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Curator of the National Museum Marion Anker: ‘History can cause friction'

Marion Anker is a junior curator at the Rijksmuseum, the National Museum of the Netherlands. She studied History in Leiden and Amsterdam. Together with her team, she organised the controversial exhibition ‘Revolusi! Indonesië onafhankelijk!’ What did studying History teach her?

Marion Anker (28) is junior History curator at the Rijksmuseum.

We talked to historian Marion Anker in a Teams interview while she tried to find a quiet room in a busy Rijksmuseum. The much-talked-about exhibition about the struggle for independence has already been going for some time, but she still gives presentations about ‘Revolusi’ almost daily. The exhibition will run until 5 June.   

What is it that you want to show with this exhibition?

‘In 1945, Indonesia declared itself independent, but the Dutch government refused to accept it. This led to a struggle for independence lasting more than four years. We let visitors see that this is a part of Dutch, Indonesian and international history and show how the revolution affected people's lives. We refer to stories and objects from eyewitnesses from different perspectives, from Indonesians, Indo-Europeans and Dutch soldiers. We wanted to present a balanced account, so we created the exhibition together with two Indonesian guest curators. As part of the preparation, we went to Indonesia and our colleagues came to the Netherlands to help with the selection of artefacts that had not previously been exhibited in the Netherlands, such as paintings from the time of the revolution.'

Photo from the 'Revolusi!' exhibition, Rijksmuseum

How do you regard the controversy about the use of the word 'bersiap' that led to criminal charges?

‘The term bersiap (an Indonesian war cry that means 'Be prepared') refers to the period from October 1945 to the spring of 1946, when Indonesians used violence against the Dutch and the groups that took the Dutch side, or were suspected of siding with the Dutch. The word does not refer to the excessive violence committed against Indonesians in this period, which continued until 1949. In the exhibition, we acknowledge and highlight the violence from different sides.  

The outcry shows that words matter and that history can be very abrasive. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't address these kinds of periods and discussions. The charges were dropped because the Public Prosecution Service determined that no criminal acts were committed. The debate on this painful history, the effects of which are still being felt even today, should not be conducted in court, in my opinion. We offer a platform for the discussion in and around the exhibition, together with cultural institutions in the country.'   

In what way are you now reaping the benefit of your history studies?

‘The history programme is the foundation of the work that I do. On the one hand because of the knowledge of history that it gave me, and on the other hand because of the skills I learned, such as not immediately accepting something as the truth. It was hammered so firmly into students that a single source is not a source at all and that you always have to look at things with a critical eye and use your powers of reasoning.'  

For the National Museum

Did you enjoy studying history?

‘From a very young age, I have always thought history was the most interesting thing ever. I love the stories that take you to other times and other worlds. I come from  Nieuwerbrug, a small village in the Green Heart of the Netherlands, and Leiden was a great city for me. The first weeks were magical: they felt like a sweet shop filled with interesting things. The only drawback was that there were times when I had very few lectures. Then I would spent most of my time with friends in the University Library, where we would study for hours on end. I also played an active part in the study association, where we would think up history-themed events. I did my Research Master's at the UvA. The atmosphere there was different; it was a bigger city and things were freeer.' She adds with a laugh: 'In Amsterdam they saw Leiden as the conservative, classical sibling but I carried on living in that more provincial Leiden.' 

'The first weeks were magical: they felt like a sweet shop filled with interesting things.' 

At just 28 you have a super job at the Rijksmuseum. What advice would you give students who are wondering how they can find their dream job?

‘While I was studying, I already knew that I wanted to share my love of history with the public. I thought about how I wanted to achieve that and what might be the right way for me. To find out, I took different internships: at Dutch broadcaster NTR's De IJzeren Eeuw history programme, and after that at the Jewish Cultural Quarter. While I was studying, I also worked as a guide in the National Archive. So, my advice would be to just get out there. At the same time, it's also a pity that CV building is such an enormous race. That pressure is only getting greater and I believe that's a shame. What I most hope is that students enjoy the programme they have chosen.'  

Text: Linda van Putten

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