The International Institute of Social History and the Decolonization Debate

Moira van Dijk
(International Institute of Social History - IISH)

Leila Musson
(International Institute of Social History - IISH)

Eef Vermeij
(International Institute of Social History - IISH)

As curators, we are well aware of the discussion on decolonization, especially in the museum sector. But until recently, there has not been an active debate about decolonization at our own institute. As curators we want to be more involved in this discussion on how institutionalized archival practices uphold colonial, imperial, and discriminatory practices and ideolo­gies, and how they can be challenged. What does this mean for our institute and our acqui­sition policies?

Blind Spots

Why has the IISH refrained from reflecting on its own position in the recent decolonization debate? A known pitfall for institutional archives is the self-image they hold of being neutral. This has also played a role at the IISH, where the founder envisaged an “independent, neutral, scholarly institution” (“A Detailed History”).

But the reason the IISH has not picked up the decolonization debate internally also has to do with the history and the content of the collections. The IISH is an archive with a different history and role in society than most other institutional archives in the Netherlands. Since its establishment in 1935, the IISH has been an archive for social movements that are threatened by repression. In the first decades of its existence, the IISH mostly collected from European countries within the pre-war years focusing on collections of movements that were under threat from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The IISH began collecting on a global scale in the late 1980s, when most colonized countries had gained political independence.

Partai Komunis Indonesia (BG A58/821, small printed matter, Collection IISH).

By saving the archives of social movements that were under threat, the IISH aimed to redistribute the power of collective memory towards underrepresented groups in society. However, from early on there was a blind spot with re­­gards to representation within the larger IISH collections, particularly in terms of language.

Contested Collections

To decolonize the archives of the IISH, we could start by looking if there are any collections with contested ownership—as in, collections that were acquired or assembled in colonial times. The aim of the IISH—to collect archives from individuals and groups that were under threat—resulted in a focus on archives from emancipation/liberation movements and their supporters in the colonizing countries.

When looking for archives that document colo­nial history, we found a diverse list of archives whose provenance is not contested. If we look at examples from the former Dutch colonies Indonesia and Suriname, those range from a collection on the Partai Kommunis Indonesia (Communist Party of Indonesia), the In Search of Silenced Voices Collection, ­to personal papers of activists like Henk Sneevliet or Poncke Princen, who deserted and joined ­ the fight for Indonesian independence.

A lot of collections from the colonial period are part of the Netherlands Economic History Archive (NEHA) that is housed at the IISH. The NEHA concentrates on the preservation of sources relevant to economic history, and thus also collects archives of companies and related organizations. In the NEHA collection there are, for example, bank documents that chronicle economic history and colonial exploitation in Indonesia, like the collection of the Javasche Bank, (now Bank Nasional Indonesia).

The NEHA also contains collections on several plantations, for example, Collectie Plantage Klein-Pouderoyen.

When looking at these collections, there are different stakeholders. On the one hand there are the interests of the IISH as an academic institute, and on the other, the rights of the creators of these collections and of the people that are involved in their history. Even if the ownership of the collections is not actively and judicially contested, that doesn’t mean the conversation is over.

Institutional Challenges

These ideas point the discussion in another direction: that we must understand in what ways institutionalized archival practices uphold colonial or discriminatory methods and ideologies. Because, even though the IISH holds collections and records from all over the world, the types and forms of memory and knowledge, as well as the descriptions, mainly follow traditional Western modes of archiving. In fact, the institute shifted towards professionalization in the last decades and conformed to general norms and practices of academic institutions/libraries; and these are in turn part of an entire system of knowledge production that has been described by UNESCO as extremely unequal. It is important to open the notion of the archive more broadly, to one that does not exclusively rely on aspects from Western epistemology, and that takes into consideration biases and how these inform and shape concepts, methodologies and practices.

The IISH has a responsibility to deal with this in an ethical way (Ketelaar). Archival practice can bolster dominant narratives and forms of knowledge, but can equally contribute to challenging those narratives by creating counter narratives and multi-perspectives (Dunbar). In practice, the archive is governed by processes of naming, categorizing, ordering, collecting, and deciding what is remembered, forgotten and silenced (Gruffydd Jones).

Archival Practices

Over the last year a group of colleagues from different departments of the IISH has been meeting up to discuss inclusion and exclusion in archival practices at the institution. Changes have been set into motion with new possibilities such as linked data, tools from digital humanities, and other possibilities of making archives accessible.


If you take a look at the catalog entry for “Amane Afghan : haftanamah,” a newspaper from Kabul, you will see there’s little metadata: title, place of publication, language, and which issues the IISH holds are solely available. You’ll also notice that the title is not in the original language, but a transliteration; it’s not possible to find the newspaper in our catalog or on our website, or any other search engine by searching for the title in the original language (Dari/Iranian Persian). As such, our metadata clearly does not hold enough information to find this particular newspaper from Kabul.

The systems we use for cataloging are designed for Latin script by default. In our catalog a visitor would first see the transliteration of a title. Unfortunately, many of our records only have (often incorrect) transliterated entries, without the corresponding names or titles, for example, in their original language.

