Half of the anatomical collection of Museum Vrolik consists of human remains that were collected between approximately 1750 and 1950. Medical doctors collected this material for research and education, but their collections also gained them status. Education and research still are the most important raisons d’être of the collection, although it has now also become of historical value, and is no longer only of medical and biological importance. We believe that this type of knowledge should be accessible for everyone and so Museum Vrolik may be visited by the general public as well.
Among other reasons, anatomists collected human remains to conduct research on embryonic development, human evolution and the development of congenital defects and diseases. A number of anatomists (Gerard Vrolik, Willem Vrolik, Lodewijk Bolk, C.U. Ariëns Kappers and Arie de Froe) also concerned themselves with research on ‘race’ in the context of physical anthropology. This research was based on the alleged notion that humanity could be divided into separate ‘races’ with distinct characteristics. The anatomists conducted this research with human remains that were largely obtained from the former colonies of the Netherlands, particularly the Dutch East Indies. The collection originating from the colonies form a relatively small but emotionally charged part of the museum. It consists of 330 skulls, 24 skeletons and other skeletal remains, 157 plaster casts and models and 33 foetuses and other wet anatomical preparations.
Museum Vrolik expressly distances itself from the outdated racial and racist notions of some of the contributors to the collection (Gerard and Willem Vrolik and Lodewijk Bolk in particular). Those notions should be considered within the context of the era in which they arose – the 19th century and the start of the 20th century – which differs from our time in many ways. For example, the historical social position of the poor and the elite, as well as the relation between Europe and the rest of the world, are different than the modern ones. Most Europeans and people of European descent did not consider people from outside of Europe as equals. The collectors were products of their time, but their work also served to maintain these relationships. Museum Vrolik’s colonial collection is studied with special consideration, because we want to understand how it contributed to the rise of these racialist and racist ideas within the context of their time. This research is also relevant for us today, because many of our modern prejudices stem from the oppression, exploitation, and exclusion that were prevalent in the colonial era. These consequences are felt by many of the people whose ancestors were enslaved and oppressed by colonial systems, or victims of other past or present racist regimes.
In the case of many of the human remains in the museum, we do not know to what extent the deceased and their relatives were aware that the remains were taken or whether they consented to this at all. The rules and practises regarding the preparation and collecting of human material of the past differ from those of today. Museum Vrolik is actively researching this topic and tries to gain more insight into the origin of its own collection and the context in which it was amassed. This applies in particular to the human remains that originate from the colonies. Needless to say, the results of this research will be shared with the general public.
Museum Vrolik treats requests to return specific human remains to surviving relatives or the communities of origin with respect and transparency.