Participatory Archival Research in The Hague and Jakarta


“We have finally discovered who you really are!”, the volunteers of the Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) in The Hague exclaimed. A small book with a young, blond girl on the cover was handed to me. The authors’ full name was spelled just one (!) letter different from mine. Of course, researching highly skilled migrants – or expatriates – in The Hague and Jakarta since the 1950s is not something you do out of scholarly interest. You are either the child of expatriates – a ‘third culture kid’ – or aspire to a career overseas. In my previous research on Moroccan labor migrants in the Netherlands for my master thesis, people assumed personal involvement was behind the particular choice of subject too. If not already a convert, then I was at least in search of a Moroccan boyfriend, no? In this case, also, I was not the author of that small book Taxi (2004) on the experiences of the thirteen-year old expatriate child Anika Smit in China. I was a PhD-student in History struggling with the challenges such mobile (both socially and geographically) research subjects pose to archival research. In this post I will address some of the strategies I developed for writing such a transnational history and the experiences I had in the archives.

Where I Am Coming From
History has long been the biography of ‘big men’, but I came from the field of Migration History (a subfield of Social History) and was committed to studying these global elites from below. The sources I was trained to work with included government records and newspapers, as well as ego-documents and oral histories. So I set out to study the daily life of these businessmen, diplomats, missionaries, aid workers, and scholars temporarily posted abroad. As with the permanent, low skilled/labor migrants that figure in most of the theories on migration, I wanted to know how expatriates ‘integrated’ in the cities of The Hague and Jakarta. Where did they live, what language did they speak, and where did their children go to school? I was mainly interested in the effect that their relatively high socioeconomic status and the limited duration of their stay had on their social interactions with the receiving society. Moreover, I expected postcolonial reality to have a large impact on both western and non-western expatriates’ lives in Jakarta (and The Hague for that matter) – as was convincingly demonstrated by Anne Meike Fechter and others in a special issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies in 2010.

When in Rome …
However, the struggle becomes real when you go out and seek the data you need to build your argument. For example, company archivists are happy to provide you with annual reports listing the number of overseas postings, but usually forget to mention the debriefings, collected by the personnel department, in which partners share their frustrations of running a household with cooks and maids. Or a municipal archivist, who – after realizing that UN and embassy staff are not recorded in the Aliens Register – suggests that you study a different century, instead of pointing you to the Police Reports that do discuss their parking tickets and other offences. Obviously, I was looking in all the wrong places. In the process of what Eric Ketelaar (2001) has called archivalization, many conscious or unconscious choices on what is worth archiving are being made. As I was not interested in a state-centric or human resources perspective on highly skilled mobility, I had to consult sources produced by the expatriates themselves. Luckily, both of my supervisors (one trained as a historian, the other as an anthropologist) allowed me to ‘do as the Romans do’ and book a flight to Jakarta. I was able to collect interviews among current, semi-permanent (often as a result of intermarriage), and former (on a holiday, or, on a second posting) expatriates, and visit the archives of many of their organizations.

Participatory (Archival) Research: International Schools and Clubs
As it turned out, much of the social life of expatriates – although changing according to professional and age groups – took place within their own purpose-built, and privately funded, infrastructure of schools, shops, restaurants, and clubs. Also, global social networks based on the shared experience of travelling seemed more important to their narratives than the actual time and place. One interviewee spoke of ‘iconic moments’ – such as watching the Dutch soccer league after midnight because of the time difference – in contrast to Pierre Nora’s ‘lieux de mémoire’. There was little difference with regard to (the absence of) this spatial component in the oral histories I collected in The Hague and Jakarta. However, as Nancy Green (1994) states in an article on the use of comparative methodology in migration studies: ‘The migrant embodies an implicit comparison between past and present, between one world and another, between two languages, and two sets of cultural norms.’ Even if these expatriates did not consider themselves historically ‘grounded’, the institutions they built over time most definitely were.

Indeed my experience in working with international schools’ and women’s clubs’ archives proved very rewarding. I collected shopping maps of Jakarta from old brochures of the American Women’s Association of Indonesia (AWA), whilst hearing present-day American (and mixed marriage) expatriate wives prepare for a charity fair. I constructed a database of the changing composition of The Hague expatriate community based on old student files at the British School in the Netherlands (BSN), while the school Alumni Officer cheered over a Facebook-match with a long lost pupil from the 1960s.

Expats and Re-pats
Obviously access (and therefore verifiability) is an issue with these private archives, and it would be impossible to give uniform guidelines on working at international schools and clubs’ archives for the “Fresh from the Archives” section of this website. In some cases I had to obtain official permission and sign a confidentiality document, in other cases there was no such thing as opening hours and I kept being served the best coffee in town – yes, right next to those precious historical documents. I strongly encourage those attempting to write transnational histories, to go through the struggle of spending a large part of your PhD-track in acquiring these unusual sources. It demands a lot of human interaction, but that might be just what you need next to reading, teaching, and coursework.

Also, it made me realize the importance of persisting global networks of expats and ‘re-pats’ (repatriated), who not only ensured the continuity of these institutions, but also the preservation of this heritage. In that respect, the before mentioned Expatriate Archive Centre is illustrative to my study. Originally a department within Royal Dutch Shell responsible for keeping contact with families in different ‘outposts’, most of the personal memories of these oil employees are now kept in a small-scale private archive which is run by present-day expatriates in The Hague, and former Dutch expatriates back at home base. Let’s hope one day they will recognize me on the basis of my own book!

Aniek X. Smit
PhD Student
Institute for History
Leiden University

Abrams, Lynn, Oral History Theory (2010)
Green, Nancy L., ‘The Comparative Method and Poststructural Structuralism – New Perspectives for Migration Studies’, Journal of American Ethnic History 13:4 (1994)
Fechter, Anne-Meike, and Katie Walsh, ‘Examining ‘Expatriate’ Continuities: Postcolonial Approaches to Mobile Professionals’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration History 36:8 (2010)
Ketelaar, Eric, ‘Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives’, Archival Science 1 (2001)

The Jakarta Shopper’s Guide of the year 1990 published by the American Women’s Association of Indonesia, has a drawing of a lady being pedaled around in a becak on the cover. She carries the English-language newspaper The Jakarta Post and a bag of the western-style supermarket Hero with her. (Source: Photo by Aniek Smit, Jakarta 2013)

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