In the heart of Amsterdam’s historic Jewish Quarter sits the National Holocaust Memorial of Names: a labyrinth of passages for visitors to walk through that, from above, form four Hebrew letters that spell out what translates to “in memory of.” The steel letters float atop walls that are built, brick by brick, with the names of 102,000 known Dutch Holocaust victims.
This October, I stood in front of the brick for Anne Frank—one brick, one life—stacked among thousands of others. It was a moment I won’t soon forget, to reach out and touch her name.
It came on the heels of a visit to the Anne Frank House: a museum in the home that once hid Anne and her family from the Nazis. It was my second time visiting the museum but my first in the company of its director, Ronald Leopold. I learned the depth of Dutch loss: the Netherlands was home to the largest number of Jews exterminated in the Holocaust in Western Europe (Poland was home to the largest exterminated Jewish population in the world). And I learned again about the illumination of tragedy that occurs when we zoom in on a single story amongst the millions, as the Anne Frank House does.
Not every history has been illuminated the same way.
To see the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands, I stepped not into a museum but onto a boat. Jennifer Tosch, the founder of Black Heritage Tours, escorted us through Amsterdam’s network of canals, stopping at often-unmarked sites of Black history. We paused at some of the most elite homes of those monied by the profits of plantations in Dutch colonies; at the West India House, the headquarters of the West India Company known for monopolizing Dutch participation in the transatlantic slave trade; and outside the Maritime Museum, where a replica of an 18th century cargo ship is docked, reminiscent of those used to transport enslaved Africans.
My visit to the Netherlands was a three-day whirlwind during which I spoke to some 800 people about their existing and forthcoming efforts to memorialize Dutch history in the slave trade. It was an opportunity to tour the city, to marvel at rich histories both prominently commemorated and hidden away, and to share some of the lessons from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
Halfway across the world, I was struck by the universal project of memory: across cultural contexts, we are reckoning with the painful and poignant process of bringing history into the contemporary landscape. It is a difficult thing, to hold the weight of our past and lay it down before us, to balance grief and culpability, to share an unvarnished history and chart a new path forward. It is also the most important thing we can do to avoid repeating the tragedies of our past.
I was humbled to hear that the Dutch museum professionals I spoke with looked to NMAAHC as a model as they set out to create a National Slavery Museum. While NMAAHC tells a longer story of a much more diverse population, it begins with slavery: a forced diaspora the Dutch were active participants in.
I had the privilege of attending the National Slavery Museum conference at the H’Art Museum, a Dutch art museum that works closely with a suite of international partners including our own Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The forthcoming National Slavery Museum will be the Netherlands’ first that tackles more than 200 years of Dutch history during which the Netherlands were significant actors in the transatlantic slave trade and the Indian Ocean slave trade. Dutch vessels carried hundreds of thousands of enslaved people across the Middle Passage, at first to Brazil and later to the Caribbean islands and Dutch Guiana. The profits of slavery buoyed the Dutch economy and significantly shaped the contours of Dutch society.
The Dutch government has recently begun to face this difficult history. The Mayor of Amsterdam issued a formal apology for past governments’ responsibility in the global slave trade in 2021, followed by the Dutch Prime Minister in 2022, and the King this past summer. These apologies say: we recognize there is another side to history, and we understand that we as a nation have been shaped by it. That is something we have yet to see happen in America.
But words can only go so far. Along with this series of public acknowledgements, the government set aside a €200 million fund for initiatives to commemorate and confront the nation’s history of slavery and established a National Slavery Museum, now set to open in 2029.I know firsthand what a long and arduous process it is to create a museum, and I was gratified to share some lessons from NMAAHC with everyone from university students to government officials in Amsterdam. I emphasized that the primary purpose of NMAAHC was to help a nation understand itself—an impossible task without the full recognition of the horrors of slavery. I have every confidence that the National Slavery Museum can help the Dutch better understand themselves, too. The museum will have to make room for pain, and know that in its wake, there can be a transformation.
I emphasized, too, that the most important thing to remember in memorializing slavery is to humanize it. It can be easy to talk about the big numbers: 16 million people were shipped and sold—that is unimaginable. But if you zoom in on a single ship, a single story, you can grasp it on a human scale. I had that overwhelming feeling standing before Anne Frank’s name at the National Holocaust Memorial of Names. At its essence, history is a collection of stories about people. When we listen closely to the lessons they impart, we can truly understand these profound moments of loss. And perhaps more importantly, we can appreciate the depth of our shared humanity.