Aquarel KIT Building by architect van Nieukerken

History

KIT was founded in 1910 as the ‘Colonial Institute’ to study the tropics and to promote trade and industry in the (at that time) 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 building at the edge of the Oosterpark specially designed by the architect J.J. van Nieukerken and his sons. The building 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 both scientific and eductional objectives. Its collection consisted of anthropological and cultural artefacts and products from the Indian archipel.

From 1871 the museum also performed research aimed at enhancing the production and processing of tropical products such as coffee beans, rotan and paraffin.

Because of attention being paid to ethnology and ‘ethnic politics’ at the time, interest grew in the way of life of people overseas. This in turn led to attention being paid to promoting the welfare of Indonesians.

Around the turn of the century the size of the collection, the research coupled to it and the growth in visitor numbers demanded more space. To accommodate this demand the museum teamed up with an Association (‘Vereeniging Koloniaal Instituut’) that aimed at establishing a Colonial Institute in Amsterdam.

1910 – Colonial Institute

In 1910 the Association formally establishment 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 of which the building commission chose that of J.J. van Nieukerken. Following his death, his sons M.A. and J. Van Nieukerken took over the project. 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. In total the construction lasted 11 years.

Finally, on the 9th of October 1926, Queen Wilhelmina opened the complex.

The Building

All departments had their own separate construction, yet they formed a coherent whole. 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 of are 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.

In 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, including ‘cultural, economic and hygienic issue’.

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

During the last decades the building has been restored and expanded. From 1967 the main hall, the library and offices were dealt with first, followed by the museum. New additions were a theatre), Tropenmuseum Junior and new exhibition hall. A separate project was the construction of a hotel 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 and Tropenmuseum became independent and merged with other Dutch Ethnographic Museums.

Literature

  • 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.

Thesis

Niek Lohmann wrote a thesis about the institute: