Tuesday, August 06, 2013


If you happen to be in Medan, Surabaya or Jakarta at the weekends, you could see a group of Indonesians wear the Dutch-Indies army uniforms, planter’s white suits, nationalist’s red & white head band and many more figures from the colonial past. They have also various props such as bamboo weapons and old style bicycles that are called “sepeda onthel”. They will gather listening to stories about what happened in the past, convoy around the city by bikes and simply enjoying themselves in a colonial atmosphere.

There are also historical tours without colonial costumes and old style bicycles. They visit places together and listen to historical facts about those places. These tours are organized by individuals who intend to spread historical concerns in a popular way, outside school classes and not merely about chronological years of events. This kind of tour attracts people from various backgrounds who do not mind to pay the tickets to listen to historical lessons.

The phenomenon has been growing quietly but widely since the last decade in several cities in Indonesia, mostly in Java and Sumatra. It is a new phenomenon for Indonesia as a country who has its independence only 68 years ago. But the number of groups who organize such an activity is relatively small compared to the country’s populations and limited in big city centres. It is still too early to call it as a significant movement. Probably more appropriate to see it as a result of better awareness about the historical past. It is a fruit of awareness campaigns that have been done by many heritage societies in local levels since mid 1980’s. Original main attention of the heritage societies is historical spaces in urban area and it is unavoidable to mention roles of the colonial power who has laid the foundation of the country’s infrastructure for about 350 years. Indonesians dig archives and files and all bring to the Dutch Indies periods. The better awareness, the more archives from the past are revealed. One of the side effects of this is the mimicking of Dutch Indies armies or riding old fashioned bicycles but those are not the essences of heritage movement of Indonesia.

The essences of heritage movement in Indonesia are to make Indonesians proud of their identity and culture, to raise awareness of their history and to maintain what good from the past, both indigenous and colonial. And all those essences are still a long battle for the Indonesians specifically for the heritage societies who lead the movement.

Public education efforts through historical tours or simulation plays with colonial costumes are part of the heritage movement and needed by certain segments of the populations. In countries where heritage movement are more developed, there are countless public education formats and methods for all segments of the populations. What we see in Indonesia is part of learning process to find suitable public education formats and methods. It could be temporarily, too, before new ideas and ways found by another generations.

The phenomenon is not unseen by heritage interests network in the Netherlands, the country who used to claim the Dutch Indies as their territory. Researches, exhibitions and discussions are initiated to understand why the Indonesians mimic the Dutch Indies armies? Why Indonesians collect the Dutch Indies props? Tropen Museum in Amsterdam organizes an exhibition called "Vroeger is een ver land"(The past is a far away country) that shows pictures of young Indonesians in the Dutch Indies era constumes. Other organization mentions “What is going on there?” to promote a discussion about the phenomenon with the Dutch experts on history and Indonesia. Some researchers also conducted interviews about it. There is a sense of curiousity in the air and it is intriguing to understand what is going on in that far away former colony country.

In one of the research interview appeared a question whether the Indonesians feel nostalgic about the Dutch Indies periods? Do they want to come back to the Dutch Indies periods? Such a question is tricky to be asked and more over to be presented to public without a thorough analysis and proper understanding of its contexts. When a Dutch researcher asked a young Indonesian such a question and happened to be answered “yes, I am longing to the Dutch Indies periods” it doesn’t mean the answer represents many others of the young Indonesians. Besides how could a young Indonesian who doesn’t experience the Dutch Indies periods feels nostalgic and is longing to it? It might be his imagination and knowledge about the past that fancy him.

On individual basis such a question is possible to ask and to keep it as personal information, but a little bit too early to use it as a barometer in public events such as exhibition or discussion. Probably the result on more representative samples from a research could be the barometer. Only then we will know as mentioned on the website of Tropen Museum about the exhibition, there are three possibilities why it happens : a nostalgic feeling, an awareness about history or it is merely an appearance without any meaning. #