Our collections that we use for scientific research have been built up over several centuries. They serve as a catalogue of all life on Earth. These enormous collections bring together and conserve over 43 million objects from different regions of the world and include plants, animals, fungi, and minerals from the past until today. They are of immense value for scientific research in the Netherlands and other countries.
Collectingin the past
The trend of acquiring collections of natural objects in the 16th and 17th centuries, but particularly during the emergence of the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries, greatly increased the interest in animals, plants, and minerals from other parts of the world. Biologists seized every opportunity that came their way to travel to far-off places to collect naturalia. The historical collections reveal this quest for new and unusual species for science, but also for useful plants, animals and minerals that could be economically important as medicines, food, dyes, minerals, plantation products, etc.
As a result of these efforts, ever-growing scientific collections were built up in the Netherlands and other countries. Dutch researchers frequently took passage on Dutch ships that sailed the eastern and western trade routes. If you examine the collections of other large museums in Europe, such as in London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin, then the same picture emerges. All these collections show evidence of a strong relationship between those Western countries and their former overseas colonies. Naturalis is aware of the history of its collections, and the colonial context in which parts of them were collected. The circumstances were not always equal, voluntary or just.
Research into the colonial past
The colonial past and the redressing of injustice should receive the attention they deserve. It is therefore a good thing that research is carried out into the provenance of Dutch museum objects that are of cultural, historical or religious importance for their country of origin. This kind of research also makes it possible to determine whether these objects were stolen or forcibly misappropriated in the past. As the collections of the national museums in the Netherlands are the property of the Dutch state, the museums themselves do not get to decide whether such objects will be transferred or not. An independent committee advises the government about this based on the provenance research that museums are obliged to carry out. Naturalis is, of course, more than willing to participate in this research by providing the committee with the information it requires and answering any questions they might have.
As the Dutch government has also made clear: art that has been stolen must be returned. If the provenance research provides no clear answer to the question of how objects became part of the collections, or if the objects were not obtained forcibly but represent a major historical interest, the committee will issue a judgement. Read more about the procedure in the letter to the Dutch Lower House (PDF, in Dutch)
Possibly, the Dubois collection in Naturalis falls under this procedure. That is not up to Naturalis to decide, but to a special commission and the responsible secretary of state. If they decide to repatriate this collection, Naturalis will of course give its full cooperation.
The Naturalis Collections
The Naturalis collections may also contain objects that are of immense value for the countries in which these were found. For example, the Indonesian government has indicated that the committee should examine the collections of the Dutch researcher Dubois. Naturalis understands the Indonesian request, and will do careful provenance research into the Dubois collection, in close cooperation with our Indonesian counterparts.
Dubois was an important Dutch scientist. He was born in 1858 and grew up in the very catholic area of South Limburg. After he had read Charles Darwin’s books about evolution, he went in search of evidence that people had evolved from apes. He was convinced that the ‘missing link’ could be found in Southeast Asia, and he decided to relocate his entire family there so that he could find proof for this conjecture. In 1891, the workers (both paid and forced laborers) who worked for him found thousands of fossils of elephants, turtles, shells, and plants. And also a fossil with a striking skullcap, a tooth, and a thighbone of a species that had characteristics of both a primate and a modern human. The unbelievable had happened: Dubois had found the evolutionary link between primates and humans. This find would make him world famous.
The fossils that Dubois discovered were later found to be from Homo erectus, a hominid or animal species that exemplifies a transitional form between apes and humans. This species lived many hundreds of thousands of years before modern humans appeared. It evolved in Africa and subsequently established itself throughout the world in Africa, Asia, and even in Europe. As it was the first time that such a fossil species had been discovered, this find was accorded great importance during the heated debate between scientists who were convinced that humans were the product of evolution, and the churches, which upheld the dogma that people were created by God.
Dubois bequeathed the collection to Naturalis, and since then, it has been used for many decades of successful research into the evolution of hominids. During the past century, this research has grown in size and importance. Naturalis has now become an international hub for research into the evolution of humans. The tens of thousands of fossils collected by Dubois still play a very important role in this. Besides providing insights into the evolution of hominids hundreds of thousands of years before modern humans appeared, they also offer a good picture of the ecosystem in which these species lived.
Research into the evolution of humans has acquired a highly international character in the Netherlands as well as in Indonesia, where hundreds of hominid fossils have now been found. This international collaboration, in which researchers from Australia, the United States, Africa and Europe play a big role as well, has in record time ensured that a growing amount of light can be shed on the enormously complex, but fascinating evolutionary history of hominids and modern humans.
As these fossils are so iconic and because the story of Dubois is an unrivaled illustration of the strength and importance of scientific research, the museum has dedicated an entire gallery to him. There, we tell the story of the young researcher, his quest for the ‘missing link’, his success and, upon his return to the Netherlands, his subsequent clashes with church authorities and the scientific world. The original skullcap, thigh, and tooth are exhibited in a climate-controlled display case. A real-life image made by Adrie and Alfons Kennis, shows what Homo erectus looked like. Copies of the skullcap are on display in many museums around the world.
Our goal is to ensure that the story of Eugène Dubois does justice to the context in which these collection items were acquired. We are therefore currently reconsidering the texts and images in the presentation critically , and will make any changes we consider necessary.