November 25, 2011

Interview with Assistant curator of Museum Nusantara Louise Rahardjo

by Sabine Bolk
translated & re-written by Yvonne Bolk (thanks a million!)

Louise Rahardjo holding Batik signed by Eliza van Zuylen 
(more about this Batik on the end of this blogpost)

Sabine: Tell me something about yourself, who are you, how old are you?

Louise: My name is Louise Rahardjo. I was born in Leiden in 1986. My mother is Dutch and my father is Indonesian of Chinese origin. In Indonesia he is considered Chinese. I grew up in Delft and the Hague. My parents had an Indonesian restaurant, we were always surrounded by a lot of people from Indonesia there. So I have been in contact with the culture, but we, me and my two brothers and sister, had a Dutch upbringing. That is the atmosphere I grew up in.

Sabine: From which part of Indonesia is your father?

Louise: Central Java, Salatiga, north of the Merapi.

Sabine: Do you speak Indonesian?

Louise: I have become more fluent because I study Indonesian now, but before I could only speak “Pasar Malaysian”: “yes” and “no” and “I would like”.

Sabine: “The food is delicious”.

Louise: Yes, always about the food and everything to do with food.

Sabine: Next question: how do you become a curator? Are you a student?

Louise: Yes, the study was officially called Languages and Cultures of South East Asia and Oceania. It is broader than just Indonesia. They have shortened the name to Languages and Cultures of Indonesia.
I am doing my Master’s now, it is called Indonesian Studies. In it I follow the ASEP track: ASEAN Society, Economics and Politics. ASEAN stand for Associations for Southeast Asian Nations, like a European Union in Asia, but in it’s infancy.

Sabine: Is it in English?

Louise: Yes, the master is in English and if all students speak Indonesian it is in Indonesian, when History and students from Vietnam join us, the classes are in English.

Sabine: What are the subjects?

Louise: During Bachelor you have regular subjects as language and culture, Indonesian and Javanese. In History you learn about re-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history. There is also religion: Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Culture and Media shows how it is all woven together in Indonesia, what is censured and what is not. Other subjects are Politics, Law and Government.

Sabine: Are you free to choose a subject, a part of history you are interested in?

Louise: No, not during Bachelor, more so during Masters. A few years ago there were four directions to choose from, due to cutbacks it is linguistic, art-history or economics now. I have chosen economics.

Sabine: Ecomomics? But you are here?

Louise: Yes, but that happened by accident. When we were living in the Hague my parents became friends with our neighbours across the street. The wife was curator of Nusantara. Her daughter (Amy Wassing), who is 10 years my senior, is curator now. She followed the same studies I am doing now. We met by chance in the railway station about a year ago. We were both in a hurry, but had a short conversation. She wanted to cut her hours after having her twins and needed someone to cover for her for one year. After our brief encounter she thought: well, Louise would make a good assistant”. And that is how I got into this.
I am very interested in the cultural historical background of Indonesia, I just think my future lies more in a social economical future. It is more alive, and broader. Especially because I might like to work with Foreign Affairs or United Nations and international relations. So, for my future career my choice of study is better and as you can see this job satisfies my art historical side.

Sabine: In future, would you like to work in the Netherlands or in Indonesia or in a job that would have you travel back and forth?

Louise: It could be both. I would like to work abroad for a few years and here for a few years. It all depends on how my future evolves. I really do like it here in the museum. Before I thought it would be a bit lame and dull, but it is definitely not so. It is a very positive experience, so who knows, I might stay on a bit longer before going abroad (laughing).

Sabine: What does your work as assistant curator encompasses?
Louise: Assisting the curator. In general I just select all emails addressed to the curator. Which ones can I answer which ones not? In general it concerns questions about the collection. “Can we see this or that?” “Can you give more information about this”. There are some objects I can not tell much about, so those questions I forward to the curator. If people request to see objects in our depot, I make an appointment. During the appointment I am always there when objects are looked at, described and photographed. That is one of my jobs. Another job concerns the collection here in the museum itself. At the moment I am working on a textile change. It is cooperation with the curator, but she works from home, so she is far away from the actual collection.
The textile collection will be changed in December, so now I am working with Batiks. Batik Balanda and Chinese Batiks will be next.

Sabine: So they will be replacing the Ikats? Interesting!

Louise: The Ikats have been on display since March and because of the light the fabrics become more fragile. We have made it darker, but they cannot be exposed to light for too long.

Sabine: That is what they told me in the Tropen Museum (Royal Tropical Institute/KIT). They only have 1 or 2 Batiks on display. I was told that you have to replace them every 6 months and then you have to have the manpower to do that.

Louise: That is why I am here. For example the Wayang Willem display case. Before there was one line and I adjusted that and added a second line. Little things like that. The curator doesn’t have the time right now, so it is up to me. I have to say it is very nice and that display case is really part of me.

Sabine: Are you selecting the Batiks as well? Or do you consult with the curator?

Louise: She explained the concept and I am now pre-selecting the Batiks. This one seems good for display, this one we can tell a story about, but with a theme running through the selection. The next step is deciding together how we are going to display them, which ones we really select. I have some influence, but in the end the curator makes the final decision.

