Watercolour painting of the design proposed for the KIT-building in Amsterdam by architect M.A. van Nieukerken in 1914.
The history of KIT Royal Tropical Institute dates back to 1871, when the world’s first colonial museum opened its doors in Haarlem. The Koloniaal Museum collected and exhibited objects from the Dutch colonies in ‘the East’, primarily from Indonesia, as well as Suriname and the various Caribbean islands in ‘the West’. The museum was an initiative of the Nederlandsche Maatschappij tot Bevordering van Nijverheid en Handel (Netherlands Society for the Promotion of Industry and Trade), the Maatschappij for short.
In keeping with the mission of the Maatschappij, the objective of the museum was to foster the demand for products from the colonies such as textiles, foodstuff, (rattan) furniture, rubber and quinine, and to explore their usefulness to Dutch industry. The Maatschappij sought to ‘introduce’ the Dutch population to such products, and educate visitors of the museum about the cultures, religions and practices of people in the colonies, who were either living under Dutch rule or sent there as contract workers from other colonial regions. In this way, the Maatschappij also hoped to interest young men in a colonial career.
In less than half a century, the Koloniaal Museum in Haarlem had grown into an institution of national importance, creating a need for more space. In the fall of 1910, the museum accepted a proposal by the Vereeniging Koloniaal Instituut, an association founded by several influential citizens in collaboration with the Ministry of Colonies and the City of Amsterdam among others, to establish a more imposing Colonial Institute in the capital. Similar institutions arose throughout Western Europe, such as the Imperial Institute in London, Palais des Colonies in Tervuren, Musée des Colonies in Paris and the Kolonialinstitut in Hamburg. The objectives of the Koloniaal Instituut comprised the promotion of colonial ‘science’, healthcare, and economic and technological ‘development’.
Construction of a building specifically designed for the Colonial Institute began in January 1916. Most of the construction was funded by companies and families with links to the colonial empire. Enterprises with financial interests in the then Dutch East Indies were most open to the new institute’s mission, resulting in a greater focus on that region. In the autumn of 1926, Queen Wilhelmina declared the building officially open.
The Vereeniging Koloniaal Instituut had engaged the Van Nieukerken family of architects for the design and construction of the new building. The Van Nieukerken father and sons named the project de Behouden Reis (safe journey). They drew inspiration from Dutch historical examples, particularly castles in the Dutch renaissance style of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This characteristic neo-renaissance style is visible in the multicoloured stone (stairwell) facades, the ornamentation and the use of buttresses and stylised anchor plates.
The architects made use of modern materials such as reinforced concrete, and the design included an electrical system and alarm installation. The design was criticised by other architects, who considered the lavish, ornate style overly traditional, old-fashioned and expensive. The municipality’s aesthetic committee even rejected the design for lack of balance, unity and fit with its surroundings. However, the committee was overruled by the mayor and aldermen of the city of Amsterdam.
The historicising style and decorative detailing were purposeful; the style was seen as characteristically Dutch and commemorated the nation’s ‘glory days’. The architects collaborated with artists within their network, such as Louis Vreugde (1868-1936) for the sculptures and Willem Retera (1858-1930) for the relief carvings, which were partially based on drawings by W.O.J. (Wijnand) Nieuwenkamp (1874-1950).
A Committee for Symbolism ensured that the sculptures and paintings expressed the Institute’s mission. There are over 200 decorative elements altogether. The ornaments symbolise the Institute’s founding and areas of activity, narrate colonial history between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, and depict (social-cultural) life in the Indonesian archipelago. In spite of the intended soberness, the building is embellished throughout, from the door handles to the toilets. Everywhere you look are depictions of plants, flowers, animals, religions, agriculture, crafts and historic events with colonial connotations.
People regarded by the founders of the Institute as ‘heroes’ of the VOC (Dutch East India Company, officially United East India Company), colonial civil servants and the Institute’s founders feature prominently throughout the building. The glorification of such people and the Dutch nation state, like their depictions on the building, is becoming increasingly less self-evident and more controversial.
