The Great Indonesia Exhibition through Indonesian Eyes

By Martine Mussies
By Martine Mussies
Martine Mussies • 28 feb 2024

Rice tables. Postcards of endless plantations. Louis Couperus’ novel ‘De stille kracht’. This is what many Dutch people seem to think about when they think of Indonesia. But aren't these all expressions of Dutch colonialism? What would Indonesia look like when viewed without that Dutch lens? Eager to gain insights, I visited The Great Indonesia Exhibition in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, and discussed it with a friend with Indonesian roots. Is this exhibition succeeding in what it is trying to do?

As its name suggests, the Great Indonesia Exhibition teaches us more about this economic giant in Southeast Asia, the third largest country on earth in population. This is necessary, because "generations of young people in the Netherlands were educated with limited knowledge about the Dutch East Indies and Indonesia", according to a  2023 report.  More knowledge of this history in society can ensure greater understanding and recognition for Indonesian communities in the Netherlands. "The history of the Netherlands and its former colony the Dutch East Indies may now be far behind us, but its legacy is still visible and tangible today and will continue to play a role in who we are and how we shape society in the future," former  minister Jet Bussemaker writes in the report’s foreword. 

Annabelle Birnie (the director of the Nieuwe Kerk) laid the foundation for the idea of organising a new exhibition about Indonesia at De Nieuwe Kerk. This marks the third such exhibition at the venue, with the previous ones taking place in 1992 and 2006. As she explains in the catalogue, the current exhibition stands out significantly from its predecessors, as it presents a comprehensive view of Indonesia's rich history and its people. Unlike earlier exhibitions that were archaeologically, anthropologically, and art historically oriented, this one incorporates perspectives from Indonesian communities, offering a more inclusive portrayal. The exhibition reflects the ongoing dialogue between Indonesia and the Netherlands, exemplified by the nearly 75 years it took for the latter to acknowledge Indonesian independence. The exhibition serves as a biography of the vast archipelago, capturing its ancient kingdoms, colonial dominance, Indonesian independence ideals, the Dutch-Japanese war, Sukarno's revolution, the era of Soeharto, and contemporary Indonesia with its beauties and challenges.

Designed as an atlas, the richly illustrated and diverse exhibition catalogue acts as a starting point for understanding the exhibition. Serving as a multifaceted biography of the country, “Atlas van Indonesië” is authored by experts from both Indonesia and the Netherlands. Created by individuals with firsthand knowledge or expertise in Indonesian history, the book is visually rich, mirroring the clarity found in well-designed schoolbooks. It deviates from a singular theme or period, offering concise history lessons that collectively narrate the larger story, focussing on the overarching narrative of this archipelagic nation. The inquiry delves into how Indonesia evolved into its present state or, in other words, how it was fashioned. Remarkably vast, with an approximate population of nearly 300 million and comprising around 16,000 islands (estimates vary), alongside hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, Indonesia resembles almost a continent in itself. The narrative of Java often diverges significantly from that of the Moluccas or Papua. The experiences of the ruling class differ markedly from those of artists or environmental conservationists, and the perspectives of independence fighters vary from those who perceive themselves as oppressed. This prompts contemplation on our collective understanding of the diverse population groups brought under the umbrella of a singular Indonesian flag over the past seventy-five years. What, for instance, is our comprehension of the myriad ethnicities and cultures that have coalesced under the Indonesian banner during this period? All these questions were addressed in the exhibition. There was even more, as personally, the anticipation for the exhibition was centred on encountering Indonesia without the Dutch influence, exploring its older religions, cultures, and the enchanting natural landscapes. The hope was to delve into the layers of Indonesia's history, connecting with its ancient roots, nature and diverse cultural tapestry, beyond the colonial lens. To explore to what extent the exhibition and its accompanying Atlas succeeded in liberating the idea of Indonesia from the constraints of Dutch colonialistic views, I reached out to an Indonesian person living in the Netherlands, whom I will refer to as “Anisa”.

