Amanda Pinatih

Material Memory, Memory Material


What is the role of material artefacts in our daily lives, in our homes, museums and artistic practices, around feelings of belonging? What do objects do for us in order to make us feel at home? These questions inform my ongoing research into the importance of Indonesian objects for young people in the Netherlands from diasporic communities with roots in the Indonesian archipelago and related localities; people like me. Indonesian objects were taken away from other lives, other places, other people, other times and now reside in large numbers in Dutch museums like the Rijkmuseum, Wereldmuseums and Museum Bronbeek. From batik and ikat textiles, masks, ritual or ceremonial artefacts and utensils, many homes in the Netherlands provide housing to these objects too. These artefacts can carry memories of historic events, past encounters, people and places within. Surrounding us on an everyday basis, objects can thus give us a strong sense of (un)belonging. Exactly these entanglements between people and the material world is something I wish to unpack.

Museums are material manifestations of our cultural history with many diasporic objects in their collections. Reflecting on the interconnection of mobility and materiality, I understand diasporic objects as those that were unearthed in a homeland that is far away from the museums or homes where they are currently kept. Just like diasporas of people, these objects are now scattered across the globe, away from their place of origin. Why were these objects, made of materials of the land —from wood, stone and precious metals, to fibre and even cloves— taken from their original home and how did they end up here? Carried, sent and received across borders, many of these artefacts were transferred from the Indonesian archipelago to the Netherlands from the late 19th to the first half of the 20th century. Global expansion, colonialism and nationalism caused a collecting frenzy and objects accumulated in varying ways: military expeditions returning with loot; missionaries tricking source communities into distancing themselves from their ritual objects; colonial officials sending valuables to the metropole to show the “splendour” the nation achieved overseas; ethnographers and anthropologists organising systematic collecting excursions; individual travellers removing objects for their own collections or to sell them on; and Dutch pavilions on world fairs or international expositions gathering and showing global treasures. And people that migrated to the Netherlands from Indonesia, especially after its independence when (Indo-)Europeans became increasingly unwelcome, also brought objects and personal items with them.

All these objects have played different roles in different times for different people; from objects that were used, either in daily routines or important rituals and ceremonies, to tools for the promotion of empire. After the Netherlands lost Indonesia as a colony, for some the objects represented the disgrace of that defeat, for others they formed tangible memories of a lost ‘motherland’ and helped to make a new home. Now, again, they might have another meaning, especially for a younger diasporic generation who have different relations to the country where they live and the country their ancestors come from; some have travelled to Indonesia and sense a familiarity, others are still searching for their heritage and cultural identity. They might experience a certain ‘inbetweenness’ and feel they are not fully belonging ‘here’ nor ‘there.’ The diasporic objects could help create a physical tie to a certain community here, with similar concerns regarding belonging and displacement.

Imagine a beautiful decorated golden bokor, an offering bowl used for ceremonial Balinese dances. Filled with colourful flower petals, it is held in the slender hands of a young woman. It moves up and down following the complex rhythm of the accompanying gamelan orchestra. In elegant gestures, its flowers are cast in the air at various times during the dance, inviting spirits to enjoy the performance. Then the bokor is picked up by a different set of hands; its weight, shape, material and decorations examined and deemed worthy enough to be carried off to the metropole, torn away from the temple and its dancers. In its new home, it is carefully handled with gloves, categorised and labelled, stored away in a climatised depot; a dark place, colder than what it is used to. Then once again it is picked up, this time the gloved hands move the bokor from the depot to a glass vitrine for everyone to see; a spotlight highlights its smooth material. Here it waits until one day someone comes by, stops in their tracks and exclaims a cry of recognition. The bokor sees the enthusiasm of a person who grew up learning exactly how to hold the bowl in stretched fingers and how to scatter its flowers while following the beat of the music; remembering their strict teacher but also reliving the excitement of going through the movements. It senses their confusion: “Why does it sit quietly behind glass instead of performing together with its dancer?” At the same time another question bubbles to the surface: “If this diasporic bokor, displayed in its vitrine, is now considered as belonging to the Netherlands, is the diasporic person then also allowed to belong here?”

Thinking of this bokor, it is not only the roots from which objects came that may be important for this group, but also the routes they navigated that are worth considering (Gilroy, 1993); their journeys of displacement, or their cultural biography are significant as they show the multiple layered connections between Indonesia and its former coloniser (Appadurai, 2016). It might reflect a same kind of journey the generations before us have travelled and mirrors our in-between, diasporic state. Objects, through their material manifestation and mnemonic agency, can create a feeling of belonging together within this place of inbetweenness (Basu, 2017) or in this hybrid space of creation (Gilroy 1993). In this sense, objects are not only material, but also social; they make different contexts possible, relate to each other, to people and their surroundings. Because they have survived a displacement, objects are now revalued by a younger generation. They can operate as powerful symbols of cultural identity and both personal and collective history, providing a sense of kinship. Is it then that the value does not lie in the material per se but what these objects represent; a connection to a community of belonging?

- Basu, Paul, (ed.). (2017). The Inbetweenness of Things: Materializing Mediation and Movement between Worlds. London: Bloomsbury.

- Dictionary of Now #4: Sharon Macdonald, Tony Bennett & Arjun Appadurai – THING [online video] Presenter A Appadurai, Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, 2016,, (accessed 5 September 2022).

- Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.

Amanda Pinatih (1987) is Design Curator at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Here she provides the vast design collection with new perspectives. Her experimental working method is characterized by developing other forms of knowledge transfer and explores how historical collections can work participatively and associatively on younger generations. Through exhibitions and projects, she responds to today’s social, political, decolonial, environmental and economic issues.

Simultaneously as a PhD candidate at the VU Amsterdam, Pinatih is researching what Indonesian objects, that came to the Netherlands during colonial times, afford in contestations of belonging for young people who self-identify as Dutch-Indonesian.

She is also co-founder of the Design Museum Dharavi in Mumbai (IN), the first museum of its kind, that was based in the homegrown neighbourhood of Dharavi. It showcased local talent through a nomadic exhibition space and employed design as a tool to promote social change and innovation on a global scale. In addition, the museum was constantly challenging the boundaries of what a museum can be.

Pinatih is member of the supervisory board of The Young Collectors Circle that aims to inspire a new generation of art collectors; not only to enrich their own lives, but also to sustainably support the art sector.