Research Stream


Natsuko Akagawa (2016)
The University of Queensland

Curiosity, Lust and Love: Dutch Encounters with the East (1650-1800)

This project explores role of emotions in Dutch cultural encounters with the East (in the context of the VOC, Dutch East Indies Trading Company), in particular Japan and the East Indies, and its performativity in public spaces involving varieties of Dutch audiences.


Within the context of instrumentalist objectives of a merchant trading company, the VOC, the encounter with an ‘exotic East’ generated a range of emotional responses amongst individual employees, ranging from naïve and scientific curiosity, to lust (enhanced by encounter with local courtesans) and material enrichment. Eventually lodged in European institutional and scholarly repositories, and gradually systematised as ‘orientalist knowledge’ and mobilised in the exercise of colonial power, these early encounters came to shape modern perceptions of the East.

Obtained by a variety of means – commissioned or as gifts – the eclectic collections gathered in Dutch museums, store-rooms and botanical gardens that exhibited this encounter reveal that curiosity knew no bounds. It included not just high-class art objects, porcelains and obscure sex toys and an extraordinary range of botanical specimens, but also what Japanese would have considered as ordinary household odds and ends. Back home in the Netherlands, the exhibition of these material objects challenged the artistic, erotic and more spiritual dimensions of European aesthetic and intellectual curiosity. It provided a performative re-enactment of such individual original encounters that entranced scholars and a lay public alike. This was an opportunity to ease the thirst of the viewer to re-experience the original emotional encounter that gave meaning to those objects.

Image: Botanical garden, Johannes van Hiltrop, 17741814. Rijksmuseum.