AMSTERDAM — When the Rijksmuseum decided to stage a major exhibition about Indonesia’s struggle for freedom after 350 years of Dutch colonial rule, its director knew it was entering contested territory.
“If you put on exhibitions, like we do, about our history, that also includes parts of our history that are difficult,” said Taco Dibbits, who has run the National Museum of the Netherlands since 2016. There are going to be reactions, even very emotional ones, but that’s one of the reasons why we did it: to contribute to the dialogue.
However, the discussion around “Revolusi! The Indonesia Independent program, which begins Friday and ends June 5, arrived faster than Dibbits could have hoped. Even before the exhibition opened, a Dutch lawmaker accused the museum of “woke madness” and a foundation filed a genocide denial suit against a curator.
Since Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, declared independence on August 17, 1945, the four-and-a-half-year struggle that followed has been hard to define. Some presented it as a revolution, others as a war between the Netherlands and the new Indonesian Republic, and still others as a process of decolonization.
The fighting claimed the lives of some 100,000 Indonesians, combatants and civilians, while around 5,500 Dutch and Indo-Dutch colonialists, as well as members of other ethnic groups associated with the colonial power, were murdered in attacks by Indonesian insurgents.
Today, some two million people in the Netherlands, a country of about 17 million people, are former inhabitants of Indonesia and their descendants, or are otherwise personally connected to the Indonesia, Dibbits said. Yet he said many Dutch people were unaware of the Indonesian side of history, which is not often taught in school.
Four curators led the exhibition team at the Rijksmuseum – two Dutch and two Indonesian – and they began their research and collaboration in 2018. The exhibition they produced focuses on how the struggle was experienced by eyewitnesses, including artists, journalists and activists.
The exhibit has been controversial since January, when one of the exhibit’s Indonesian curators, Bonnie Triyana, wrote an opinion piece in Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad outlining the Rijksmuseum’s approach. In the essay, Triyana said conservatives decided not to use a loaded word that some Dutch people use as a catch-all for independence struggle violence, but some Indonesians understand as racist.
Triyana wrote that the Malay word “bersiap” – meaning “expect!” and was often shouted by Indonesians as a battle cry – was associated with “primitive and uncivilized Indonesians as perpetrators of violence”. Because the term risked simplifying this story, he says, the exhibition would avoid using it and substitute more specific terminology for it.
But Micha’el Lentze, a board member and spokesperson for the Indo-Dutch Federation, a foundation that represents the interests of some 300,000 people who were repatriated to the Netherlands during the struggle, and their descendants , said many survivors use the word to describe a period of “ethnic cleansing.”
The federation filed a lawsuit, arguing that Triyana violated a European law banning genocide denial because he “denied historical facts”. “The word is not important,” Lentze said, “but whether people were murdered because of their European or Dutch origin, or because they are Chinese, is important.”
The prosecution dismissed the complaint on Wednesday, but Lentze said the federation would appeal.
Shortly after the publication of the NRC opinion essay, Annabel Nanninga, a Dutch senator from the right-wing JA21 party, said the decision to ‘ban’ the word ‘bersiap’ from the Rijksmuseum exhibit was part of of a drawing of “waking madness” at the museum.
It does appear in the exhibit, however: in the catalog (which had been sent to the printer before the controversy erupted, Dibbits said) and on a museum wall in text describing attacks by Indonesian insurgents on civilians. .
Dibbits said the museum never banned the word, but decided to limit its use and provide context around it. “It is our duty as the Rijksmuseum to give people a fuller picture of our history. I see it as an addition to our story. I don’t see it as awake,” Dibbits said. Triyana did not respond to interview requests.
Remco Raben, a historian at the University of Amsterdam who teaches colonial and postcolonial history and has worked as a consultant to the museum’s curators, said: “I think the museum got cold feet because of the outcry, because of this very small group of Indo-Dutch who started this court case.
Dibbits refuted this idea. “We didn’t,” he said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have organized the exhibition.”
During the development of the exhibit, Raben said he met with curators to identify interest groups that might be affected, including Dutch veterans who served in Indonesia and people of Indo-Dutch descent.
“I warned them,” Raben said, “but they were also aware that they couldn’t do the right thing. Heated discussions would emerge anyway.
Formerly known as the Dutch East Indies, Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 13,500 islands: in 1945, it had more than 68 million inhabitants. Raben said it was important to find a “polyphony” of perspectives for the exhibition, or, as he writes in the catalog, “a whole range of diverse, chaotic and contradictory voices”.
These perspectives are represented by 230 objects. The exhibition begins with a photograph of Sukarno making his historic proclamation of independence in 1945, but rather than spotlighting the revolutionary leader, the curators draw attention to the man behind the camera: photojournalist Soemarto Frans Mendur, whom the catalog describes as “Indonesia’s first photojournalist”. .”
An exposed green fatigue shirt, riddled with bullets, belonged to Tjokorda Rai Pudak, a Balinese who founded a socialist youth organization called Fighting Lion. A local Balinese militia, supported by a Dutch patrol, arrested Pudak and executed him.
Jeanne van Leur-de Loos, an Indo-Dutch woman who was imprisoned in an internment camp during World War II, is shown in a long colonial-style dress made from scraps of silk military maps that she found at a flea market. After Indonesia gained independence, she was forced to repatriate to the Netherlands.
Amir Sidharta, the exhibit’s other Indonesian curator, said the exhibit’s most important contribution was to look beyond the violence of the time.
“My son is studying revolution and he thought it was all about war,” Sidharta said. “I said, ‘No: there was diplomacy, and there was art, and there are all these other aspects of life that go on.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s something that can’t be taught”, said Sidharta. “These stories from everyday life help us shape a fuller understanding of revolution, rather than violence.”