This image is a crop of a screenshot from the IISH catalog showing an incorrect classification. Many records are tagged with outdated terms (from IISH classification) that require updating to reflect current geopolitics, or that use terms for certain groups of people that are now viewed as dubious at the least, or even derogatory. In this example, the book is about the Palestinian Communist Party from 1919–1948 that belongs to Palestine, so why is the book not classified with Palestine? On top of that, the classification here is anachronistic as the Israeli state was declared only in 1948, so to classify it with the main keyword Israel (Isr 129) is incorrect, even though there’s a substrata of keywords that might cover the topic of the book.

In early 2020 a cataloging project started to enrich the metadata of some of our archives and collections with essential information in their original script. Enriching the metadata with data in original scripts or languages is not just about findability. Language representation is an archival responsibility. This (pilot) project is now finished and the titles in their original languages have been added (for Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, and Tamil) as well as the authority files (which hold a consistent vocabulary) for author and organization names, and names in the original languages in the archive content descriptions have been added.

Another example is the thesaurus we use for our audiovisual materials, where records have been tagged with outdated, incorrect or even derogatory terms. There is an ongoing project to update the thesaurus, but for now outdated terms like “gypsies,” “negro emancipation” and others still remain. While we work towards changing these, we are also working on how we can save these terms for historical posterity, to acknowledge that they were once used and so that this history is available for future historical researchers.


Digitization and tools from digital humanities also affect access and use. Digitized materials can go through further data enrichment, which can connect objects/records from different collections worldwide and increase findability; and if something is easier to access and has more associated data, it can help to popularize study in that area, which can affect funding.

The data enrichment tools we use, for example are: linked data, connections to databanks, OCR (Optical Character Recognition), handwriting recognition, and entity recognition. Whether we apply these methods or not, the materials are usually easier to find once digital and can be used by those who cannot be in Amsterdam to physically access the archive.
However, there are some critical notes to be made. There is a lack of text mining tools for scripts like Arabic and Farsi, for OCR and for handwriting recognition. In Dataverse, a platform for sharing and publishing research data online, census data from Egypt might have the title or content in Arabic, but the metadata are in English. What is more, the leading organizations for linked data are exclusively from West and North Europe, North America, and Australia, increasing the likelihood that a Latin script-centric perspective will be prioritized.

There are ethical problems with the digitization and publishing of materials concerning people who are not part of the decision-making process. The IISH has been digitizing files on demand and has larger digitization projects with external funding as well. But which collection gets priority, which digitization project gets funding, and who decides? What kind of knowledge, and whose knowledge, can be generated by digitization? Can standards be more flexible? Who has to give consent? And in what ways do people want to be archived?

Regardless of digitization and the online presence of collections, it cannot be a reason to not think about restitution or returning materials to the communities and people from which they came. With current digitization projects the standard practice is that the originals stay in the country of the material’s creator and the archival institute gets a digital copy. Still, these creators can be hesitant and distrustful. Big institutions have the resources (and power) to render the contents of archives readily avail­able, however there remains an unequal exchange between the institution and the creator/subject/donor, while accessibility barriers such as unequal digital infrastructures endure.

The Missing Voices

The IISH has started to examine what some of the missing narratives on labour relations could be in its own collections, and as a result has com­mis­sioned a study on how to collect materials on informal labour. In this project, domestic workers themselves are part of the process of creating an archival collection.

This is Not the End

Examining the collections brings forward essential questions, such as: How did this collection come here and why was it acquired? On what authority does the IISH hold custodianship? Did the subjects documented by the records have an active role in custody claims, and if not, should the validity of the custodian role not be questioned? How can we think of institutional practices in ways that are accommodating to issues surrounding ownership and custodianship, and when do we make efforts to dismantle existing power structures?

The answer to these questions requires practices that contribute to the democratization of both knowledge production and institutions, beyond existing norms and concepts, including opening up the very notion of  “the archive” (Richardson; Mbembe). What does the archive actually mean in our world? What is its role? How can we manifest a change in power dynamics in daily practices and archiving? It is an ongoing process and there are going to be a lot of challenges. Perhaps by working towards connecting archives, where non-state institutional archives could function as a hub in a network of expertise, there may be a viable role for these repositories.

Archival Practices
Institutional Approach


“A Detailed History of the IISH.” Interna- tional Institute of Social History, Accessed 10 Jan 2020.

Dunbar, Anthony, W. “Introducing Critical Race Theory to Archival Discourse: Getting the Conversation Started.” Archival Science, vol. 6, no. 1, 2006, pp. 109–129.

Gruffydd Jones, Branwen. “Comrade- ship, Committed and Conscious: The Anticolonial Archive Speaks to Our Times.” Politics of African Anticolonial Archive, edited by Shiera S. el-Malik and Isaac A. Kamola, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017, pp. 73–98.

Ketelaar, Eric. “Archival Temples, Archival Prisons: Modes of Power and Protection.” Archival Science, vol. 2, no. 3–4, 2006, pp. 221–238.

Richardson, William Jamal. “Under- standing Eurocentrism as a Structural Problem of Undone Science.” Decolonising the University, edited by Gurminder K. Bhambra, et al., Pluto Press, 2018, pp. 231–247.

Mbembe, Achille. “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.” Public Lecture, Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2015.“decolonizing-knowledge-and-question-archive”-africa-country. Accessed 10 Jan 2020.

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