Hi everyone, I'm Kaja Moll, a Graphic and Media Design student from LCC.
Since my last post here, I have been very lucky to get an internship in Amsterdam, in a social design studio called Burobraak. It has been 3 months now as I am working with them, and I got an opportunity to work on a variety of projects tackling social, cultural, and political issues. This experience has certainly helped me to understand a designer’s role in a complex world.
Burobraak is an exceptional place filled with people that are dedicated to social design. The idea is to make other people’s lives better - to improve our world but starting from what is closest to us. That’s something I’ve learnt here – that maybe we can’t change the whole world straight away, but we definitely can start local and change our surroundings - improve the lives of our neighbours and friends.
The first task I got when I started my internship at Burobraak was to make research about famous Dutch naval heroes. I wasn’t told what the purpose of the research was, but that was intentional – to use my fresh mind for the upcoming project, which then turned out to be about the decolonization of street names in Amsterdam.
For the research, I was asked to prepare some basic information about a few Dutch admirals. What’s interesting, during my research I didn’t come across any controversial articles and information. It was purely about the particular person, their colonial achievements, and the wars they fought in. On the basic sites such as Wikipedia, there was no word about the damage these people have done and the consequences of their actions. That has shown me how even the internet can be biased, not showing us balanced information and objectivity.
The research was also about finding a relation between those people and the city of Amsterdam. I found out that there are many streets/places in Amsterdam named after those people. There is even a separate neighbourhood dedicated to the Dutch admirals - Admiraal de Ruijterweg.
The next task was to focus on the controversy around these people and that’s when I started to see where this project is going. During my research, I came across many articles about the disputes that colonization brings to the Netherlands. Because of the country’s history, it’s a huge debate topic here and I suppose it will be for a long time, cause many Dutch people still try to deny their controversial history. On the other hand, more and more people start to talk about it, emphasizing the need to reevaluate our history.
During my research, I came across many articles about how the Dutch respond to the current debate about postcolonialism. For the last couple of years, this issue has been given more and more attention. Following the police killing of George Floyd in the US, which has fueled the Black Lives Matter movement around the globe, many countries have seen protests against police violence and racism. Including the Netherlands, where protesters called for the removal of colonial-era statues, buildings, and street names, reevaluating their colonial past.
Considering all of this, the questions arise:
What should be done with the controversial monuments?
Should they be toppled like the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England?
Should they be modified so they can respond to the changing views on our history?
Or should they be left just the way they are?
This question could be only answered with an objective debate, taking into account various views and backgrounds. For some, this is not questionable that these monuments should fall. Others see this as an act of vandalism, chaining themselves to the monuments, claiming to “protect history” (as it happened in Cape Town with the Jan van Riebeeck's statue). Others, like historians Jürgen Zimmerer and Arnold Bartetzky, would prefer to see the monuments left in their original location, all while determining ways to draw attention to them and explain their historical context.
Anyways, people start to act and we can see more and more radical movements across the country. Like in the town of Hoorn, north of Amsterdam, where around 500 protesters gathered to call for the removal of a statue of 17th-century colonial-era Dutch officer Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Or like in Rotterdam, where a group of activists left graffiti on the statue of Piet Hein and the Witte de With Art Centre in Rotterdam (see pictures above). The vandalism was meant as criticism on "the glorification of Dutch colonialism”.
And some of these events bring an action. Like the Witte de With Art Centre in Rotterdam which in July 2020 announced to change its name for Kunstinstituut Melly. Whether it’s a way to compensate for the shameful past is a question. Still, it’s good to see some questioning and changes happening around the world.
With time, I found out that the research I was preparing was for a new project coming - The Street Names Project. It focuses on decolonizing the street names in Amsterdam, with a special interest in those located in the Zeehelden and Admiralenbuurt neighbourhoods. The project was initiated by the City Council of Amsterdam in a collaboration with Master students from the University of Amsterdam. In December 2020 they researched the street names, provided a historical context, and more objective information about people that the streets were named after. They presented their ideas in a form of project proposals and based on that, the two best projects have been chosen.
Burobraak, together with Van Gisteren - an office for public history projects - have worked to implement those ideas in real life and create a meaningful project for decolonising street names. While I was looking forward to taking part in the project, I didn’t get the chance to contribute. After preparing the project proposal and sending it to the City Council, we waited many weeks for a response. I a result, everything started way longer than planned. Anyway, I’m glad I could at least find out more about the project, as it has inspired my research about decolonisation.
This kind of approach to deal with a controversial past has spoken to me. During my time in Amsterdam, I have experienced the power of design in shaping such changes. I understood that we, not only designers but the whole of humanity, should question everything – reevaluate our past to shape a better future.