Netherlands returns 1,500 artifacts to Indonesia

The 12th-century Ganesha statue from Singosari on display at Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, Netherlands. (AN photo by Louie Buana)
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Updated 11 January 2020

Netherlands returns 1,500 artifacts to Indonesia

  • However, the most precious Indonesian collections remain abroad

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia: The Netherlands has returned 1,500 artifacts to Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, although tens of thousands of items remain in its galleries, libraries and museums.

Their return follows the closure of Museum Nusantara, Delft, which stored them until 2013. The Netherlands Embassy in Jakarta, citing local media, tweeted that the collection would be on display for the public in June.

“This is the first time in history, and we hope in the future there’ll be more chances for repatriation,” Hilmar Farid, director general for culture at the Ministry of Education and Culture, told reporters when the collection was officially received by the National Museum in Jakarta on Jan. 2.

But one scholar said that Indonesia needed to improve its readiness to receive artifacts.

“The mindset is not how to get more collections back, but how to provide proper storage to keep them safe,” Zakariya Aminullah, a lecturer of Gadjah Mada University, told Arab News. “The Netherlands has a special collections concept to protect manuscripts and other artifacts with tender care. This is what the government, scholars, and curators need to come up with.”

The Netherlands has been returning Indonesian artifacts during the past few decades. Some of the most significant objects, such as the manuscript of Nagarakertagama, the statue of Prajna Paramita, and personal belongings of Prince Diponegoro, are already back to their place of origin and on display at the National Museum.

But the most precious Indonesian collections remain abroad. One of them is a set of jewels from Cakranegara Palace in Lombok which is on display at Museum Volkenkunde Leiden. The jewels were looted from the palace during the 1894 “punitive action” by the Dutch colonial authority, which took 230 kilos of gold, 7,299 kilos of silver, three cases of jewels, and 400 ancient manuscripts.

Another collection — 20,000 Indonesian textile objects — is kept at Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum.

Thousands of historical and cultural artifacts, including ancient sculptures, bas-reliefs, inscriptions, royal regalia, weaponry, clothing, jewelry, and manuscripts, ended up in the Netherlands during the course of Dutch colonial rule.

The flow started in 1596, when the first Dutch ship led by Cornelis de Houtman landed on Java to find spices. In 1800, after almost 200 years of playing a political role in the region, the Netherlands established the Dutch East Indies. It lasted until 1945, when Indonesia declared independence.

Before the recently returned 1,500 artifacts reached home, Indonesian scholars and Dutch media speculated that among them could be the skull of Demang Lehman, a 19th-century military commander who fought against colonial rule. His head was taken to the Netherlands and remains in the collection at Anatomisch Museum, Leiden.

Since 2009, the Banjarmasin administration and the warrior’s descendants have been trying to repatriate his skull to hold an Islamic funeral ceremony for him.

While the Indonesian government celebrates the homecoming of some of the country’s heritage, it seems that the people of Banjarmasin will have to wait to pay their final tribute to the hero who represents their struggle against colonial power.


A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.