What is “colonial” in the archives of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision?
PART 1: The colonial period (up to 1949)

Emily Hansell Clark

Part 2: The “decolonial” period (1949–1975)
Part 3: The “postcolonial” period (after 1975)
Part 4: The contemporary


In archival studies and in archival institutions, there has been a recent burgeoning of interest in the “postcolonial” or “decolonized” archive. In PICCH, we frame this as “polyvocality” (Berkhofer 1995): what voices, perspectives, and stories might emerge from audiovisual archives if we “read against the grain” (Stoler 2008), allow the “subaltern” to “speak” (Spivak 1988), or, in other words, explicitly examine the coloniality of colonial sounds and images? In order to do this—in order to move towards “decolonizing” the archive—we must first understand to what extent and in what ways the archive is “colonial” in the first place.

In this series of blog posts, I explore the question: What is colonial in the archives of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (NISV)? With this question, I ask what archival sounds and images fall under the purview of the “colonial”; and I also ask how we might broadly define and understand the “colonial.” What are the boundaries of this term? Is it a delimited time period, a relation of governance or geography, an aspect of the past—or does the colonial persist in events, discourse, movements (i.e. diaspora and migration), social debates, power relations, and collective and individual experiences in the present?

Following Stoler (2002) and Zeitlyn (2012), this essay takes an ethnographic approach to the NISV archive and its contents and classifications. In four sections arranged chronologically, I broadly describe how the “colonial” appears in NISV’s extensive audiovisual collections, including broadcast media, documentaries, and amateur recordings. This exploration aims to be thorough, but, due to the extent of the collections and the openness of the question I aim to explore, is certainly not comprehensive. Further, I draw from and refer to some preexisting scholarship on NISV’s collections (for example, Hendricks (2015) on productions of the Dutch government in the colonial East Indies; Kuitenbrouwer (2016) on radio broadcasts about the East Indies and New Guinea; and Meuzelaar (2014) on representations of Muslims and Islam in broadcast media). In other areas (such as the representation of Suriname in the collections, anthropology/ethnomusicology field recordings, and not-yet-digitized collections), there is more specific descriptive and analytical work yet to be done (I also have chosen to focus here primarily on video rather than audio collections). The goal of this series of posts is to begin to establish a broad overview of what “the colonial” and “coloniality” might mean, and to what extent they are present, in the NISV audiovisual archive.

The colonial period (or, the very specifically colonial): up to 1949

Stoler (2002) takes a historicizing, ethnographic view of archives of Dutch colonial governance in the East Indies (now Indonesia), mostly paper documents created by the Dutch government and the individuals that comprised it in their professional and personal lives, to understand what sort of perspectives and histories these can reveal. How does this translate to audiovisual collections stored at NISV? In this post I give an overview of collections during the period of the Netherlands’ official, governmental colonial dominance of the East Indies, ending in 19491.

The beginning of this time range is limited by the existence and availability of recording equipment; the oldest known sound recording in the Netherlands dates to 1898. Kuitenbrouwer (2016) surveys radio broadcasts from the Dutch colonial station Philips Omroep Holland Indië (PHOHI) (1927–1940), which broadcast from the Netherlands to colonial expatriates—civil servants and other Dutch citizens—living or stationed in the Dutch East Indies. Kuitenbrouwer terms these broadcasts “tools of empire” that facilitated flows of people and information and stimulated colonial expansion. Further, a medium-wave station in the Indies, called Nederlandsch-Indische Radio Omroep Maatschappij (NIROM), broadcast Dutch and some Indonesian programs in 1934–1942. While representing different perspectives of the creators of the various programs that were broadcast on these services, they are both firmly situated in the time period of a formal colonial relationship between the Netherlands and the East Indies.

Film recordings during this period were limited not only by the availability of recording equipment but also the expense and logistics of traveling with it. The earliest films from the Dutch East Indies in NISV’s digital collection are amateur and family films created by colonial expatriates. These show family life and explorations in the colony, often including Indonesian household servants and settings that depict local life as a backdrop to the colonial experience. These can be found in NISV dated to 1927 until 1939, as colonial Europeans left the territory under the threat and uncertainties of World War II.

In Dutch news media, the company  Polygoon was the main producer of newsreels and short films shown in Dutch cinemas starting in 1924. These films covered events related to the Dutch East Indies and other overseas happenings, but the news cameramen did not travel far, so footage related to the colonies included Europe-based events such as the openings of colonial exhibitions and institutes, the coming and going of mail planes and ships to and from the East Indies, and royal addresses to the colonized territories. In 1937, for example, Javanese royalty (under Dutch control) visited the Netherlands, and in 1940 a Javanese gamelan ensemble performed at the Colonial Institute in Amsterdam, events shown in Polygoon weekly “news journals.”

Polygoon also produced some longer documentary films. In the 1920s, it funded the Ochse brothers (one of them a Polygoon cameraman) to travel to the East Indies and document their travels by ship. The goal of this was to bring images of the tropics to the general Dutch public. ‘Naar Tropisch Nederland’ came out in 1926 and brought the audience to “the heart of Java” where “the tropical vegetation overwhelms us.” In seven parts, the film documents every stop the Ochse brothers took along the way, and only arrives in the Dutch East Indies halfway through part seven, with a series of shots panning across tableaus of tropical nature and colonial industry.

Hendricks (2015) writes that with World War II, the Dutch government first recognized the utility of media in fighting its enemy. Purposeful propaganda, in the form of films and other media, arose in contrast to the amateur and informative/educational nature of pre-war video recordings, and media coverage expanded, including overseas. In 1940, the Dutch government funded the creation of an East Indies-based branch of the production company Multifilm, located in Haarlem. Multifilm Batavia, part of the Dutch Government Information Service, was the base for the first official media created on location in the Dutch East Indies. NISV holds whatever still exists (after multiple fires) of Multifilm Batavia’s archives.

During the Indonesian War of Independence in 1945–49, thousands of short reportages and some longer documentaries produced by the Dutch East Indies colonial government via Multifilm Batavia. Its aim was to depict a largely peaceful and overall positive image of what was going on in Indonesia as the Netherlands struggled to maintain its control (Hendricks 2015). The few independently made Dutch films in Indonesia during this time, such as ‘Indonesia Calling’ (1947) and ‘Linggadjati in de Branding’ (1947) were censored from Dutch audiences because they depicted too much footage of actual fighting (which was still very minimal and mild, considering that the context was a war!). In the Netherlands, international news coverage for Dutch audiences, including of World War II and eventually of the Indonesian War of Independence, was still dominated by Polygoon (then Polygoon Profilti after a 1945 merger), which operated independently of the government. But despite Polygoon Profilti’s independent status, since it did not have the means to create its own footage overseas, it received images and sounds of the Dutch East Indies from the government-directed Multifilm Batavia, influencing what kinds of images of overseas events Dutch audiences were able to see.

One example of media from this period is the series Wordende Wereld (“Emerging World’), which was Multifilm Batavia’s own weekly news journal from 1946–1949, with over 130 episodes created. Hendriks (2020) describes how this series was intended to depict the Netherlands benevolently shepherding Indonesia into its “emergence” as a new, autonomous nation (when, actually, Indonesia had already declared its independence from the Dutch and was engaged in a war to defend it). Episodes covered topics such as how traditional handicrafts could be developed into economic industries. Hendriks analyzes the patronizing tone of these episodes, which intended to convince viewers in the Netherlands that everything was under control and going well in the Dutch East Indies.

 In NISV’s classification system, the genre label “propaganda” is of interest in relation to this time period. It appears to be used for some World War II-related media (e.g. short films created by the New York-based Netherlands Information Bureau, including about the Dutch East Indies, to convince an American audience to see the Netherlands as an ally). Further, media produced by the Nazi party in the Netherlands (the NSB) is labelled with a sort of propaganda trigger warning2. But Dutch government-produced media related to the Indonesian War of Independence is not labelled propaganda, even though we can clearly also understand media such as ‘Wordende Wereld’ as being created with the intention to disseminate a particular perspective and message espoused by the Dutch government. ‘Wordende Wereld’ is archived as “news” or, alternatively, “information” (voorlichting).

Finally, there is very little footage of the Netherlands’ other colonies during this time period, such as Suriname. (For example, searching “polygoon + suriname” in the NISV archives yields about 600 results, while “polygoon + indies/indonesia” yields over 4,000.) The focus of the Dutch colonial empire was firmly on the East Indies, and the focus of Dutch colonial media during this period was too, especially with the intensification of the threat of Indonesian independence. As things fell apart for the Dutch in Indonesia, this begins to shift, especially during the period I attend to in the following section.

Next: Part 2: The “decolonial” period (1949–1975)


1 This is the year of the end of the Indonesian War of Independence (1945–49), and for a long time was problematically recognized by the Dutch government as the year of Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands, rather than when Indonesia actually declared independence in 1945. I end this section in 1949 so that I can include media coverage of the war within this discussion about formal colonialism.
2 “NB: Deze film is geproduceerd door de Filmdienst der NSB, de Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging. Deze films kunnen daardoor onjuiste, eenzijdige en politiek extreme ideeën bevatten.” = “NB: This film was produced by the NSB Film Service. Thus, these films can contain wrong, one-sided, and politically extreme ideas.”


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