Taco Dibbits wants to make it clear right from the start of the conversation: the Rijksmuseum is not banning the term ‘Bersiap’. And that term is not racist, according to Dibbits. The museum was the center of a riot this week after Bonnie Triyana, an Indonesian guest curator of the soon-to-open exhibition “Revolusi, Indonesia Independent,” an op-ed in NRC had published. In it he wrote that „the team of trustees decided [heeft] not to use the word Bersiap as a common term referring to the violent period in Indonesia during the revolution”. Reason: when the term ‘in general’ is used, it has ‘a strong racist connotation’.

The term Bersiap (literally: ‘be ready’) in the Netherlands stands for the phase (late 1945-early 1946) in the Indonesian revolution in which many thousands of (Indonesian) Dutch, Chinese and Indonesians suspected of ‘collaboration’ were murdered. However, Triyana believes that this period cannot be seen separately from all the violence during the revolution – and that therefore the term Bersiap can no longer be used.

His article caused a stir in the Dutch East Indies community, reporting to the police and parliamentary questions. Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, wants to calm people down. Together with curator Harm Stevens, he provides text and explanations, choosing his words carefully. He reads some answers partly from paper.

What is racist about the term Bersiap?

Dibbits: “You quote from an opinion piece. The piece states what the author finds racist about that. It’s hard for me to articulate that.”

Stevens: “We do not use the word racism.”

Did Mr Triyana, one of the four curators of the exhibition, decide to submit this article on his own initiative?

Dibbits: “It is an opinion piece. This is clearly his opinion. The exhibition is about Dutch and Indonesian history. As the Rijksmuseum, we think it is important to tell both parts of history. So that’s why we invited two Indonesian curators. The terminology we use in the exhibition has been discussed. The term Bersiap will he do not use it, but we do use it in the exhibition and in the accompanying book.

What I want to say clearly: the Rijksmuseum is therefore not deleting the term Bersiap and we in no way deny the violence and suffering to which the term refers. That suggestion has been made in the media. We explain the term, we interpret it and place it in the historical context of all the violence at that time. In the opinion piece, Bonnie Triyana indicates that he himself prefers not to use the word.”

Well, he writes that the trustees team has decided something. Did this article go out without them looking at it?

Dibbits: “The piece was written in a personal capacity.”

Has it been viewed in advance by you or your communications department?

Dibbits: „It has not been recognized. The piece is written in a personal capacity.”

So it’s not the opinion of the other curators?

Dibbits: „Nee.”

You place the Bersiap in the exhibition in the context of all the violence during the war of independence. Some people feel that this undermines its genocidal character.

Stevens: “There is indeed a terminological discussion about this in science, but I don’t think the last word has been said about it yet. In our exhibition we tell the personal stories of twenty people from various ethnic groups, using objects and texts. These kinds of big terms are less useful for that.”

Painting of Indonesian freedom fighters by Otto Djaya (1946-1947).
Photo Carola van Wijk

In the exhibition book you write that the Rijksmuseum tries to contribute to mutual understanding and connection between the many groups in Dutch society on whom the Indonesian revolution has a strong, lasting influence. There seemed little to be any understanding and connection in recent days.

Dibbits: “That’s why I think it’s good that people see the exhibition first before they pass judgment on what the Rijksmuseum has done. A discussion is now being held without it being clear what story we are telling in the exhibition.”

These kinds of topics – also think of your slavery exhibition from last year – are so polarizing that someone always gets angry. Are you not taking sides in a discussion with the substantive considerations you make – and is therefore not connecting an illusion?

Dibbits: „It is our task to put these subjects on the agenda. We provide knowledge and encourage conversation. If we didn’t do that, that polarization would become much stronger.”

The Rijksmuseum has been accused by some that it has been too progressive lately, woke even.

Dibbits: „We are not in the progressive corner. We make exhibitions on important topics in Dutch history. We involve various curators in this, so that we can offer a broad spectrum to the Dutch public. In doing so, the museum provides space for dialogue, but we do not force opinions.

“We don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed; Dutch history is. We must all move forward now. The Rijksmuseum can contribute to this. It is not our fault that such an exhibition is subsequently politicized. I do not consider myself – nor the Rijksmuseum – to be woke. As a national museum, we stand for everyone.”

Stevens: „We create our exhibitions on the basis of long-term scientific research. This is not to say that the museum is a neutral place, but what we show is a solid foundation of research. I wouldn’t call that progressive, but you do look for new things. We open the window. That way you can tell a broader story.”

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