Use of ‘Racist’ Term in Rijksmuseum Indonesia Show Provokes Controversy

The Rijksmuseum’s forthcoming historical show “Revolusi! Indonesia Independent,” which opens in February, promises to be an eye-opening look at Indonesia’s fight to gain independence from the Dutch Colonial Empire. One seemingly small detail in the show has proved a sticking point: the eschewing of a term that one historian labeled “racist” in a recent article, provoking controversy over whether the Amsterdam museum was papering over history. “Revolusi!” is currently set to open on February 11.

That word, “bersiap,” is commonly appended to a short period lasting from 1945, when Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta—the first president and vice president of Indonesia, respectively—declared independence from Japanese rule, until 1946. Japanese forces had occupied Indonesia in 1942. The Dutch had been attempting to reconquer Indonesia at the time, and they continued to do so until 1949, when they recognized Indonesia’s independence.

During the so-called “bersiap” period, Indonesians committed violence against white Eurasians, Chinese people, and the Indigenous Moluccans. In an essay published with the Dutch-language outlet NRC, Bonnie Triyana, a Jakarta-based historian who is one of the curators for “Revolusi!,” said that continuing to use the term “bersiap” threatens to distort the narrative surrounding Indonesia’s revolution for independence.

In his article, Triyana explained, “If we use the term ‘bersiap’ in general for violence against the Dutch during the revolution, it takes on a strongly racist connotation. Even more so because the term ‘bersiap’ always portrays primitive, uncivilized Indonesians as perpetrators of the violence, which is not entirely free from racial hatred. The root of the problem lies in the injustices that colonialism created, which formed a structure of a racism-based hierarchical society that envelops the exploitation of the colony.”

“Revolusi!” is to survey Indonesia’s tumultuous struggle to gain recognition of its independence through 200 objects, including archival materials, documents, photographs, and paintings, including “7 of the most important paintings in Indonesian history as part of the exhibition, including Kawan-kawan Repoeloesi by Sudjojono and Biografi II di Malioboro by Harijadi Sumadidjaja,” according to an exhibition description. The exhibition is curated by two Rijksmuseum history curators, Harm Stevens and Marion Anker, and two Jakarta-based scholars, Triyana and curator Amir Sidharta.

In his op-ed, Triyana wrote that “the team of curators has decided not to use the word bersiap as a common term referring to the violent period in Indonesia during the revolution (1945–1950).”

After Triyana’s essay was published on Monday, Federatie Indische Nederlanders (Federation of Dutch Indies), a Netherlands-based group that advocates for Dutch people of the former Dutch East Indies, spoke out against it. Chairman Hans Moll said he felt “physically ill” reading the op-ed and accused the Rijksmuseum of wiping the history of violence committed by Indonesians against the Dutch during their fight for independence.

On Thursday, NRC interviewed Stevens, the Rijksmuseum curator, and Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits about the controversy. Dibbits and Stevens said that the word “bersiap” would remain intact within the show. According to Dibbits, Triyana’s essay reflects his “personal opinion” and was not reviewed by the museum’s communications department in advance of its publication. (It is unclear what led to the publication of Triyana’s essay in NRC in the first place.)

“We explain the term, we interpret it and place it in the historical context of all the violence at that time,” Dibbits said. “In the opinion piece, Bonnie Triyana indicates that he himself prefers not to use the word.”

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