The Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam plans to sell its African and American treasures to cover potential funding shortfalls in the face of the economic crisis in Europe and a planned cut in state subsidies to the arts starting in 2013.
It is one of several Dutch museums under pressure to raise money from the public purse, and ideas being explored have ranged from “adopting” star exhibits to opening a hotel on the premises.
“We are going to sell the entire Africa collection and the Americas collection and will only keep the top pieces in the rest of our collection so we can focus on Asian art,” Wereldmuseum director Stanley Bremer said.
“The money we raise we will put in the bank,” he said.
“If you are alert to the situation in Europe, you can see there could be a problem in five or six years’ time. So either we can sit back or we can make a plan and our plan is to raise money to be as self-sufficient as possible,” he said.
The government has said state subsidies for the arts and culture would be cut by 200 million euros (US$288 million) to 700 million euros with effect from 2013, and that in future, museums must find 17.5 percent of their income from new funding sources or partners.
The possible sale — if no other museum in the Netherlands can afford to purchase the works, then other buyers may step in — has prompted an outcry in some quarters.
The African collection at the Wereldmuseum — or World Museum in English — is one of the oldest in Europe and includes pieces collected by Dutch merchants from the 19th century, such as Hendrik Muller, a businessman who traded in Africa.
It features several so-called power figures, which are carved wooden statues with a cavity in the abdomen that a ritual expert fills with ingredients with supernatural power before sealing the cavity with a mirror.
The figures are created to counter disease, disaster or other misfortune thought to be the work of witches.
“It would be a huge loss for the Netherlands — we need to ensure that they stay in the Netherlands,” said Steven Engelsman, chairman of the Netherlands Foundation for Ethnographic Collection, an organization representing the country’s eight ethnographic museums.
Bremer said the museum would focus on its more extensive Asia and Asia-Pacific collections because there are already five other museums in the Netherlands and nearby that focus on Africa.
Museum Boerhaave in Leiden, which concentrates on the history of science and medicine, may also have to resort to the sale of exhibits as it has been threatened with possible closure.
“It is possible that some items could be sold,” director Dirk van Delft said, if it could not raise money in any other way.
The museum’s collection include the world’s first kidney dialysis machine developed by Dutch doctor Willem Kolff during World War II, as well as some of the world’s first microscopes, which were made by Dutch scientist Antonius van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th century.