Beloved tradition, racist stereotype or both? Zwarte Piet in the 21st century

In 2013 the Migration Museum unveiled a small display about the Dutch in South Australia, which featured costumes used in the 1960s and 1970s at a Dutch cultural club in Adelaide.

image: Saint Nicholas at the Dutch Club

Sinterklaas at the Ladies’ Club Hollandia in the 1960s
PN03817 Migration Museum collection

To generations of Dutch people around the world Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas, who has a red robe and big white beard) and Zwarte Piet (Black Peter, who wears seventeenth century clothing with a ruff and gold earring) are beloved characters at the heart of every child’s favourite holiday. On the evening of 5 December Sinterklaas arrives from his home in Spain, and gives presents to children who have been good.  His companion (some say servant) Zwarte Piet also hands out sweets.

In Sinterklaas celebrations in the Netherlands and around the world the role of Zwarte Piet is usually played by a white person wearing blackface makeup, with a curly black wig and lipstick.  While he is loved by many Dutch people as a harmless piece of tradition, some question whether such stereotypical and racialised images are appropriate in modern times. Critics of the character find him distasteful given the Netherlands’ history as a colonial power, and its involvement in the African slave trade. Others defend the tradition by saying that Peter is black because he climbs down chimneys to deliver presents, and/or that no offence is intended.  Every year the matter is hotly debated in the Dutch press, and recently other characters such as Blue or Red Peter have appeared, and even Cheese Peter.

Image: people in costumes, one Sinterklaus, three blackfaced

Sinterklaas and Piets in 2013

Our research into the controversy over Black Peter gave us cause to reflect on how museums interpret deeply held cultural traditions when there are contentious issues surrounding their continued practice.  Sometimes museums tackle the question of Black Peter head on. One Dutch museum recently attempted to provoke debate about the place Zwarte Piet has in a modern, multicultural Netherlands, and received such vociferous protest from the local community that a planned march exploring the issue was cancelled after threats were made to the organisation.

image: two costumes. one yellow shirt and purple pants, one red robe and hat with beard

Black Peter and Saint Nicholas

When thinking about interpreting the Dutch costume here in South Australia we wanted to strike a balance between honouring Dutch migrants and their important place in South Australian society, and exploring aspects of culture that, while once almost universally accepted, are now contentious to Dutch and non-Dutch persons alike.

We decided to use the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet costumes in our Dutch display for several reasons.  The costumes, which were made in 1968, represent an important part of the history of the Dutch in South Australia, the work of the cultural clubs which proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s, at the peak of Dutch migration. The costumes also enable us to reflect on how Dutch traditions have stayed strong since that period – the historical costumes are almost identical to those still being purchased and used by Dutch South Australians today (illustrated in the photo above taken at the Dutch Club celebrations in 2013).

 

After much discussion, we came up with two strategies to acknowledge the contemporary debate about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. The first was to use the text label accompanying the costumes to explain the origins of the tradition and the contemporary controversy about its meaning and appropriateness in the twenty-first century.

The second was to  change the colour of mannequin used to mount the costume.  Our default mannequins are covered in white calico, and we realised that using a white body and face would replicate the historic acting of Zwarte Piet by white people.  We thought that by making both the characters ‘faceless’ (quite a technical challenge for the conservators who prepared the costumes), and by giving Piet a black ‘neck’ to match his black gloves and leggings, we could make people think about the depiction of Piet.

This was only moderately successful, although we were glad we made the effort.  Removing Sinterklaas’ face so the hat and beard seemed to ‘float’ with no visible skin above the body turned out to be manageable, but the nature of Piet’s hat made that too difficult to achieve over his costume. After trying a couple of different things, we decided to have him simply hold his hat in his hand. Not long after installation a Dutch visitor requested that Black Peter be given a head because it looked like he had been decapitated! So it seems our intention to highlight the Piet controversy wasn’t as clear as we hoped, although I did have an interesting discussion with the visitor about that.

Image: museum display, large case with mannequins and costume

Costumes on display at the Migration Museum

These beloved costumes are very popular with Dutch visitors to the Migration Museum, and will continue to be displayed for another few months, before being returned to storage to protect them from the damage of light exposure.  We hope that we have given visitors pause to think about the issues that surround traditional aspects of culture, which can seem to be unchanging, but also do (and we think should) evolve with the times.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet costumes, Migration Museum collection HT 93.119 and HT 93.120

2 Comments

  • David Walker says:

    This is interesting, Corinne. It reminds me of an introduction that Whoopi Goldberg did for a Tom and Jerry collection. The episodes included a particularly racist caricature that many people thought should have been edited out, but Whoopi argued that it’s important to recognise and remember parts of history, despite the fact that by today’s standards they may be considered racist. I think it’s great to include Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in the museum, and I’m definitely going to come and check them out because it sounds like an interesting topic and story. As for whether the tradition should continue? I’m probably not qualified to comment on that one.

  • Corinne Ball says:

    That’s an interesting point, thanks for your comment, David – Corinne

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