THINGS THAT MATTER at the Tropen Museum, Amsterdam

The Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) is an ethnographic museum located in Amsterdam, whose collection includes objects from Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Also included are Chinese, Japanese, Korean and European objects, as well as a photography, textile and theatrical collection which encompasses musical instruments, masks and puppets. Since 2014, the Tropenmuseum has been part of the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (Dutch Museum of World Cultures), along with the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, and the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam.


Things That Matter is an exhibition that matters. Rather than starting with an object, series of objects, particular artist or specific period in time, Things That Matter begins with ten questions that we have all asked ourselves – or others – at some point during our lives. Take, for instance, the question: “What do your clothes say about you?”

The sound of Palestinian rap reverberates around the space, and blown-up photos of individuals look you in the eye as you walk around. Different questions on the walls bombard you wherever you look, making you reflect more on the object you see before you – how does this object relate to me, and my personal experiences? What are my opinions on this matter? Rather than silently contemplate objects from distant times and places, opportunities constantly arise for you to engage with the objects – and the stories behind them – in ways that you didn’t expect.

“What reminds you of the past?” This question plasters the wall of the entrance to a room, which explores the iconic status of the twentieth-century Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (c.1904 -1975). Decades after her death, Umm Kulthum has come to symbolise a period of relative peace and unity in the Arabic world. Her music provokes nostalgia. In this room, you find yourself sitting down on ornately decorated cushions to consult a ‘nostalgic playlist’ curated by the museum. I found that a visitor before me had selected Bloed, Zweet en Tranen by the Dutch singer Andre Hazes. I put on a track by the Bee Gees, and looked around the room. This ethnographic museum was making a conscious effort to break down the difference between ‘you’ and ‘me’, ‘us’ and ‘others’.

I was confronted by an abundance of social media posts plastered on the wall of one room, which introduced the issue of cultural appropriation. From Twitter posts in response to the removal of the Disney Maui Halloween costume, to Instagram posts by Kim Kardashian, it was clear to see that this was a pertinent topic. Rather than explicitly say that cultural appropriation is good or bad, this room equipped you with the resources to formulate this opinion properly for yourself. By presenting the dialogue surrounding this subject on the walls, and displaying objects such as designer dresses in the style of Indigenous clothing, the exhibition invited you to inform yourself, and then contribute your own thoughts by sticking a label with a particular hashtag to the social media posts or pictures on the wall.

One particular sentence on the wall caught my eye, and gave me food for thought. We’re a culture, not a costume. It became apparent that perhaps the message behind this exhibit was less about the ‘ownership’ of a particular culture, and more about the importance of making an effort to truly understand another culture – and engage in dialogue with people – in order to counter misunderstandings and offence.

I found myself staring at a marvellous pair of polar bear trousers from Greenland. Displayed alongside a triptych that showed the effects of climate change on the Arctic, the polar bear trousers served to help me visualise the real, tangible implications of global warming on certain communities. It is easy to detach yourself from this issue – but for others, living in the Maldives or the North Pole, climate change is having a dramatic effect on their way of life.

Unlike a social media post, a debate forum or a news column – the museum has the unique ability to help the broader public visualise socially significant issues, through objects and other visual mediums. Seeing contemporary artists’ responses to their own cultural traditions – such as the French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed’s use of calligraffiti – gives us hope that humanity can adapt and change to any challenge that comes our way – we just need to remind ourselves that we are united in this cause, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Things That Matter (opened July 12th 2018) is a permanent exhibition that is set to run for five to seven years at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.   Antonia Dalivalle   31st January 2019