Case Study: the 'Coen Case', Westfries Museum, Hoorn, Netherlands
This case relates to a statue of the Governor General of the Dutch East India Company, Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Coen was long considered a national hero in the Netherlands, but he is also viewed as a controversial figure.
The Museum considered how to engage with the debate. The 'Coen Case' exhibition was curated in the form of a courtroom trial considering whether Coen is worthy or not of a statue, with the visitor taking the part of a member of the jury. The Museum acted as facilitator, not forcing an opinion.
- Site and type of structure: A participatory museum exhibition, adjacent to a bronze statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen.
- Location: Westfries Museum, Hoorn
- Country: Netherlands
- Legal protection: Not relevant to this case
Jan Pieterszoon Coen, native of the town of Hoorn in the Netherlands, was twice Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies and involved in the death and enslavement of Banda islanders in the 17th century. Regarded by many as a hero in the town of Hoorn, a statue was erected in his memory in 1893. In 2011 it became the subject of heated debate in the town, reflecting wider discussion across the country about the Netherlands’ colonial past.
The context for reinterpretation
In 2011 a group of local residents called for the statue to be removed but other residents objected: a local councillor argued that ‘he may be a crook, but he’s our crook’. The issue received national news coverage and, located directly behind the statue, the Museum felt a responsibility to address the issue of links between Coen and the colonial past of Hoorn and the Netherlands. Initially the Museum team brought together evidence on Coen’s activities, partnering in this work with the Universities of Amsterdam and Leiden and with a biographer of Coen, Dr Jur van Goor.
Assessment of options
The Westfries Museum decided at an early stage in 2011 to curate an exhibition about Coen to facilitate an informed debate. There was no protracted discussion since the Museum felt it needed to respond quickly to public concerns about the statue.
In curating the exhibition, the Museum’s options centred on its view that the debate on the Netherlands’ colonial past is often over-simplified into a ‘heroes versus villains’ narrative; it wanted to take a different approach. The statue is owned by the local municipality, so the Museum does not have the authority to remove or make physical changes.
What was done and who was involved?
The background work produced an overview of opinions about Coen which were then used as a basis to curate an exhibition, presenting aspects of Coen’s character and life. The curators decided the exhibition should take the form of a court room trial with evidence presented by expert witnesses. Visitors are asked to give their verdict on whether the statue should be removed or retained. This format was chosen as a way to present different opinions on the same case: the exhibition presented these as equally valid, leaving visitors to make up their own minds. Adopting a ‘neutral’ position was also seen as important for publicity and media engagement with the exhibition.
External help was essential to the project: the Museum needed to find ‘witnesses’ (historical experts) for the prosecution and the defence and to ensure factual accuracy.
The trial was adapted for use in the Museum’s school programmes around the concept of ‘the hero’. The Museum has also set up a ‘story room’ project where eight people explain their ties to the Dutch colonies affected by Coen’s activities. A publication The Coen Magazine, produced by the Museum, additionally includes different points of view on his life and character. This has sold more than a thousand copies.
The Museum later introduced an informative plaque on the statue plinth, following removal and re-instatement of the statue when it was accidentally damaged in 2011 by a lorry. As a permanent spin-off from the exhibition, a QR code on the statue plinth has links to the Museum’s website to explain Coen’s past, including facts, trivia and opinions about Coen. It also has a phone number connected to a pre-recorded message.
Visitor numbers and engagement in the exhibition have been high in comparison to other exhibitions the Museum has curated. Initially two-thirds of visitors gave a verdict that the statue should be retained, though the Museum believes this would now be lower, following the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 and beyond. The magazine about Coen has sold well.
Some potential advisers to the project, approached by the Museum, declined to be involved with the exhibition because they were sceptical about the trial format. They would have preferred instead for the Museum to project its own account of Coen’s life and activities. Media stories reported some strong opposition to the exhibition from local people who felt it was ‘white-washing’. The image of Adolf Hitler was used by protesters to parody the Museum’s efforts to present a balanced account of Coen’s life. This was then incorporated into the exhibition, as one point of view.
Local politicians and citizens have expressed goodwill towards the Museum and the exhibition. However, the statue still remains a focus of media coverage. Protests have continued calling for it to be removed. The Dutch government made a formal apology for its role in the history of slavery in December 2022 and extra attention will be paid to this history in a national slavery memorial year from 1 July 2023 – 1 July 2024.
Lessons and insights
The project involves imaginative use of an exhibition format which has engaged visitors and stimulated debate locally and across the Netherlands.
Despite having experienced criticism of the exhibition, the Museum feels it took the right approach, since this has facilitated discussion among visitors and local residents.
In light of responses to the exhibition, the Museum currently feels that its work to date on the Netherland’s colonial past has overlooked the people who suffered its impact (particularly the people of the Banda islands) and is working to address this gap. It is exploring ways of giving those people a voice while retaining a sense of neutrality.
- Interactive and participatory forms of reinterpretation work can be an engaging method to prompt debate about contested histories, particularly in cases where historical figures have a complex legacy as benefactors, as well as links to violence, racism or colonialism
- Caretakers and owners of heritage assets that have become contested can take the role of facilitator, providing visitors with evidence and arguments from which they can draw their own conclusions
- If the form of reinterpretation is already decided, some experts may decline to be involved, indicating the importance of involvement at an early stage