The Colonial Institute comprised three departments: Trade, Ethnology and Tropical Hygiene. The latter shared a laboratory building with the University of Amsterdam in the Oosterpark. It focused on public health in the Netherlands and the colonised territories, and conducted medical research on the prevention and control of diseases. Additionally, the department of Tropical Hygiene explored and developed programs to promote a healthier life in the colonies. Though indigenous medical knowledge was appropriated for the development of medicine, it was barely, if ever, acknowledged.
The other two departments collected objects from the colonies and disseminated knowledge about raw materials, natural resources, the people and their cultures, languages and practices. This was used to train civil servants and company workers destined for the colonies. Each department had its own space within the museum. Educating the public was another important policy objective, which was achieved through the display of objects in the museum and the provision of information packs to Dutch schools. In these ways, the Colonial Institute played an important societal role in spreading colonial thinking and the preservation of the colonial system.
A new name, a new purpose
The Koloniaal Instituut continued its work to a limited extent through the start of the Second World War until it closed in 1944. Part of the building was confiscated by the Nazis to house the German occupation police. As early as the final months of the war, the Board of Directors was already pondering a new name for the Institute. The directors expected that with the 1941 Atlantic Charter and the intended post-war establishment of the United Nations, the term ‘colonial’ would cease to be acceptable. Furthermore, a new name was not enough; the Institute also needed a new purpose. To emphasise the inseparability of the Netherlands, Indonesia and the West Indies, they opted for ‘Indisch Instituut’ (Institute of the Indies).
Then in 1945, the Republic of Indonesia declared its independence. It took another four years of armed conflict and negotiations for the Netherlands to accept this in 1949. For the Institute, it was time for another change of course. In 1950, the Institute was renamed Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (Royal Tropical Institute, KIT) and the museum became the Tropenmuseum.
The focus shifted from the colonies to ‘achieving the great task that the Western countries have set themselves with regard to the tropics and promoting the Netherlands’ economic development’. The new Institute and museum would fall under the authority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, particularly development aid, and concentrated fully on the support and promotion of such projects. This change in circumstances also affected the Tropenmuseum. In the 1960s and 1970s, it organised exhibitions to present and explain ‘all the various facets of development issues to the general public, entirely in line with the development process’s own dynamic character’.
Training centre and theatre
In the following decades, the KIT added a new hotel and a training centre for visiting experts on agriculture and healthcare in the Global South, among other guests. This training involved programs for tropical doctors and so-called technical assistants and volunteers – experts who were to spend shorter or longer periods working on agricultural projects or for government organisations in what was then called the ‘Third World’. A Tropentheater was launched to highlight the works of artistes from these ‘developing countries’. This was followed by a children’s museum. A major renovation in the 1970s provided the museum with a new, ‘low threshold’ entrance, as museum accessibility had become a hot topic, both literally and socially. A new underground collections depot was added in 2000, along with an entirely new training centre on the Linnaeusstraat, behind the former Muiderkerk tower.
As a consequence of the 2010 economic crisis, and subsequent debate about the use of the national budget for development aid, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided in 2012 to stop funding KIT. The theatre and the library were closed in 2013. The library’s heritage collections passed to Leiden University. The extensive modern collection on ‘international cooperation’ was adopted by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.
KIT continued its activities as a knowledge centre for sustainable agriculture, public health and gender in the Global South, and set out to accommodate around 70 organisations in the field of sustainable entrepreneurship. In 2018, Kofi Annan, then-secretary general of the United Nations, dubbed it ‘SDG House’: a gathering place for experts, professionals and entrepeneurs who are working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
National Museum of World Cultures
Due to these develoments, the Tropenmuseum and KIT formally cut ties in 2014. The museum’s collection is now owned by the national government. The museum itself has merged with Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden and the Afrika Museum in Berg and Dal, to become the Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (foundation National Museum of World Cultures). In 2017, the NMVW entered a structural collaboration with Stichting Wereldmuseum Rotterdam (Worldmuseum).
After almost a century together, working towards the same mission, the Tropenmuseum and KIT are now separate institutions. However, our shared colonial past, memorialised in this building, continues to connect us, as does our shared vision regarding more equitable and sustainable futures.