You visited the Great Indonesia Exhibition. What did you expect beforehand and what do you think about it now? 
“Before visiting the Great Indonesia Exhibition, I had mixed expectations. On one hand, I hoped to see a more comprehensive portrayal of Indonesia that goes beyond the colonial lens often presented in the Netherlands. I wanted to see a celebration of Indonesia's diverse culture, history, and natural beauty. On the other hand, I was worried about encountering stereotypes or oversimplifications, as is sometimes the case when discussing Indonesia in the Netherlands. I often encounter misconceptions or limited perspectives. People may focus solely on the colonial history or certain cultural aspects, overlooking the complexity and diversity of Indonesia. Additionally, there's sometimes a lack of awareness about contemporary issues facing Indonesia or its rich cultural heritage beyond what's commonly known. I found the Great Indonesia Exhibition to be a valuable experience. It provided a more inclusive and nuanced portrayal of Indonesia's history and culture, highlighting its diversity and complexity. I appreciated the efforts to showcase perspectives from Indonesian communities and to foster dialogue between Indonesia and the Netherlands. However, there were also areas where I felt the exhibition could have been improved, such as providing more depth on certain topics or addressing contemporary issues facing Indonesia from a broader perspective, including the social dynamics emphasising the importance of representing diverse viewpoints within the international context.”

In light of the narratives and representations encountered within the Great Indonesia Exhibition, how do you perceive the potential influence of preconceptions or biases, particularly those originating from colonial legacies, on one's understanding of Indonesia's rich history and cultural diversity?
“When considering Indonesia through the lens of Dutch colonialism, it's evident that certain images and narratives have become intertwined with the colonial legacy. The examples you named [rice tables, postcards depicting endless plantations, and literary works like Louis Couperus' novel "De stille kracht", red.] indeed reflect aspects of Dutch colonial influence and perceptions of Indonesia during that era. Viewing Indonesia without the Dutch lens allows for a broader and more nuanced understanding of the country's rich history, culture, and identity. By setting aside the colonial perspective, Indonesia reveals itself as a diverse archipelago with a complex history of indigenous cultures, traditions, and landscapes. One can appreciate Indonesia's ancient civilizations, such as the Majapahit Empire or the Srivijaya Kingdom, which flourished long before Dutch colonialism. Indonesia offers a vibrant cultural mosaic influenced by various ethnic groups, languages, religions, and artistic traditions, like batik textiles and gamelan music, to name just a few. And besides culture, it has a wonderful nature, with lush rainforests, pristine beaches, volcanic landscapes, and diverse wildlife. Without the colonial lens, one can celebrate its ecological diversity and the importance of environmental conservation efforts.”

How could we improve our relationship with Indonesia and make amends, as Dutch people?
“This involves several steps. Firstly, it's essential to continue fostering mutual understanding and respect through initiatives like cultural exchange programs, educational partnerships, and exhibitions like the Great Indonesia Exhibition. Additionally, acknowledging and addressing the colonial legacy is crucial, including restitution efforts for cultural artefacts and promoting awareness of Indonesia's history beyond the colonial period. Supporting sustainable development and conservation efforts in Indonesia is also important, demonstrating a commitment to environmental stewardship and global cooperation. Overall, building a stronger relationship with Indonesia requires ongoing dialogue, collaboration, and a willingness to learn from each other's perspectives.” 

After visiting the exhibition, reading its catalogue and talking to Anisa, I can only conclude one thing: The Great Indonesia Exhibition and accompanying Atlas bring knowledge, insights and friendship. They are a heartfelt step in the dialogue between the Netherlands and Indonesia. Of course, they don't tell the whole story, they can't. But it feels like the good, first history lesson I never got. This is in the spirit of the committee cited earlier. Let's continue along this path, make the old and new Indonesia better understood, and present topics that serve as amuses to other museums, books or documentaries for deepening or that lead to good conversation with each other. Oh, and that rice table? Vanja van der Leeden, in her smoothly written contribution to the atlas, quickly helps me out of the dream; it is an "all-you-can-eat from days gone by", a "culinary faux pas", and a "colonial relic" - invented by Dutchmen in the former Dutch East Indies, to brag to their guests. Meh.

The Great Indonesia Exhibition at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam can still be visited until 1 April 2024.

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