In late-2023, ASAA member Jorien van Beukering participated in a training program on Sharing Stories on Contested Histories. In this post she shares her experience with the program and how the program has progressed her Asian Studies research.
What is the Sharing Stories on Contested Histories training program?
Sharing Stories on Contested Histories (SSOCH) is a training program organised and funded by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and the Reinwardt Academy. The program approaches shared challenges in cultural heritage by bringing together young heritage professionals from different countries and backgrounds to exchange perspectives and develop new knowledge and practices together. My fellow participants for SSOCH23 came from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Belgium, South Africa, Spain, The Netherlands, Brazil, Australia, and the United States.
Part one of the course was held online over five weeks (September-November 2023) and consisted of three weekly online meetups via Teams. For me in Australia these meetups were spread over two evenings per week, but for others the sessions were in one day (ah, time zones!). Part two of the course took place in Cape Town, South Africa, for a week-long intensive programme with workshops, excursions to museums and galleries, lectures and networking (11-18 November 2023). The program has been running for several years and the 2023 edition was the first time SSOCH had gone to South Africa; previous editions were online only or the in-person component was held in The Netherlands.
How did you hear about the program?
I first saw SSOCH advertised on LinkedIn. I remember reading the call for applications and thinking it sounded great but I’d never get in because only 25 people from around the world would be selected. So I scrolled on and forgot about it. Not long before the closing date, a colleague at the University of Queensland emailed me, telling me I should apply. So, at the last minute and with encouragement from my partner, I scraped together an application. Amazingly, I was accepted!
What were the highlights of participating in this training program?
For me, the highlight of the program was meeting and connecting personally with so many like-minded people from around the world. It’s difficult to describe the level of connection: during the first part of the program we met online in small teams and got to know one another professionally, so by the time we finally met in person in Cape Town, we already knew each other. This meant that in Cape Town ice breakers could be skipped; instead, we could dive straight into the deeply complex and painful contested histories in South Africa, particularly apartheid and the Dutch East India Company slave trade. SSOCH utilized the Brave Space principles and what was dubbed the ‘Reinwardt circle’ to encourage everyone to share their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to things we saw, did and experienced each day. The result was an intensely deep level of openness and connection that I haven’t encountered before at professional conferences/events: true empathy, multi-perspectivity and inclusivity that transcended the theoretical to the emotional. It was incredibly powerful and quite difficult to conceptualise in words! I’m sure the relationships built at SSOCH23 will continue well into the years ahead.
Other aspects of SSOCH23 that stood out to me were visits in South Africa to the District Six Museum and the Slave Lodge in Cape Town, as well as to the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum. All three institutions revealed specific histories that to me were little known or even unknown in the case of Lwandle, but all three touched me deeply. I was also struck by similarities between South Africa and Australia during the time in Cape Town.
What did you learn from the training program? How did the training program help your PhD research in Asian Studies?
SSOCH was stimulating both professionally and personally. Professionally, SSOCH hit home by reminding me yet again of the enduring and pervasive presence of colonialism – extra relevant for Asian Studies, which often deals with the legacies of European colonial rule. These legacies are still felt in Asia and elsewhere and continue to haunt human lives, even though the colonial empires of the past have been formally dismantled.
For my PhD research about illegitimate children of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, this is an important reminder: I’m not researching a ‘dead’ history, but a history that still forms and impacts people’s lives today, in Indonesia and beyond. Reading theoretical academic articles, it can sometimes be easy to forget how near this history actually is, but there are people alive today with first-hand experience of colonial rule in Indonesia eighty-odd years ago, and like in South Africa, Dutch colonialism has left intergenerational impacts in Indonesia. SSOCH also showed me in real-time that museums and galleries are not objective institutions – it’s one thing to read about it but another to be confronted by this in person. I also learned how museums and galleries can prioritise the voices of people who were and are still impacted by these colonial legacies.
Beyond my PhD research, SSOCH has prompted me to think through more deeply the dilemma of heritage sites that have a rich history but few tangible, physical remnants left on-site. This is applicable to my work with the Camp Columbia Heritage Association Inc. Working on this dilemma with my colleagues in Cape Town showed me that the absence of tangible ruins is perhaps not a problem as I first thought, but something that speaks despite the apparent absence.
On a personal level, too, SSOCH pushed me. It forced me outside my comfort zone in that I had to travel to South Africa for the program’s in-person component, which was a challenge given my fear of flying. Ultimately it was totally worth it, but dealing with that fear and with anxieties about travelling to a country and continent that were new to me, were personal wins.
Who in the field of Asian Studies would you recommend apply to the training program? What tips do you have for applying?
Any eligible young professionals with an interest in colonial legacies in Asia, and who work in heritage or history (whether academia, GLAM sector, local organisations), should apply for SSOCH.
The call for applications is published around April so keep an eye on the Cultural Heritage Agency’s website and LinkedIn. Two quick tips for applying: 1) don’t leave it to the last minute; and 2) don’t doubt yourself (like I did) and just apply – otherwise you might miss out on a truly unique and invaluable professional opportunity.
Thanks to Victoria Poppins for feedback on an early draft of this post.