KIT Royal Tropical Institute 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 by the Ministry of the Colonies, the City of Amsterdam, the Artis Royal Zoo, and prominent businesses active in the Dutch colonies.
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.
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 primary entrance and professional departments, is located on the Mauritskade side. 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 Hall of Light.
This Amsterdam landmark is a product of its historical surroundings. It exudes the cultural and societal values of the Dutch colonial era in which it was conceived. Its vaulted halls and soaring towers are a testament to the ideal of a colonial empire, while its intricate ornamentation and sculptural embellishments are emblematic of the rich cultural diversity of the Dutch East and West Indies.
Collectively, they reflect a particular worldview, one best summarized by the words of Queen Wilhemina on the day of the building’s opening in 1926: ‘Above all, this proud building voices the depth and certainty of our conviction that the interests and needs of the East and West Indies are the same as those of the Netherlands.’
Since then, the certainty of this conviction has faded as new worldviews emerged in the post-colonial era.
1952 – Royal Tropical Institute
At KIT, the process of Dutch decolonialisation went hand in hand with an evolution of its mission and vision. KIT’s activities were no longer confined to the Netherlands’ former overseas territories and in 1952 a new name was adopted: the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT – Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen).
In the ensuing decades KIT grew into an association of scientists dedicated to international cooperation, intercultural understanding and the practical application of scientific knowledge for socio-economic development and health care amongst the diverse collection of newly independent nations that emerged in the post-colonial era.
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.
Today KIT Royal Tropical Institute is an independent centre of expertise and education for sustainable development, and its collective of more than 80 international experts assist governments, NGOs and private corporations around the world to build inclusive and sustainable societies. At the same time, the building plays a key role in this mission by providing space for new and like-minded organisations to thrive.
Launched in September 2017, the SDG House of is now home to more than 50 organisations and acts as a catalyst for sustainability initiatives: a place to meet, exchange ideas, identify synergies, and build enduring partnerships.
Today, KIT stands stands as a beacon to those seeking innovation, education and collaboration in sustainable development.
- The Royal Tropical Institute, an Amsterdam landmark / J. Woudsma. Amsterdam, 2018.
- 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: