What is “colonial” in the archives of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision?
PART 4: The contemporary

Emily Hansell Clark

Part 1: The colonial period (1949–1975)
Part 2: The “decolonial” period (1949–1975) 
Part 3: The “postcolonial” period (after 1975)

The contemporary: societal debates and archival reuse

Looking back critically at the past and examining colonialism and its afterlives has recently gained great momentum within Dutch institutions, universities, and in broader society. Contemporary news media both documents, and in some cases instigates, these activities; current debates can be traced across documentaries, talk shows, and daily news reports as they gain scholarly and public attention. Here I suggest a few broad areas where traces of colonialism appear in NISV collections of the last decades.

Concerns about migrants, refugees, and particularly Islam continue to be debated in the Dutch political and public sphere. Searching words, phrases, and themes such as the “failure” of integration and multiculturalism, the refugee “crisis” and “waves” of migration, fundamentalism, terrorism, radicalism… all yield results for analysis in the archive, each debated from different perspectives in the media. In the Netherlands, this aligns with international events (e.g. 9/11) as well as Dutch events such as the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh and the rise of the far-right, xenophobic politician Geert Wilders. Wilders’s film Fitna (2008) was broadcast only on the internet (and is not archived in NISV), but a search of “fitna + wilders” yields over 2,000 results.

Anti-black racism in the Netherlands is another topic of recent debate. A frequent focus of such debates is the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), Sinterklaas’s sidekick who can be seen portrayed by white Dutch people in blackface around every 5 December, through to the present. With increased awareness and critique, this has grown less common, but is also the subject of fervent debate, protests, and counter-protests, as some Dutch people defend the practice as harmless cultural heritage. The NISV archive documents instances of Black Pete dress-up from the 1920s on, as well as coverage of contemporary debates and protests about it. This occurs in the context of wider reexaminations of the Netherlands’ imperial and slavery past; much like the war in Indonesia, while this is the subject of much recent investigation and critique, it continues to be glorified and defended in some contexts. A related debate is happening around the Golden Coach, the gold leaf ornamented carriage that carries the king to deliver his annual state of the union address. The Coach, seen in Dutch news over the decades, features paintings that depict colonialism in the East and West Dutch Indies in a glorified light1.

Some scholars (such as Meuzelaar 2014 and Hendriks 2015) have traced reused of particular archival images within broadcast news. The NISV archives have been repurposed for further reuse in broadcast media, as well as for documentary film, art, and teaching purposes. Contemporary history shows such as the TV show Andere Tijden (since 2000) and the weekly radio show Onvoltooid Verleden Tijd (since 1989) use archival audio and audiovisual clips to examine particular themes or events in each episode. Dossier Geschiedenis is a history show for children. The documentary Zij Noemen Mij Baboe (2019) compiled hundreds of clips depicting female Indonesian house servants to Dutch colonial families to tell the story of a fictional “baboe” based on interviews with many women who occupied this position before 1945. All of these works are archived by the NISV, and through this, archival footage recursively shows the same images, but often framed in new, more critical contexts that reveal additional perspectives on the past.

Conclusion: What is the “colonial”?

The NISV’s collections date back to a period of formal Dutch colonialism in the East and West Indies; until the late 1940s in Indonesia and 1975 in Suriname, we can understand Dutch media coverage of these places (as well as films and documentaries by Dutch filmmakers and amateurs) as clearly colonial. After the end of formal colonialism, this term becomes more ambiguous; but the “colonial” certainly doesn’t end with the formal independence of former colonies. We can identify colonial relations in migrations, news events, and public debates through the present. Postcolonial diaspora, labor migrations, “development” programs, economic or NGO relations are marked by colonial power relations between countries and their inhabitants; likewise, we can trace colonial power, tropes, and stereotypes to contemporary discussions and debates about migration, refugees, multiculturalism, racism, and Islamophobia. In Dutch media, such events and discussions are portrayed through selective sounds and images, through the lens of Dutch cameras and narrated by Dutch voices, use terminologies that shift over time from common to problematic, and engage in tropes from the overwhelmingness of abundant raw tropical nature requiring modern means of exploitation, to engaging in colonial nostalgia for the “good old days” in “our Indies.” Further, as I have only sparsely identified here, the act of archiving particular media establishes a historical narrative supported by a formal institution, and the systems of classification used over time (such as genres like “propaganda” versus “news,” and subject terms like “bosn*gers” and “koelies”) shape how these documents are located, (re)used, and interpreted. The colonial persists through these processes. Some scholars have already identified where and how this occurs by analyzing particular collections in terms of content and archival classification, while other collections and themes have yet to be analyzed. In short, colonial traces occur within the NISV archive at multiple levels and span time from the earliest recordings to the present; and coloniality cannot simply be identified with a keyword query, but rather requires some contextual knowledge and critical analytical skills on the part of the archive user to pinpoint.


1 It now sits in a museum while the government decides whether to retire it from use, the subject of further heated social and political debate.


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