"Bersiap" refers to a period at the beginning of the Indonesian Revolution after the declaration of Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945. In January 2022, Bonnie Triyana, a guest curator of the upcoming "Revolusi" exhibit at the Rijksmuseum, explained that the term is problematic because it conjures racialized images of violence committed specifically by young Indonesian men. Instead, Triyana and others argue, it is important to understand this period and its events in the broader violent context of colonialism, World War II, and Indonesia's four-year struggle for independence. Triyana's piece was met with backlash from the Dutch Indo-European community and from the Rijksmuseum. (Here radio program OVT covers the controversy.)
The issue of changing language is of interest to PICCH's investigations of the colonial archive. Over time, certain widely used terms become outdated, often due to societal reexamination of their connections to particular ideologies. One way to deal with this in the archive is by using a thesaurus that links historical and contemporary terms. Searching a term like "bersiap" in the archive demonstrates how a controversial word traces a historical story about its own meaning, told in media and in metadata
Metadata thesauri and beyond
How can cultural heritage institutions like Sound & Vision negotiate such debates and support users in their own investigations of complicated and contested histories? While perhaps, as one letter to the NRC about "bersiap" reads, “a [historical] fact cannot be racist,” language and images can certainly be racializing and can influence the way we frame and understand the factual events of history in their causes and effects. The debate over "bersiap" highlights why the curation of audiovisual media archives, attention to changing language, and the use of tools such as thesauri are all both very important and potentially quite sensitive. Beyond tools like thesauri, it is crucial for heritage institutions to facilitate access for user groups with different perspectives on history and to offer them the possibility to critique and contribute to metadata classifications. Certainly, in this case, an Indonesian researcher would have different terminologies for searching this history compared to someone with a Dutch or Indo-European perspective. A metadata thesaurus is one small tool in a much broader challenge for heritage institutions to weigh and balance many different perspectives on contested histories.
Emily Hansell Clark is a postdoctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, appointed to the project Polyvocal Interpretations of Contested Colonial Heritage (PICCH). An ethnomusicologist by training, her research interests include music and sound, migration, and Dutch colonial history.