Decolonizing museums: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art becomes Melly

By Mara Noto

Questioning settled knowledge, engaging in complex narratives, and questioning dominant eurocentrism, is the latest path that many museums are undertaking. The list of museums and art institutions that are paying special attention to globalization and decolonization issues is growing daily everywhere. Also in The Netherlands, museums are facing dilemmas on how to deal with the long and controversial colonial history of the country.

Groups, activists, and historians have been asking, already for some time to end the colonial glorification of the “Golden Age”, asking for an alternative narrative, that takes into account the harsh reality of slavery and land exploitation.

Among those, also the former Witte de With art house, based in Rotterdam, in the street that crowned it with a controversial name, has been subjected to criticism. On the 14th of June 2017  Egbert Alejandro Martina, Ramona Sno, Hodan Warsame, Patricia Schor, Amal Alhaag and Maria Guggenbichler published an open letter to Witte de With. Co-signed by many artists and activists, the letter openly challenged the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art to critically engage on timely issues while being represented “under a name that conjures up a history of terror“. Tackling a project evolving around decolonization, without questioning its own identity indeed appears as a paradox.

The center for contemporary art in Rotterdam is named after Witte Corneliszoon de With, a high-ranking officer in the colonial navy, engaged for both the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company. Not only he has been contributing to the colonialization of southeast Asia, but he is well known both for the destruction of the city of Jakayarta (nowadays known as Jakarta) and for the destruction of huge cloves plantations, meant to preserve its price, thus at the disadvantage of the local economy of the colony.

Coming back to modern time: the letter didn’t go unheard. Echoing into a debate not only about decolonization but about the need for institutional transformations with the purpose of addressing the issues of representation, heritage, and systemic racism, museum’s management chose a new name, soon after the publication of the letter.

This radical choice was driven mainly by two reasons: the first is that the museum’s name was chosen just because it is based in Witte de Withstraat, 50. While the second reason, and mainly the most important one, lies in the clash between what the name stands for and the mission and vision of inclusiveness that the museum itself intends to pursue.

One episode helped to accelerate that transition: an activist, who vandalized the external walls, leaving a footprint on it to represent the violence perpetrated within the colony, convinced the museum to quickly switch to a new name. Over the last few years, the contemporary art center has been engaged in an increasingly open public commitment: to date, the results include the continuous diversification of the team, the creation of a new freely accessible programming space, MELLY, with a methodology of integrated collective learning, and the expansion of educational activities.

and the new Name is …

On the track of public engagement, the institute decided to include the wider public in the choice of its new name. To do so, a poll was launched. Three hundred people took part in it, and the choice dropped on the name Melly, once the open exhibition space on the ground floor of the institute. Melly comes from the work of the Canadian artist Ken Lum (“Melly Shum hates her Job”). Lum’s work has been for some time exhibited within the museum.The name Melly is the exact opposite of what colonialism is: it represents an anti-heroine, a woman, and a worker, crowning the institution’s new relationship both with the community of Rotterdam, and a broader post-colonial society.


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