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KITLV Department of Archives and Images

Dr. Jaap Anten, Mariame Fluitsma, Nico van Horn, Gerrit J. Knaap, and T.T. Lam Ngo, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
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Reviewed by:
Robert DeCaroli
George Mason University
September 2004

Since its foundation in 1851, the Royal Netherlands Institute has amassed an impressive archive of primary-source materials pertaining to several regions of the world that were at one time Dutch colonies. This website presents a substantial body of photographs, prints, and drawings in this archive. It is especially rich in materials relating to the linguistic, anthropological, and historical backgrounds of Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and the Caribbean. This site does have a commercial component—reproductions of all of the images are for sale to the public. Fortunately, this aspect of the site does not overshadow its usefulness as a research tool.

The site presents roughly 50,000 images, and the vast majority of these pertain to Indonesia. Reflecting the size of the collection, the images range widely in subject. Particularly noteworthy are the materials covering the topics of architecture, industry, Dutch colonial life, and studies of nature.

Unfortunately, the online images are not well documented and each image is accompanied by only the most basic information, including the collector’s name, the acquisition date, the artist’s name, the medium of the artwork, and any textual sources in which the image was published. While this information is important, it does little to help inform the user about the significance of the material being presented. For this reason, it is helpful to have some prior familiarity with the subjects you are researching and it is recommended that you start with a clear subject in mind.

Another potential obstacle for the casual user is that the search engine and secondary information appear almost entirely in Dutch. There is, however, an English keyword search and much (but not all) of the secondary information pertaining to the images is also available in English. This search limitation means that each keyword search can potentially bring back a large number of images to sort through. Furthermore, the keyword must be precise in order to get results. For instance, a search under the keyword “Hindu” gets no hits while a search under “Hinduism” garners over 1,500. This feature can make using the site a bit of a challenge. Nonetheless, searching through a list of images on a related topic is a wonderful (albeit time-consuming) way to become familiar with what the collection has to offer.

A further drawback to the site is that the images are rather small, even when enlarged to the fullest extent allowed by the site. For this reason, a study of details might prove difficult. Although the images may lack some clarity, they are certainly plentiful. Depending on the topic, a wide selection of images may be a useful means to provide students an overview of a geographic region, specific time period, or individual monument.

For example, many of the important Indonesian monuments (i.e., Borobudur and Chandi Prambanan) are very well documented in the collection. These monuments are quite large and complex, but fortunately the collection offers a decent selection of views that highlight the details of these impressive structures. Thus, students could explore all the images to get a very good overview of an entire structure by exploring one detail at a time. This approach would undoubtedly work best on large, historically significant structures, like Borobudur, that have complicated ground plans that are difficult to capture in a single image.

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