The Rijksmuseum, arguably the most famous museum in Amsterdam, is known for its bright glass-ceiling lobby, Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings that masterfully play with light, and gorgeously lit glass windows. Yet despite all this emphasis on light, one dark gallery sits on the first floor—Gallery 1.16. Here, conversation quiets and faces of stern contemplation turn soft. As you walk in, half-light dims the mood and you confront ten black boxes hanging at eye level on dark painted walls. When you glimpse inside a box, you see one small photograph—a daguerreotype, delicately ornamented and nestled in a velvet-lined case or fancifully decorated into a brooch. As a medium, the daguerreotype emphasizes the possession, fragility, and preciousness of life. As a gallery, 1.16 overemphasizes the romantic quality of daguerreotypes without addressing their full history.
The daguerreotype was the earliest photographic process and is today perhaps the most haunting. Created in 1839 and popularized in the 1860s, the daguerreotype is made when a copperplate coated in silver was polished and sensitized to light with iodine vapor. The plate is then placed in the camera, exposed for 30-90 seconds, and then removed from the camera and placed in the dark above a heated mercury bath. As the mercury vapor reacted with the plate’s surface, an image appeared that was subsequently fixed. The process resulted in unique reflective pieces of metal with the image glinting upon it. The beautiful metallic picture evokes a celebration of the life depicted. Its fragility renders both object and life as precious, delicate entities. Daguerreotypes were held in the hands to capture the almost surreal experience of holding someone physically. The physicality of the photographs—three-dimensional pieces of metal—successfully translates the realness of photography; it captures the living, physical essence of the person by mimicking its status as an object in the world. Most sitters were high status objects in the world—primarily in the upper class—and the gallery displays daguerreotypes that align with this custom. The lives of the worthy are here delicately displayed.
The hushed and solemn atmosphere of the gallery successfully conveys the preciousness and fragility daguerreotypes were made to express. Each box, like a small casket, individualizes and sanctifies the daguerreotype it houses. Lighting within the boxes tones down the reflectivity of the metal, which helps the viewer see the image more clearly through the glass. Carpeted flooring softens the atmosphere of the room, in tune with hushed lighting and dark colors. A sense of sadness is present without even seeing the photographs. An oversized sticky note, part of the Art is Therapy exhibition by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, meditates on the melancholy of the photographs: “This is one of the saddest rooms in the museum. You may want to cry…Everyone here was once alive and now they are dead.”
Yet this sticky note, along with the atmosphere of the gallery, over-dramatizes the romantic qualities of the medium. Stating its sadness destroys the experience for the viewer as it places an emotion in their bodies before they can formulate it themselves. The placement of the boxes also contributes to this lack of personal interaction. While eye-level boxes bring the objects right to our eyes, daguerreotypes were not made to be viewed this way. They were meant to be cradled in the hands, for the shoulders to hunch and the body to curl over the object, forming a closed circuit—a private, intimate moment. Of course, a museum cannot allow visitors to touch and degrade the objects, but perhaps a lower placement along with a small curtain over the box that is to be lifted and peered under would create a closer experience to what was intended by their creation. If viewers can experience the power of the medium for themselves, they don’t need to be told what to think. Daguerreotypes gain their haunting intrigue by the understanding that the sitters are now, despite their stunningly alive appearance, dead. The intersection of this other exhibition, these philosophers’ musings in Art is Therapy, demeans the emotional ability of the viewer to realize that obvious fact on their own. It is utterly obvious, but gains its provocative power by being something that isn’t said, something that is whispered in the mind silently and powerfully. Botton and Armstrong take away the visitor’s ownership—their possession—of their own emotional experience with the medium. They smooth over the entire gallery in a romantic sadness that covers up the much darker history of daguerreotypes.
The museum ignores the relationship between daguerreotypes and colonialism despite cognitively creating this connection through the location of the gallery. Gallery 1.16 comes immediately after Gallery 1.17, titled, “Javanese Officials,” showing art and ephemera from the era of Dutch colonialism in modern day Indonesia. During this period, Dutch colonists possessed an entire people. The daguerreotype is a way of possessing a person, of holding their extraordinarily real presence in your hands. One cannot help but feel that the two are connected. Yet the museum gives no comment, no transition from the violent possession of the Javanese people to the bourgeoisie snapshots of loved ones. Even more disturbing is that, despite the connection established to colonialism by placement of the gallery, the museum ignores the role of daguerreotypes in the work of Louis Agassiz on polygenism in the mid-19th century. The scientist used numerous daguerreotypes of African slaves to demonstrate the theory that claimed different evolutionary origins for different races of man, endowing unequal attributes upon each—scientific racism. This theory was directly fueled by colonialism, from which scientists would be given flagrant and exaggerated accounts of native cultures, casting them as a wholly unrelated ‘other.’ For the Rijksmuseum to gloss over the pivotal role daguerreotypes played in developing this theory, despite it being directly related to colonialism and a gallery of Dutch colonial art immediately preceding, is confusing and irresponsible.
In Gallery 1.16, the Rijksmuseum creates a connection on which it doesn’t follow through. It solemnly conveys the fragility of life within a daguerreotype, but coddles the viewer by hiding the harsher truths behind the medium. Hopefully, curators at the museum can work in the future to truly embody what they claim to convey: the preciousness of all life, past and present, and the glinting beauty of all human beings.