A Mission of Faith: Dr Maaike Derksen

Maaike Derksen examining archival photos
Maaike Derksen examining archival photos

Tapping into history and preserving heritage—these are concepts that are second nature to historian and anthropologist Dr Maaike Derksen, Visiting Fellow (Niels Stensen Fellowship) at the ANU School of Culture, History & Language (CHL). Not so long ago, this DIY home-renovation expert transformed her own historical home in the Netherlands through a mammoth, mind-boggling project of professional proportions. And when at work, this researcher from the Radboud University of Nijmegen is on a mission to unearth and preserve heritage of another kind.

Maaike Derksen (photo supplied)
Maaike Derksen (photo supplied)

A Historian’s Lens

The Netherlands and Indonesia share a long history. Apart from trade, political and academic relations, a religious, social and cultural exchange was shaped through Christian missions in both nations. The activities of these Catholic missions fashioned a shared past of Indonesia with the Netherlands. 


According to Maaike, “Kramat and Vincentius Bidara Tjina are two impressive colonial heritage buildings designed by famed architects—Hulswit, Fermont and Cuyper. While occupying a central place in the urban geography of metropolitan Jakarta, Indonesia, these cultural heritage sites form the locus of a complicated legacy; entangled with the destinies of diverse children, the Christian missionaries who cared for them, and tectonic shifts in colonial and postcolonial governance witnessed across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”


Maaike’s research interests focus on (post)colonial history, Christian missions and colonial anthropology. More specifically, she is researching the phenomenon of child separation, wherein institutions have imposed physical distance between children and their kin, society and traditional life. 


Faith-based organisations have played a pivotal role in child separation practices and they, like their institutes, survived war and regime changes, and came to buttress new, national visions of Indonesia. Child separation practices in (post)colonial Indonesia, whether they targeted Marind, West Papua or mixed-descent (Eurasian) children in Java, were violent in nature but legitimised as benevolent civilising projects. 


Working primarily with historical sources, gathered in widely dispersed private, local and state archives in Indonesia and the Netherlands, Maaike is piecing together the building blocks that have shaped the scope, policies and practices of child separation and Catholic faith-based organisations in Java and South Dutch New Guinea (West Papua).
 

Maaike Derksen at the missionary (photo supplied)
Maaike Derksen at the missionary (photo supplied)
Maaike Derksen at the missionary (photo supplied)
Maaike Derksen at the missionary (photo supplied)

Visiting ANU

The Niels Stensen Fellowship has been like the missing piece of the puzzle for Maaike. When she received this opportunity, it meant a significant reshuffle for her entire family, but one that has paid off in more ways than one. “This Fellowship has opened up new perspectives and exposed me to insights I would otherwise never have had access to through research conducted just locally. Speaking to anthropologists and historians here has been a real game changer.”


Connecting and sharing historical viewpoints with Asia-Pacific experts, anthropologists, historians, heritage preservationists and gender study specialists has opened up new avenues of exploration and enhanced the depth of Maaike’s research. 


Starting from September 2024, she will continue this research in the Netherlands with the NWO research grant under the title: Child separation: Islamic, Protestant and Catholic interferences with children in colonial and postcolonial Indonesia (1808-1984). In this project she will look to bring historical sources in public and institutional (private) archives in conversation with knowledge, memories and sources in the (personal) archives of former pupils of faith-based run child separation projects and their families.

 

Sharing Shared Heritage

Maaike is also the Project Leader at the Catholic Documentation Centre for a project titled Sharing Shared Heritage. This heritage project focuses on the accessibility and digital conservation of Catholic historical documents in Indonesia and the Netherlands. This project is committed to preserving shared Catholic heritage and then making it accessible to scholars, genealogists, as well as to the individuals and communities (and their relatives). 
 

Maaike explains, “Catholic documentary heritage offers valuable insights into our past, present, and future. It also provides tangible evidence of a shared past, which in turn links us across generations and communities. It is this documentary evidence on which historical narratives are built. This documentary heritage of our shared past is scattered. Between countries, but also within the countries. The mission collections in the Netherlands and Indonesia are important cultural and historical objects, which are relevant to the collective memory of the Netherlands and Indonesia and thus also to their current mutual relations.”

 

Maaike Derksen conducting field research (photo supplied)

Maaike Derksen conducting field research (photo supplied)

Maaike Derksen conducting field research (photo supplied)
Files and documents at the missionary (photo supplied)

Files and documents at the missionary (photo supplied)

Files and documents at the missionary (photo supplied)
Maaike Derksen conducting field research (photo supplied)

Maaike Derksen conducting field research (photo supplied)

Maaike Derksen conducting field research (photo supplied)

Missionary collections are often private collections. In the Netherlands, this shared heritage is found particularly in the collections of heritage institutions such as the Catholic Documentation Centre at Radboud University (KDC) and the Heritage Centre of Dutch Monastic Life in St. Agatha (ENK). The KDC was founded in 1969, and in its initial decades of work, it focused mainly on saving Dutch Catholic archives, because the pillarization of the Dutch society came to an end, and Catholic archives were in danger of being lost. 

In the late 1980s, the preservation of archives of religious orders and congregations also became urgent. Due to ageing and lack of growth, with the future of orders and congregations, the future of their archives also became questionable. To house the archives of the many orders and congregations, a second Heritage Centre in the monastery in St. Agatha was founded. 

Together, these archival institutions manage and disclose the heritage of more than 100 monastic communities and Catholic individuals and institutions with Indonesian connections and make them accessible for scholars and citizens with growing research interest in this space. In Indonesia, these collections are still with their owners or successors. 
 

Maaike Derksen working on digitising records (photo supplied)
Maaike Derksen working on digitising records (photo supplied)
Maaike Derksen working on digitising records (photo supplied)
Maaike Derksen working on digitising records (photo supplied)

No recent Dutch or Indonesian historian (except me) has thought of using this heritage, nor have they been able to locate it.

As Maaike continues to deconstruct the past, we wish her the very best in her endeavours; undoubtedly, her contribution to advancing knowledge in such a niche yet critical chapter in the pages of history is unique and invaluable.

Bon voyage, Maaike, as you return to deconstructing the old and building new foundations!