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Discovering the Dutch: A Journey Through History and Art

In this blogpost our student blogger Sofie shares how the course VU-course 'Imagining the Dutch' has given new insights and understanding of Dutch culture and society, ultimately enriching her intercultural experience while studying abroad.

Easter has now both come and gone, marking the end of my first period in the semester abroad. Therefore, I cannot help but reflect on the journey I’ve been on so far. From making the very first greetings with Amsterdam and the Dutch, I have already gained a much deeper understanding of what it actually means to be Dutch. But as with any nationality, identity, or personality, the essence is ever evolving and so finding just one unambiguous answer is close to impossible. With that being said, I still think it’s safe to say my knowledge of the Dutch extends beyond mere familiarity with riding a bike or knowing the vital difference between a coffee shop and a café.


Being an anthropologist at heart, I am always fascinated by the history and cultural heritage of the countries I visit, let alone live in! So, when I first learned about the course titled “Imagining the Dutch: Themes in Dutch History”, I knew it was something for me. Now that I'm halfway through the course, I can confidently say that is has been insightful and engaging, resonating with me on both an academic and personal level. But to go beyond just myself, I think this course would be incredibly valuable to follow for any foreigner attempting to blend in with the Dutch. It at least tugged me deep into the roots and foundations of the streets I so enthusiastically want to look like a local in.

The course has been, and continues to, take me through Dutch history spanning over 500 years, from the tumultuous period of breaking away from the Spanish Habsburg Empire to the present day. Each lecture was made to cover diverse periods, themes and even myths, ranging from the economic prosperity of the Golden Age to the complexities of Dutch colonialism and post-colonial society. Weekly assignments tasked me to pair quotes from the course literature with a matching piece of art from the Rijksmuseum. This excise engaged me in exploring the multifaced narratives of the Dutch identity and it’s made me able to break down common misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the Netherlands. We have deconstructed the popular imagery of cheese, tulips, windmills, and coffeeshops to uncover the nuanced realities within the country. For instance, I’ve learned more about themes such as tolerance, religious diversity, and the Dutch struggle against water which provided me with fascinating depth of knowledge and insights into the nation's collective history and cultural ethos.


As a result of the weekly assignments, I’ve visited the website of the Rijksmuseum a lot of times, and this easter I finally treated myself to an in-person visit.

Walking through the historic brick walls, it is impossible not to feel transported through time. Moving from one building level to another I stopped in the staircase and looked out of an old-fashioned window and onto Museumsplein. I saw tourists, bikers, and majestic buildings towering up into the sky. My description might seem romanticized, but I promise it is a pretty impressive building with even more impressive art and artifacts.


During my visit, I saw art that not only has captured and perpetuated moments in time, but also defines aspects of Dutch culture today. To highlight a few, I saw world-famous Rembrandt portraits and Vermeer’s beautiful scenes of everyday life. But I was particularly fascinated by the 1700th century halls showcasing all kinds of antiquities, reminiscent of a time when Dutch merchants dominated the seas and reaped the treasures of faraway lands. By exploring the museum’s collection and following the “Imagining the Dutch” course, I’ve learned how art can serve as a powerful tool foster necessary critical dialogues of former historical narratives. Contextualizing art enables me to piece together a more nuanced understanding of the past. As I enjoyed the beautiful landscape painting, “The castle at Batavia”, I also gained a deeper understanding of the complexities of Dutch history and the role art plays in shaping collective memory.   Consequently, I find myself able to appreciate the Rijksmuseum’s collection on a whole new light and I wholeheartedly recommend visiting it and taking the time to read up on the featured artworks during your visit. Better yet, consider booking a guided tour to further enhance your visit.

But to circle back to the beginning, my newfound knowledge of the Dutch has soaked in from all aspects of my stay. However, as a direct result of my schooling at the VU, I now see Amsterdam through a more informed perspective whether its strolling through the beautiful canals or exploring the city’s other colorful neighborhoods. I might pause to notice the city lampposts with tokens of the house of orange, or consider the unique challenge faced by the canal houses’ wooden foundations due Amsterdam’s marshy terrain and water management issues. I also might recognize streets named after influential figures from the Golden Age and reflect on if and how they might not have influenced all citizens of the Dutch empire in an equally golden way.  Every detail tells a story for the Netherlands’ past and present and thus through education and exploration, I am not only blending in with the Dutch but also crafting my own perspective on the world around me.

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