Sabine: So she is curator as well as custodian in this museum? She also handles exhibitions and the themes of displays?

Louise: Yes indeed. We do not have room for so many functions.

Sabine: Interesting. So it is an all in one job?

Louise: It is all in one. We are now dependent on the city council. There are plans to become more independent as Heritage Delft. To bring a different structure involving curators and custodians. So it will change, but not for a few years.

"Wayang Willem", on display at Museum Nusantara

Sabine: What is your favourite piece in the collection and would you like to specialise in it? Or are you already specialising?

Louise: At the moment the Wayang Willem case is my favourite, because I have been working on it quite al lot lately. I think it is a nice mix between East and West. They look like traditional dolls, but they are absolutely western. If you look carefully you find Indonesian traits in the dolls. I like that because I have become attached to Delft and its history and William of Orange. Wayang Willem tells his life story. We are right across the Prinsenhof where William of Orange lived and was murdered. The Prinsenhof is also part of Heritage Delft.

I also like the ancestral statuettes and the Krisses and the mysticism behind them. Looking at a Kriss really closely is very exiting.

Sabine: Do you believe they have a soul?

Louise: I do believe there is something. Not from personal experience, but things have happened in my family. For example: in 1991 my father was in hospital the day before my birthday. We visited and stayed for a long time. Coming home we found the house broken into and although the burglar had all the time in the world and it was a very quiet neighbourhood. He didn’t even took the portable phone from the hallway. He never went past the hall cabinet and my father believes it is because he kept a Kriss there. Even the police were puzzled. Usually my father put the Kriss on his side of the bed when he went abroad. It scared my mother, but he did it for her protection. So I do believe in the power, but can’t feel it or prove it.

Chinese cabinet filled with Batiks collected by Louise's mother

Sabine: Do you have Chinese Indonesian Batiks in your collection and are they easier to read or do you prefer them? I have that with Batik Belanda, they pop out, I get them at once.

Louise: I grew up with many regular Javanese Batiks. Yesterday I visited my mother to look at some Batiks. She has a large Chinese cabinet filled with Batiks and it is stuffed with Javanese, Chinese and Indo-European Batiks. When I saw the Javanese I thought regular Batik. But when I saw the Chinese ones from Lasem, the one with the red or the one with a lot of blue, yellow and pink, or the one with a lot of decoration, flowers and motives, I thought, that is my special Batik.

Chinese Batiks from the collection from Louise's mother

Sabine: Will there be new objects added, or is the collection complete?

Louise: Many people contact us with a request to donate. It might sound strange, a request to donate, but our depot is pretty much full and there are strict rules. If you accept something for a museum, you cannot just dispose of it later. We are not allowed to take thing from the depot for auction or to throw out. So before you accept something for the museum, we have to make sure what value it has for the collection and whether it is indeed something special.
We also have to check how many of certain items we already have. If someone offers us spears from a certain island and we already have 20 or 30 of them, we decline. Even when it is an interesting object we have to consider that we have no room in our depot and expanding is costly. Therefore we have to disappoint the donators. That is difficult, they have nice things, but you can’t accept them. Sometimes people offer us mass produced things from after WOII, these can be nice, but aren’t interesting enough for a museum. The fial decision to accept something I leave to the curator. Sometimes I think: interesting and I’m right, but often enough I am wrong.

Sabine: Is this addressed during your studies?

Louise: We do have the classes art and material culture. It gets some mention, but not much. In A different Master study you can learn how to determine whether a Chinese wedding chest is really old or not. How you can tell, for instance by looking at the wood structure, whether the wood has been made to look old or is really old.

Sabine: But you must be developing a eye for it now?

Louise: Yes indeed. Whenever I handle an object now I know sooner.

There is a plan to describe all objects as precise as possible and to make better photographs, but that is for the future. We have hundreds of Batiks here, all documented but not yet photographed.
We are very open and liberal if people have questions about our collection or related subject.

Sabine: I couldn’t agree more!

Louise: One of the first things I asked you was “are there certain Batiks you would like to see, email me”.

Sabine: Indeed, but I don’t know what you have in your collection yet and I intend to come and have a look. I do have a broad interest.
I do want see everthing, but as soon as there are some Batiks on display I will most certainly come see them.

Batik from the collection of Louise's mother

The opening of the textile exhibition with the special Indo-European and Indo-Chinese Batiks is on Saturday 17 december. For more information visit

The Batik Louise Rahardjo is holding in front of her is singed by Eliza van Zuylen (left upper corner). Eliza van Zuylen is one of the most famous Indo-European Batik Belanda makers from Pekalongan.
This particularly Batik was worn by Indo-European women during the wedding ceremony. THis kind of blue & white Batiks were worn by Indo-Chinese women as mourning wear and the deceased was also dressed in blue & white.
Later this tradition was interpreted by Indo-European women. After their marriage they saved the blue & white Batik and wear it during funerals and as mourning wear. They were buried in their blue & white wedding Batik.

Read more about & see more of Museum Nusantara in my previous blogpost "Museum Nusantara in Delft".

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