Between Stereotypes and Stories

written by Anna P.H. Geurts

Historians such as myself love a good story. And while they usually look for these stories in old manuscripts or eyewitness accounts, they won’t say no to the odd amusement park every now and then.

One of the older themed amusement parks of Europe is the Efteling in the Netherlands. Some of the attractions at the Efteling are based on specific stories, such as Rapunzel or Pinocchio. Others are based simply on ideas, images or types that circulate in the European cultural imagination. The idea that trees might come alive, for instance, or that dragons guard treasures. But also ideas about a mysterious orient, or an inhospitable Africa.

The problem with these latter images is that they were created to justify the conquest of these regions and the use of violence against them. And in the present day, they still support power differences between different areas in the world.

What’s more: I would argue that for a visitor to an amusement park, there is nothing much amusing about simply seeing stereotypes repeated. Surely, we want to be surprised at least a little, in order to really feel entertained?

However much I admire the Efteling, it certainly has its store of such stereotypical imagery. The dark ride Carnaval Festival may be the most well-known container of these images. Like Disney’s It’s a Small World, it features national buildings and national ‘types’ of people from around the world. That means that the very essence of the ride is a celebration of cliches. Some of these cliches are, however, fairly harmless: a choir of Dutch frogs, for instance. In other scenes, the designers have responded creatively to these cliches, like they responded creatively to the talking-tree idea mentioned earlier. This is where Carnaval Festival is at its best. The cliches are used for a visual joke, or they are turned into something beautiful. I remember being in awe as a child of the Japanese masks that were on display, the Scottish bagpiper, the shadow play with kites, or the arctic ceiling.

A third type of scene on this ride, however, has been using cliches in a much more problematic manner. The room representing the makers’ idea of ‘dark Africa’, for instance. The human figures which elsewhere on the ride are mostly just friendly (and blue-eyed, even in Mexico or Hawaii!), here had a stupid look on their faces (and no irises at all). They sported exaggerated lips as found in the ‘Sambo’ or ‘coon’ characters, and facial piercings that, although in vogue in Europe now, were probably meant to stand for anything but civilisation by the makers of the ride in the 1980s. They lived in a forest, were perpetually engaged in warfare (or else perhaps a symbolic demonstration of masculine prowess), brandishing spears and shields, and were observed by several colonial figures in khaki (or were the Africans threatening some of them? This always remained a little ambiguous).

Although the scene also included several humorous components, it may be clear why it has attracted criticism ever since opening to the public. It propagated a historical colonial image of Africa and was as such also very much out of tune with the rest of the ride, that instead focused on contemporary touristic imagery. It therefore suggested to the average European visitor that all of Africa is a forest, and that when travelling there they would be met by a troupe of silly bush warriors and – still – a colonial regime.

When the ride closed for a major technical overhaul, therefore, the Efteling also adjusted this scene, as well as several Asian ones.

The scene now looks like this:

Much has been done to meet the critics. Still, this visitor wonders whether the designers of the overhaul have really understood their critique.

Not only have some harmful stereotypes remained unchallenged and some new ones added. Why, for instance, are these African characters the only ones who are situated in uncultivated ‘nature’? Why, also, is an entire continent conflated into one scene, as if cultural distinctions do not matter when it comes to Africa, while the entire ride is premised on such cultural distinctions? For instance, we find a central-African rainforest and a tropical ape (an Indonesian Orangutan?) together with a South-African flag. The new music composed for this scene even seems to be Caribbean – ‘Black’, too, after all?

But equally, the spokespersons for the Efteling do not show much awareness of what this is all about. In interviews, they speak of an anti-colonial criticism coming from people who did not grow up with the Efteling: as if those hurt by the depictions cannot be Dutch or Flemish nationals; as if appreciation and critique cannot go together; and as if, most surprising of all from a commercial viewpoint, one first needs to ‘learn’ about the Efteling in order to join in the fun.

Equally, they suggest that colonial imagery has only become harmful in recent history. The ride had to change, they say, because it no longer fitted the present ‘diverse’ day and age. But surely, the entire point of colonial imagery, from the very start of colonisation onwards, is that it would harm the colonised? The world has always been a diverse place, and the ride has always attracted criticism. Only perhaps the Efteling is now finally seeing the commercial potential of attracting a more diverse group of visitors?

Finally, the new figures are presented as a great improvement because instead of nose-rings, they now wear ‘traditional African costume’. However, it is precisely the idea of Africa as a ‘traditional’ place – stuck in time – that has justified and still justifies colonial exploitation. (I am not entirely clear what is wrong with the piercings, by the way. Only that some view them as backwards, which may again invite a view of Africa as primitive. But should we go along in seeing piercings this way?)

As said, some harmful stereotypes remain, in the Efteling, not just in Carnaval Festival but in other rides, too.

Still, this year has seen a bright light on the horizon. Two more attractions based on colonial ideas have just closed for renovation and it seems that these, in contrast to Carnaval Festival, will not continue the old pattern of presenting stereotypes but introduce two more fundamental changes.

