Reading Material

The colonial era trade of both enslaved peoples and material culture such as textiles (alongside tea, coffee, sugar, spices and tabacco) established today’s gross economic disparities. Where postcolonial studies have faced criticism for suggesting that the colonial era is somehow behind us, decolonialisation is gaining increasing traction for confronting the legacy of the colonial era today. One of the many ways this takes place is through the recovery and reconstruction of voices and experiences previously oppressed or silenced.

Decolonial agendas in higher education and museum archives are now emerging around the world. One trigger point to these initiatives occurred in 2015 when University of Cape Town students launched a protest movement coined Rhodes Must Fall. Materially, the protests were directed at the removal of Cecil John Rhodes, the British politician, mining magnate and colonial founder of Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe and Zambia), bronze statue from the University’s entrance. More broadly, the movement called for curricula change to more accurately reflect the diversity of our world.

Institutional change has been slow to enact. A 2020 survey by the Guardian newspaper found only one-fifth of UK universities confirmed their commitment to curricula reform which address the legacies of the colonial era. In contrast, material action has continued. The Rhodes statue was removed. In Minneapolis, video footage of George Floyd’s death in May 2020 saw solidarity protests for The Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) worldwide. The following month, during BLM protests in the UK the statue of the seventeenth-century slave trader Edward Colston was dumped into Bristol harbour.

The legacies of apartheid; the trade of enslaved peoples; police violence against African-Americans in the US – each of these events own histories that deserve to remain particular. What they share is a confrontation of systemic racism (racism entrenched in the norms of an institution or group). Critics of the action in Bristol raise concern that destruction of artefacts cannot erase the realities of history. Supporters point out that change is too long overdue.

Decolonial thinking questions the ubiquity of knowledge systems from the global north and the perspectives such frameworks have long silenced. Museum archives represent one legacy of this dominance and now present the question of what to do – physically – with material culture based on values no longer tolerated. Determining the circumstances which brought colonial era artefacts into museum archives is slowly beginning. For example, this past October the Dutch Council of Culture released an independently commissioned report that recommends the development of terms for the return of looted objects currently held by museums in the Netherlands. The Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen Leiden has published protocols on their website under which objects currently held in their collection can be claimed for return. Decolonising efforts such as the Netherlands’ new policies can feel like challenges to be faced by institutions rather than individuals. Recognition of systemic racism is increasing within organisations. The Wellcome Collection in London, for example, now directed by Melanie Keen are active in addressing both the culture of the current work environment alongside the legacy of artefacts held in the archive.

When topics under discussion are so serious, creativity and experimentation may feel risky – even potentially disrespectful – tactics. But inspired examples do exist. The work of American writer and academic Saidiya Hartman uses storytelling to bring to life speculative intimate and individual experiences of the enslaved which archival records omit. Reading Material is a research project that joins the energies of many other decolonising efforts. By pairing published fiction with textiles held in the Tropenmuseum archive I try to unlock some archival silences. The strategy is an intentionally speculative effort to navigate gaps in information for textiles with limited or partial provenance held by a museum with considerable material amassed during Dutch colonisation of present day Indonesia. My claims are always multiple and contingent – aware that single, definitive accounts have never told the full story.

The physical material of artefacts in the archive can be central to research that searches for silenced voices. Texture and touch may not explicitly teach us histories that have gone unrecorded, but they can often offer potent suggestions. In this project, I am attempting to bring those material suggestions into dialogue with existing fiction. For example, I draw from the Dutch novel Max Havelaar (The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company) published in 1860 novel by Eduard Douwes Dekker under the pseudonym Multatuli. Now considered part of the Dutch literary canon, the novel is credited with exposing the violence of the Dutch colonial era in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in present day Indonesia. The celebrated Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer referred to Max Havelaar as the book that killed colonialism. In recognition of its critique of labour rights, the book’s title was adopted in 1988 by the first Foundation responsible for the world’s Fairtrade Certification Mark.

Max Havelaar is an eclectic read premised on a collection of writing experiments received by the narrator that span genres. Scouring the Tropenmuseum archive for the textiles which appear in the novel is itself an act of imagination: woven sarongs and printed batik cloth; the spinning of cord for kites flying competitions; straw hats; a strip of threadbare blue linen turban, a pledge to honour the promise of marriage that eventually confirms identity in death.

Can I find this blue linen fragment from 1860 eastern Java in the archive? Of course not. For the time being, I search online (as pandemic precautions demand) but the threadbare and the everyday have only recently enjoyed some interest to museum collections. Instead, I find the sumptuous and, at the other end of the spectrum, the silent. I keep searching and speculating, the illusive closing lines of Multatuli’s novel offer me a type of permission to continue another decolonial effort to resist silence: what is fiction in particular is truth in general.

Research is undertaken through the Rita Bolland Fellowship (2020-23) at the Research Centre for Material Culture, the Netherlands.