A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
I’d been meaning to go to the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde in Leiden for a while. It boasts a unique heritage, being the first ethnographic museum in the whole of Europe, and occupies the city’s former University Hospital on the banks of the Rijnsburgersingel. The permanent collection is incredible and you could easily spend a good few hours wandering through the labyrinth of galleries and travelling the world via its collection of objets d’art. There is, of course, a strong emphasis on the former Dutch colonies and downstairs, the Indonesian room provides a fascinating insight into an Indonesia of yore, as seen through the eyes of its Dutch colonisers. Probably the most interesting is a vast collection of dolls given to Queen Wilhelmina as a child – each one is unique and represents a different cultural group from the Dutch East Indies. The idea was to educate the young queen on her subjects around the globe and even today, they give the viewer a window into the Indonesia of the Dutch Empire.
My first trip was not meant to take me as far as the East Indies, however, but was to carry me as far as Arabia to check out the Rijksmuseum’s newest exhibition, ‘Verlangen naar Mekka’, or ‘Longing for Mecca’. This weekend played host to two days of Arabic culture at the museum with a special programme of events to celebrate the traditions of Arabic music, language and poetry and to bring to life some of the bridges between religion and everyday experiences as highlighted in the exhibition.
The approach to the museum was a hive of activity, with a pop-up branch of the Leiden’s Middle Eastern butchers/deli ‘Mabroek’ (check out their delicious selection of olives and spices at Nieuwe Beestenmarkt 2) selling an array of pickles and dried fruits and an Arabic tent serving up piping hot mint tea (shayy wa na’naa’) and shisha. Intricate henna patterns were being swirled on girls’ hands in the corner.
The tent was the scene of weekend’s music programme and I was lucky enough to catch the end of Sattar Al-Saadi playing his turn on the ‘ney’ – a trans-Arabian/Persian/Turkish instrument not dissimilar in sound to a flute. Inside the museum, Sinsia van Kalkeren from the University of Leiden gave a talk on Palestinian hiphop, some of which I checked out when I got home and is now crawling up my most-played list on Spotify. (Check out ‘DAM’ on Youtube – ‘Warde’ is my current favourite and it’s accessible enough for non-Arabists to appreciate it too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Hc9kVECASg)
Despite the cozy tea tent having now been packed away, the Mecca exhibition itself is to be highly recommended. It examined the importance of the Hajj for Muslims on a very personal level and had screens dotted around the gallery space telling the personal stories Dutch Muslims and providing an insight into what going on the Hajj means for them.
Like the Indonesian room where I had seen the dolls, the Mecca exhibition again highlighted the large role played by the millions of non-European citizens of the Dutch Empire in making the Netherlands the country that it is today and the humanity of the one-on-one interviews felt like a homage to an important section of Dutch society that is maybe too quickly regarded as simply ‘Islamic’ rather than ‘Dutch’. Old photographs and maps also charted the work of some of the earliest Dutch Orientalists and the work that they did in opening up Mecca to Western eyes through their journals, photography and sketches. One of the most significant of the Orientalists mentioned was Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje – himself a student at Leiden who first visited Mecca in the 19th century.
I didn’t have time to do the whole museum so I’ll definitely be making a trip back soon (I especially want to check out the Boeddhazaal – ‘Buddha Room’ – after first reading about it on here). Unfortunately there won’t be tea and olives waiting in the courtyard next time however after this weekend’s trip, at least I know that Mabroek has a healthy stash just a hop, skip and a jump away. 🙂