Originally published on 2013/05/14

The Historun

Last Saturday, the members of the Indonesian student association (PPI) from the Netherlands, Germany, and France gathered through Historun. It is an event they have initiated as a way to discover and re-discover Indonesian history inscribed in the monuments of Leiden, a beautiful city in the Netherlands’ Randstad[1] which hosts the first university in the country and founded in 1575 by the Prince William of Orange[2]. There were around 80 participants, of whom most were either important Indonesian embassy officials, PhD candidates, researchers, scholars or Master students coming from all over the Netherlands, but some were also from Germany and France. They were all ready and well equipped for a walk through historical discovery.

The journey began with a lunch and a visit inside the National Museum of Anthropology/Volkenkunde museum (thankfully, as the rainy Dutch weather announced a rather difficult day). The collections for which the Indonesian students were coming to see are those of Frits Liefkes (curator Rijkmuseum Amsterdam). Liefkes and his partner have compiled around 1000 beautiful artifacts from every corner of the Indonesian archipelago, ranging from jewelries, statues, cloths and dolls. Two objects in particular draw attention on the complexity of multicultural identity: a box with the inscription of a statement in Dutch on one of its sides (“My grandpa is full, my father is half, I’m a quarter”) and a range of dolls wearing traditional clothes from the various ethnicities across the Dutch East Indies, sent by the Dutch East India Company to Queen Wilhemina to make her aware of the diverse identities of her subjects.

As the weather was getting a little better, the participants were divided into five groups, each led by a guide (one of the members of the association) who had searched for traces of Indonesian history spread all over Leiden. It was surprising to learn how many marks this history have left on the city’s architectures. One example is the former residence of the first Foreign Minister of the newly independent Republic of Indonesia, Achmad Soebardjo, when he lived in Leiden as a student before becoming an important actor of the Indonesian independence. Another one is the former residence building of C. Snouck Hurgronje, a Leiden University Professor and the first Western scholars of Oriental cultures who was examined by a delegation of scholars from Mecca before being allowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Muslim city of Mecca in 1885. Finally, the discovery of two Indonesian poems -one (in Bugis language) inscribed on the wall of the Royal Institute for Oriental Studies KITLV and the other (in Javanese) on the wall of a private building- add some artistic and cultural sides of the journey. Along the way, the participants have also discovered Dutch history through the residence of the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt, the Dutch military caserne, the famous buildings of Leiden University and other historical monuments. As the participants felt heavy rain and a wind gust coming, the journey ended at the Burcht of Leiden with some snacks offered by the association. The photo hunt game had to be cancelled, but all the participants left satisfied, without forgetting to congratulate the association for this great initiative.

Living in a world with multiple identities

What can we learn from this Indonesian students initiative? For one thing, it is the notion of complex or multiple identities. As I was passing through Indonesian history in Leiden with the participants, an idea came across my mind: in this increasingly interdependent world and with the rich diversity of European nations and history, how should one perceive a European identity? The Dutch and Indonesians have shared a common history, including the 3 centuries and a half period of colonisation. You can find a lot of Indonesian food all over the Netherlands in restaurants and supermarkets, but also many Indonesian descendants. Other EU member states, even those neighbouring the Netherlands, do not share the same history. Thus, it would be very hard for the EU not to accept the diverse and well forged identities of its member states. A search for identity, as the Historun demonstrates, cannot be limited to a “within” or “exclusive” perception of identity, nor can its perception be limited to economy and law.

The EU has made some interesting projects to promote intercultural dialogues between the EU member states, such as the European Capitals of Culture, European Heritage Days, Intercultural Cities Project, the Platform on Intercultural Europe and the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue (2008). The latter was the starting block of the ongoing process of intercultural dialogue, covering many EU policy fields such as culture, audiovisual sector, multilingualism, youth, research, integration and external relations. The EU has also allocated 1.7% of the EU Structural Funds on a cultural programme (€6 billion for the 2007-2013 term), although it is mainly focused on economic activities related to culture such as tourism, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Building a European identity

One might envision a European identity. However, there are still much to be done and it surely  takes time. We are all aware of the fact that European history is part of the global history, where people have shared multiple identities, within Europe and beyond. At the same time, we also know that European nations have fought for their existence. Thus, the idea of a European citizenship that the Treaty of Maastricht has created should be regarded as an open citizenship and complementary to the nation state identity and not a threat to it. It is the EU’s policy makers’ job to convince its citizens that it is the case. On the one hand, the form of ‘intrusive regionalism’ through economic policies that has been enhanced after the crisis could put in danger the EU’s legitimacy and thus widen the distance between EU institutions and European citizens. On the other hand, once EU institutions manage to overcome the challenges and regain its legitimacy and acceptance from European citizens, then the EU project could lead to an unprecedented form of a complementary identity creation, built not within one single nation but out of multiple nations. Hence, our generation and descendants would perhaps one day be able to say: ‘I’m half …. -half European’. We are in the midst of history, and the Indonesian students have made me realise this.

[1] A conurbation consisting of the four largest Dutch cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht

[2] Commonly believed as a reward to its population’s resistance against Spanish attacks during the Eighty Years’ War or the Dutch War of Independence against the king Phillip II of Spain (1568-1648). The episode referred to here is ‘the Defense of Leiden’ (1574).

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