show how, despite all our differences, we are all the same. An angisa, a folded headscarf worn in Suriname, and by the Surinamese community in the Netherlands, catches my eye. In a video, the Rotterdammer Nyanga Weder demonstrated how to fold an angisa. In the past, they were used by women to send secret signals to each other. I read the label more closely. New meanings are being invented all the time. The text around the edge of this particular angisa means “my calling credit has run out”.  Antonia  Dalivalle    22nd November 2018

Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn

Ons Verhaal (Our Story) continues until 6th January 2019 at the Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam.