KIT was founded in 1910 as the ‘Colonial Institute’ to study the tropics and to promote trade and industry in the colonial territories of the Netherlands. It was founded on the initiative of a number of large companies, with government support, making it an early example of a public-private partnership.
Since 1926, KIT has been housed in a historic, neo-renaissance building at the edge of the Oosterpark specially designed by the architect J.J. van Nieukerken and his sons. The building has been designated as a national monument and is richly adorned with decorative features and symbols referring to different cultures of the world and the colonial history of the Netherlands.
1864 – Colonial Museum in Haarlem
The history of the Institute dates back to 1864 with the foundation in Haarlem of the Colonial Museum. This museum had scientific and eductional objectives. Its collection consisted of anthropological and cultural artefacts and products from the East Indian archipelago.
From 1871 the museum also performed research aimed at enhancing the production and processing of tropical products such as coffee beans, rotan and paraffin.
Dutch trade in Indonesia led to increased public interest in ethnology and in the way of life of people of the Tropics – and their welfare.
Around the turn of the 20th century the size of collection and related research together with growth in visitor numbers led the museum to team up with an Association (‘Vereeniging Koloniaal Instituut’) that set about establishing a more ambitious Colonial Institute in Amsterdam.
1910 – Colonial Institute
In 1910 the Association formally established the Colonial Institute, with which the Colonial Museum merged. Its members – individuals, companies and state institutions – contributed funds for a new building to be located on the former Eastern Cemetery of Amsterdam.
Three designs were tendered and the building commission chose that of J.J. van Nieukerken, who did not live to see out his work, which was completed by his sons M.A. and J. Van Nieukerken. Construction began in 1915. Materials were hard to find and expensive due to the outbreak of the First World War, and this caused long delays. Strikes, storm damage and harsh winters also led to delays. It took a total of 11 years to complete construction.
On the 9th of October 1926, Queen Wilhelmina opened the complex.
The complex was built in the neo-renaissance style using one colour for the bricks and one type of natural stone for the finish. The main building, housing the main entrance, the main hall and library, and professional departments, is located on the Mauritskade side. The museum and theatre have their own entrance on the Linnaeusstraat. A low building with the shape of a semicircle connects the two buildings. At the corner of the Linnaeusstraat and Mauritskade is a large bell tower. Imposing features include the octagonal Marble Hall, the large Auditorium, and the museum’s Light Hall.
The building is richly adorned with decorative features and symbols referring to different cultures of the world and the colonial history of the Netherlands. For the decoration on and inside the building, a special ‘Commission for Symbolism’ was established. An abundance of sculptures, reliefs, woodcarving and wrought ironwork depict trade, industry, overseas relations, founders of the Institute and the work it conducts. More than ten sculptors were commissioned to do this.
During the Second World War parts of the building were used by the German police (Grüne Polizei). Right after the end of the war, the Institute was used for housing Canadian troops.
1950 – Royal Tropical Institute
The decolonisation period resulted in a broadening of the Institute’s mission, from studying the ‘Dutch Overseas Territories’, to the tropics in general, covering cultural, economic and hygiene issues.
In 1950 – two years after the independence of Indonesia – the name of the Institute was changed to Royal Tropical Institute (Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen – nowadays KIT).
Expansion, restoration and changes
In the last 50 years decades the building has been restored and expanded. From 1967 the main hall, the library and offices were restored, followed by the museum. New additions were a theatre, Tropenmuseum Junior, and a new exhibition hall. A hotel was built next to the Institute in 1976. Since 1996 parts of the Institute’s activities are housed in the former Muiderkerk on the Linnaeusstraat. In 2014 the Tropenmuseum became independent and merged with other Dutch Ethnographic Museums.
- The Royal Tropical Institute, an Amsterdam landmark / J. Woudsma. Amsterdam, KIT Publishers, 1990.
- Van welgeordende planterijen, architectuur en natuur langs tramlijn 9 / Marion Kuipers-Verbuijs. Amsterdam, Gemeentelijk Bureau Monumentenzorg, 1999. (Open Monumentendag)
- Cultuur onder vuur. Het Tropeninstituut in oorlogstijd / Denise Frank. Amsterdam, KIT Publishers, 2012.
Niek Lohmann wrote a thesis about the institute: