AMSTERDAM — When the Rijksmuseum decided to stage a major exhibition on Indonesia’s struggle for freedom from 350 years of Dutch colonial rule, its director knew he was stepping into contested territory.
“If you stage exhibitions, as we do, about our history, that also includes parts of our history that are difficult,” said Taco Dibbits, who has led the Netherlands’ national museum since 2016. “You know that there are going to be reactions, even very emotional reactions, but that’s one of the reasons we did it: to contribute to dialogue.”
Yet the discussion around the Rijksmuseum’s “Revolusi! Indonesia Independent” show, which starts Friday and runs through June 5, came quicker than Dibbits might have hoped. Before the show even opened, a Dutch lawmaker accused the museum of “woke madness” and a foundation filed a claim of genocide denial against a curator.
Ever since Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, declared independence on Aug. 17, 1945, the four-and-a-half-year struggle that came next has been difficult to define. Some cast 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, both combatants and civilians, while an estimated 5,500 Dutch and Indo-Dutch colonialists, as well as members of other ethic groups associated with colonial power, were murdered in attacks by Indonesian insurgents.
Today, some two million residents of the Netherlands, a country of about 17 million people, are former inhabitants Indonesia and their descendants, or linked in some other personal way to Indonesia, said Dibbits. Yet he said that many Dutch people weren’t aware of the Indonesian side of the story, which is not often taught in school.
Four curators led the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition team — two Dutch and two Indonesian — and they began their research and collaboration in 2018. The show they produced focuses on how the struggle was experienced by eyewitnesses including artists, journalists and activists.
Controversy has been roiling around the exhibition since January, when one of the exhibition’s Indonesian curators, Bonnie Triyana, wrote an opinion essay in the Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad outlining the Rijksmuseum’s approach. In the essay, Triyana said that the curators had decided not to use a loaded word that some Dutch people use as a catchall for the violence of the independence struggle, but which some Indonesians understand as racist.
Triyana wrote that the Malay word “bersiap” — which means “stand by!” and was often shouted by Indonesians as a battle cry — was associated with “primitive, uncivilized Indonesians as perpetrators of the violence.” Because the term risked simplifying this history, he said, the exhibition would avoid using it and would substitute more specific terminology.
But Micha’el Lentze, a board member and spokesman for the Federation of Indo-Dutch, 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 legal complaint, arguing that Triyana had violated a European statute outlawing genocide denial because he was “negating historical facts.” “The word is not important,” Lentze said, “but the fact that people have been murdered because of their European or Dutch descent, or for being Chinese, is important.”
The public prosecutor’s office dismissed the complaint on Wednesday, but Lentze said the federation would appeal.
Shortly after the NRC opinion essay was published, Annabel Nanninga, a Dutch senator from the right wing party JA21 party, said the decision “to ban” the word “bersiap” from the Rijksmuseum show was part of a pattern of “woke madness” at the museum.
It does appear in the exhibition, though: in the catalog (which had been sent to the printer before the controversy erupted, Dibbits said) and on a museum wall in text describing Indonesian insurgent attacks on civilians.
Dibbits said the museum had never banned the word, but decided to limit its use, and provide context around it. “It’s our duty as the Rijksmuseum to give people a more complete picture of our history. I see it as adding to our history. I don’t see it as woke,” 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 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 tiny group of Indo-Dutch who started this legal case.”
Dibbits refuted that idea. “We didn’t, he said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have organized the exhibition.”
In the process of developing the show, Raben said he met with curators to pinpoint interest groups that might be affected, including Dutch war veterans who served in Indonesia, and people of Indo-Dutch heritage.
“I warned them,” Raben said, “But they were also aware that they couldn’t do right. 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 a population of more than 68 million people. Raben said it had been important to find a “polyphony” of perspectives for the exhibition, or, as he wrote in the catalog, “a whole wide range of diverse, chaotic, contradictory voices.”
These perspectives are represented by 230 objects. The show begins with a photograph of Sukarno making his historic independence proclamation in 1945, but rather than highlighting the revolutionary leader, the curators draw attention to the man behind the camera: the photojournalist Soemarto Frans Mendur, who the catalog describes as “Indonesia’s first photojournalist.”
A green fatigue shirt on display, riddled with bullet holes, belonged to Tjokorda Rai Pudak, a Balinese man who founded a socialist youth organization called the 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 introduced through a long colonial-style dress made from scraps of silk military maps that she found at a flea market. After Indonesian independence, she was forced to repatriate to the Netherlands.
Amir Sidharta, the show’s other Indonesian curator, said that the exhibition’s most important contribution was to look beyond the violence of the period.
“My son is studying the revolution, and he thought that everything was just war,” Sidharta said. “I said, ‘No: There was diplomacy, and there was art, and there are all these other aspects of life going on.”
“Unfortunately, I think that’s something that is not taught,” Sidharta said. “These everyday life stories help us shape a more complete comprehension of the revolution, rather than just the violence.”