Firstly, the Adventure Maze and Monsieur Cannibale will shift perspective 180 degrees. Rather than continuing to be based on European images of the colonised, they will be based on the cultural heritage itself of a formerly colonised region. They will spotlight two stories from Sinbad the Sailor’s cycle of adventures, written probably in western Asia or Africa in the early modern period.

Even better: they will not just be based on simple types or cliches that float around in the cultural imagination but on actual stories, with plot, characters, and a lot of space for different interpretations and ways of enjoying them: like the tales of Rapunzel or Pinocchio that we see on display elsewhere in the park. I look forward to seeing the Efteling embody these stories to their fullest.


About the photos: Promotional photos by the Efteling, used here for review purposes with reference to the Berne Convention and the doctrine of fair use.

To Nazareth and back: an uncomfortable/hopeful journey through time

Written by Anna Geurts

More of Anna Geurts’ articles on historianatlarge.wordpress.com

I – living in western Europe, 2020 AD – have just returned from a visit to Mary and Joseph’s home: their cottage and carpentry workshop in Nazareth. How is that possible, you may wonder, in times of coronavirus? I’ll tell you.

The Dutch woods between Nijmegen and Cleves house a remarkable museum. The museum, called Orientalis, is dedicated to educating visitors about three large monotheistic religions from south-western Asia: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is situated in a beautiful park landscape in which dispersed groups of buildings tell a story of shared roots and cultures, aimed at enhancing mutual understanding and (re)conciliation between these faiths.

Museum village Beth Juda/Nazareth, photo by C.S. Booms (2009) (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Yet things are not so simple, even within a relatively small museum such as this, and even (or especially?) in a land far away from the pain of Palestine-Israel.

This is not in the first place a critique, but an account of the fascination which this museum holds.

While walking through the museum park, I feel myself move through many layers of history, and many layers of meaning. For the greater part, this is a very exciting experience. But it is also unnerving. Those layers across which I walk can be distinguished quite precisely:

It all started in the 1900s when three Dutch Catholics – until about that period a heavily marginalised cultural minority in the Netherlands – met on a pilgrimage to the Biblical lands. On their return to Europe, priest Arnold Suys, artist Piet Gerrits and architect Jan Stuyt decided to offer their less fortunate Dutch brothers and sisters the opportunity of seeing the holy places for themselves, right there, virtually in their own back yards.

They bought a piece of land east of Nijmegen, and from 1911 started building what was to form a halfway stage between a Catholic church – with its Biblical pictures and stories – and a theme park. They called it ‘foundation Holy Land’.

Imagine a super-elaborate open-air nativity scene. A place of devotion, of education, but also a place of enjoyment and even entertainment, with its forest, hills and meadows, its cottages, its recreated scenes from well-known stories, its group visits, monks acting as tour guides, and the refreshments that must undoubtedly have formed part of the day out. And, let’s be honest, most real pilgrimage journeys also have something both of the austere and of the frivolous.

So, there we have the museum’s first layer, created in 1911 and the decades that followed.

But of course, what the creators of the museum really wanted to show was the holy land as it existed in the days of Jesus. And so, visitors are led on a tour past Nazareth, past the cave where Jesus was born, and past the house near Nazareth where he grew up. (On the matter of that nativity cave, by the way: while we see Mary admiring the new-born baby Jesus in her lap, husband Joseph is taking a well-deserved nap. Poor guy, the twenty-first-century visitor thinks: modern expectations of fatherhood must have been taking their toll.)

Joseph resting after the birth of Jesus.

Especially the Jewish village (aka Nazareth, pictured above) makes for a real voyage of discovery, with its Mediterranean vegetation, its contrasts between hot outdoor and cool indoor spaces, and its mountainous winding paths that makes wheeled traffic nigh impossible – a boon for clamber-happy children, while probably a nightmare for wheelchair users who might therefore have to miss out on what is one of the best, most immersive parts of the museum.

But what’s that? That modern-looking plaque on one of the Jewish cottages? Isn’t that the emblem of the twentieth-century bureau for national built heritage, the kind of emblem usually found on medieval castles and around the grand canals of Amsterdam?

Carpenter’s workplace and home, design Piet Gerrits (1924).

It turns out that, in a highly ironic gesture, the national heritage service in 2003 (now no longer anti-Catholic, nor anti-Jewish, one imagines, and with a refreshingly broad-minded view on what counts as ‘national’) officially declared these faux Palestinian buildings to be part of Dutch national heritage.

Interior of the same.

There is more. The buildings, designed to exemplify the architecture of Biblical times (an idea which in itself forms a mixture of history and narrative, mind) – these buildings were modelled on nineteenth-century Palestinian buildings.* The assumption of the Dutch creators of the park, in line with a view on world history dominant in Europe at the time, was that life outside Europe, especially outside the city, had remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Therefore, when we visit Joseph’s carpenter shop, a site where we may imagine the infant Jesus playing with bits of left-over wood, we are at the same time visiting a rather pretty nineteenth-century house – or at least one as remembered by a Dutch traveller who spent quite some time studying western-Asian design. And so, we may imagine an entirely different set of children running around the place – or not so different after all?

