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Open Research practices: co-creating, sharing and remembering life stories from a colonial past

Date:15 November 2022
Author:Julia Doornbos, MSc
Book cover
Book cover

“By writing down experiences from our past, I can give voice to the silent yet influential past of our parents”

 This is a quote from one of the Indo-European individuals who I interviewed for my PhD and who participated in an accompanying public dissemination book project. In her chapter, this second-generation Indo-European woman reveals how her parents’ past remains influential in her life, shaping her past, present and future. Yet, as she describes, these stories from the past have often been silenced or forgotten.

Legacies of colonialism

The colonial past and more specifically, contemporary memories of this past often provoke tensions in Dutch public debates, with imaginations ranging from ignorance to remembrance. Some argue that public attention for debates on (anti-)racism and decoloniality in the Netherlands is growing, while others highlight that critical engagement with this past is still limited. Indeed, scholars reveal how the colonial past may be framed outside of national history, making colonialism and its victims unmemorable within a national context. Others draw attention to practices of forgetting and glorifications of the Golden Age (den Heijer, 2021; Bijl, 2012).

Within my PhD research, I intended to uncover ‘the postcolonial present’ as experienced by Indo-European families in the Netherlands. These families have mixed Indonesian-Dutch ancestry, as they are descendants of relations between European men (mainly Dutch) and Indonesian women that occurred in the 350 years of Dutch colonial presence in Indonesia. Indo-Europeans ‘mixed race’ fostered an ambiguous position within colonial hierarchies of the Dutch East Indies, not completely belonging to the European colonizers nor the Indonesian population. The Dutch colonial rule ended after the Japanese occupation during the Second World War (1942-1945) and the Indonesian National Revolution (1945–1949). Following Indonesian independence, around 300,000 Indo-Europeans repatriated to the Netherlands, carrying with them memories of war violence, racialized violence and displacement. Upon their arrival, the Dutch government perceived them as a financial and social burden of a past they were eager to forget, especially due to preoccupations with post-war reconstructions (Captain, 2014; Pattynama, 2000).

I interviewed three generations within 21 Indo-European families to study how colonial family histories shape their everyday lives and how these histories are transmitted intergenerationally. I scrutinized different aspects of everyday life to uncover legacies of the colonial past in the present. 

The life stories of Indo-Europeans have continuously received limited space within Dutch society.  These memories are often surrounded by denial and silence both within Dutch public spheres and within families themselves (Doornbos & Dragojlovic, 2021). Indeed, participants from various generations often stressed during interviews that family members shared romanticized memories of colonial life, while pains of war violence, racialized violence and displacement were more often shaped by secrecy.  Even though these histories were not explicitly discussed, next generations did experience that these pasts ‘haunted’ their families. Yet, as family histories were surrounded by silences, conversations between generations about these ‘haunted’ pasts were limited. Next generations often struggled with defining and articulating their identities through feelings of ‘in-betweenness’, the silent suffering from previous generations and limited knowledge of family histories. As Captain (2014, p.65) argues: “They were not the same as white Dutch, that much was obvious, but they did not know why.”

Open Research Practices

During interviews, participants from various generations stressed their desire to break silences and for their life stories and experiences to be heard and understood. A participatory research dissemination project intended to bring to light colonial legacies and to ‘give back’ to the research participants and their desire to increase attention for their experiences. Through funding from the UCG Enhancing Undergraduate Research Fund, dr. Bettina van Hoven, former UCG students Kiek Korevaar and Milou Vlaskamp and I created an open-access book as a collection of the narratives of the families. In the creation of the book, participants were actively engaged and empowered to communicate what they felt was urgent and relevant. As such, the project intended to challenge normative representations of this particular group, in which their voice and agency were central. More practically, each family received a chapter and decided themselves on its content and form. The book has become a large variety of accounts, including personal reflections, conversations between generations, speeches and life stories. The book was distributed among participants and their network, for them to decide who they wanted to share their stories with. The book form enabled a physical recognition of their stories, which could be passed on to next generations.

Learning experiences

Blurring traditional divisions between researcher and ‘subject’, this participatory research introduced challenges concerning power, positionality and research ethics and required critical reflections on its collaborations. This was especially crucial as staff, students and research participants were involved. The interview data involved traumatic experiences and personal documents. Throughout the project, we discussed various challenges: How to share family histories keeping in mind ethical considerations and participants’ wishes? How do we communicate research plans to participants and engage them? How to manage participants’ expectations? What is an appropriate researcher-participant relation? How to translate and communicate research findings to a larger non-academic audience?

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For UCG students Milou and Kiek, this project was a learning experience to familiarise with research in an academic environment and ethical dilemmas related to public dissemination and participatory research. As illustrated by Kiek:

“Throughout the project, I became more familiar with the Dutch colonial past through first-hand stories and conversations, allowing a glimpse into the complex reminiscences of Dutch colonial history and imprints on lives shared by and carried by individuals, families, and communities. It did not only teach me this integral part of Dutch colonial history but most impactfully showed how this past influences the present of many. I could participate in a hands-on project that engaged with an integral part of feminist historiography and historiographical practices: the aim to write or give space to that what has been silenced.

Creating the book has been a rollercoaster, to say the least, that brought together this political aim with very delicate collaborative practices, between participants and researchers, of collecting these stories. The latter has been a very sensitive yet formative experience, in which the role of the researcher with the participants has been an extremely unique learning experience. It was very special to be able to learn alongside Julia, Bettina and Milou: to be able to observe, participate and engage in a very feedback and reflection-oriented collaboration.”

With this book, we hope to contribute to bringing more attention to this silenced and forgotten part of Dutch history. The book includes chapters from Indo-Europeans from three generations, which reveal different ways of how the past plays a role in their current lives. The book is open-access available online:


This project was one of three winners of the 2022 Open Research Awards of the University of Groningen. During the ‘Celebrating Openness’ event on November 17 2022 the case study will be presented in one of the lightning talks.

About the author

Julia Doornbos, MSc
Julia Doornbos, MSc

Julia Doornbos is Lecturer at University College Groningen in the field of Geography.

She is also PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural Geography of the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the University of Groningen.

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