So far, we have been criss-crossing between historical antiquity, Biblical narrative, nineteenth-century Asian architecture, twenty-century Dutch monuments and Catholic devotional tourism.

But we are not done yet. From the 1960s onwards, the museum changed tack as it moved in the direction of interreligious education, dedicating more space to Jewish history and later also to Muslim lives. This led to a series of new buildings and displays, and a reinterpretation of existing displays, many dedicated to contemporary themes ranging from Omani fashion (the Omani state is an important recent donor of the museum), to European celebrations of Eid al-Fitr, and the poverty philosophy of the current Pope. One could teach a veritable course on the history of museum education here.

Two more layers to go.

First, there are the temporary exhibitions and events, which this year are related to ‘75 years of freedom’. ‘Freedom’ here refers to the period since the allied forces conquered the Dutch territory from the German forces in 1945. And, truly, the museum has some surreal tales to tell, of twentieth-century soldiers in bivouac on the mock-Roman military square of no less than Pontius Pilate himself; and of locals who refused to collaborate, hiding away in the nativity cave.

In WWII, people found a hiding place in the nativity cave.

But wait. There’s a final building: the Sanhedrin, the court where Jesus was reputedly trialled by a council of rabbis (such a council was called a sanhedrin). This structure, too, has Dutch national-heritage status. But must we therefore display it in the same way as it was built?

The Sanhedrin was artist Piet Gerrits’s interpretation of what such an assembly building, and such as assembly, may have looked like in ancient Judea, based on the Bible and on archaeological excavations, but, I suspect, also on the long art-historical tradition in which Gerrits had been educated. The building was installed in 1940 and a range of mannequins added in 1952. In the inner room, the assembly itself is taking place before our very eyes: eleven bearded men are passionately discussing Jesus’ verdict. Jesus himself must be imagined to have stood at the centre of the room, in the position where present-day visitors find themselves.

Now I may be mistaken, but when I enter the room, I feel there is something the matter with these mannequins. Eleven bearded men in togas, gesticulating vehemently. The expression on their faces – is it earnest, motivated to learn the truth, as you might expect a council of judges or jurors to be? Rather, their faces seem contorted in anger. Instead of dignified, some of the councillors look evil, as if they are playing the villain in a Disney film. Are they passionate in disagreement? Or, instead, in their agreement that Jesus should be convicted? One gets the sense that one is dealing with a mean set. Is a more historical interpretation of the Bible perhaps making way here for a more overtly ideological one? And what about the facial features of these councillors? Are their noses bigger than those of the figures who play a more positive role in the museum’s story of Jesus? Their teeth more often bared, their eyebrows more pronounced? And how about their postures and gestures, which certainly stand in a long tradition of Christian painting?

Standing in this room, I get the unpleasant feeling that I am looking at the remainders of a centuries-old Christian idea of Judaism. An old idea of Judaism that we now more commonly refer to as anti-Semitism, and that seems to have survived in the artistic style of the by that time 74-year-old artist Piet Gerrits, who may still have been caught up in his Catholic revival, a project which had by that time long been completed.

It may be time to give these sculptures a new context; to remove them from their self-evident place as telling a story that does not need a counter-story.

True, the much more recent interpretation sign in the courtyard of the Sanhedrin gives a fairly neutral explanation of the biblical story of Jesus’ last days. Still, the centre piece of that courtyard is a so-called Judas tree, which again draws attention primarily to Christian traditions of Jewish guilt and Christian martyrdom. It gives the entire Jesus route in the park a flavour of animosity rather than peace, love and forgiveness, which seem to be the aspects of the Christian faith which the current museum directors want to emphasise.

I am editing this column just as Facebook and Instagram have announced that they will start to remove some of the harmful stereotyping of Jews that happens on their platforms (although far from all). Facebook and Instagram are obviously surfing on the hype/working under the pressure of the current media attention for the Black Lives Matter movement. But the fight against racism, including anti-Semitism, is of course much older. And even within European museums, which are usually run by people of white, Christian backgrounds, efforts to get rid of the racism that is inherent in so many of these museums, have been long underway.

We all know that it is precisely the kind of hate-mongering stereotypes that are often propagated through images of Jesus’ last days, that keep sabotaging peaceful relations between (cultural) Christians, (cultural) Jews and (cultural) Muslims. Therefore, in a museum that is constantly reinventing itself anyhow, these are the images that need tweaking first of all; especially now that the museum’s new mission expressly preaches understanding between the faiths.

Museum Orientalis offers a veritable walk through time. A walk that is at times pleasant and picturesque, at times fascinating, but at times also uncomfortably close to the violent tendencies in our history.

Orientalis deserves a visit. But the Sanhedrin deserves a renewed display.

* See the interpretation signs in the museum itself, as well as the Heilig Land Stiching website.

All photos by APHG, unless noted otherwise.

For the museum at its most picturesque, see for instance this blog.