Thursday, March 16, 2023

Ompu ni si Markel’s Story

It started out quite simply. I went to her house and she offered me a chair and sat in the one next to me. 

SN and OM. This is the selfie we took upon our first meeting.

S.N. Your story yesterday was so amazing (tidak terduga). How is it possible that you and I should meet and that I should have known about part of your story from another perspective?


Our meeting the day before had not been by chance. She had seen me next door and had obeyed an urge to greet me. She told me that she had been to the TongTong Fair in The Hague in The Netherlands in 1978 and that her loom had been collected for/by a museum. She invited me to visit her sometime. I had been touched by something very sweet in her character, and I wanted to connect with her, perhaps learn more about her experience in the Netherlands just a year before I went to Indonesia the first time myself. She and I are almost the same age. Now I, too, was answering an urge to meet her. In the privacy of her own home this time, just the two of us, it was her pain that led the conversation.


SN: I would like to learn more about your visit to The Netherlands. What did it mean for you? Was it worth it? It was such a huge and expensive undertaking for that time!


OM: They asked me for my loom for the museum and said that I would be compensated for it later, but I never received anything for the loom.


I had to let this sink in. Then I explored it with her.


S.N. That’s so unfair! Was it the museum that didn’t pay you?

Ompu ni si Markel shrugged.


OM: I don’t know. I can’t place any blame. I have let it go. I had no recourse. I don’t know how it happened.


SN: Who is responsible for this? Who ‘donated’ or ‘gave’ these items to the museum? Was it your group leader? Did they receive the money from the museum?


OM: I know that none of us were compensated for our equipment that we left behind. I stayed in touch with some of the others and I know they didn’t receive anything either.


She looked at me without emotion, simply stating a fact, but I started to get hot under the collar.


SN: This is wrong! The museum should have a record about who donated the equipment! Surely we will learn the facts in this way!


OM: Please know that I am making no demands.


SN: You are a much more gentle soul than I. I feel very upset and angry! I want to know who deserves the blame! 

OM: Please don't be upset! I do not want you to be sad!

SN: I have great difficulties with this story. You came from a country that was colonized by the Dutch. And then you received the wonderful opportunity to go to The Netherlands and display your work. And then you were robbed while you were there. This is injury upon injury. You thought you were on an exciting journey, and then this happened. What a bitter end to this experience! This must be so painful!


Ompu ni si Markel looked down for a moment when I connected the misfortune to the colonial era. Then she looked up at me again and nodded slightly. Her eyes became a bit red. Even though it happened 45 years ago.


O.M.: There was someone who went to my mother after I left and expressed amazement that she let me go. “You will never see your daughter again,” that person said. "They will keep her there."  In those days there were no mobile phones. My mother and I couldn’t reach each other after I left. My mother cried and cried for days. She thought she had lost me forever.


I had to let this sink in as well. The courage the mother had shown to let her daughter go! In those days! A young girl of only 22 years of age. I felt so sad thinking about this. And the young girl herself! At the age when she needs to spread her wings! The biggest event of her life happening when she was only 22! I paused for a moment.


There she is, the sweet girl in the white blouse, just after she got home again.

SN: ... Was the equipment your mother’s or was it your own loom? Was it a family loom?


I knew I had touched another nerve then, because her eyes became wet.


OM: It was my mother’s loom. A mother always sacrifices herself for her daughter, to help her daughter get ahead. The loom was from our ancestors. My mother got it from her mother. I don’t know how far back the loom went beyond my grandmother. My mother had to purchase a new loom and she had to pay for it herself.


SN: How terribly sad. You must have felt so bad! 


OM: Yes. I was chosen from 3 candidates. We were interviewed and tested, and they selected me.


There was pride and regret mixed. She grabbed a tissue and dabbed her eyes.


SN: I can see why they would have chosen you. You have such a wonderful presentation of self, so clear, so gentle and honest.


OM: And also my fluency in Indonesian. In the end, I had to go to Medan three times in preparation for the journey, to arrange for my passport and so on. All of this occurred through the Kantor Bupati, the office of the Regent.


I myself went to Indonesia for the first time in 1979, a year after her journey to The Netherlands. I remember the road to Medan. It was still under construction then. It was an arduous journey all the way from Tarutung and took an entire day of 10 – 12 hours, longer if you got stuck in the muck.


S.N.: Was there anything good about the trip? Did you enjoy it at all? Were people good to you?


OM: I stayed in a guesthouse at Nassaulaan 7 in The Hague. We met the Ambassador and his wife. She was a Hutagalung, br. Tampubolon. They gave me a jacket because my clothes were not warm enough. It was so cold. And they fed us nasi goreng. But we didn’t get much rice at our accommodations and that was something to get used to, but we had enough to eat. It is called ‘experience’. (That is what traveling is all about.)

When I left, Mrs. Ambassador gave me some money for her father. He lived close by us in Tarutung. So that he would have proof that I had returned from The Netherlands, from visiting her.


I let this sink in as well. She had not been given compensation for her weaving equipment, but she dutifully brought money to the father of the Ambassador’s wife. In the back of my mind was the question of who had arranged for their looms to be given to the museum? 


SN: Was it a lot of money?


OM: No, not very much. And when I got back home, I gave a gift to the head of the Department of Industry. They were the ones who arranged the journey. I presented him with the material for a new suit.


SN: That was a very significant gift….Was it Perindustrian (Department of Industry) that arranged for the donation of your equipment?


OM: I don’t know. I am making no demands. I don’t know how it all worked. So how can I blame anyone? There was Perindustrian Medan and the local Perindustrian. I don’t know who was responsible.


I let this sink in, too. I think of a young girl with few opportunities in life. She prepares to go on a huge journey that is actually unthinkable for someone in her circumstances, a journey to another country, where another language is spoken. She does so with trust. She has no fall-back. She is alone in a foreign place.


SN: You were very young. In fact, you were in a position in which you could hardly say, “no” if someone asked for your loom. After all, they had organized your trip! And you couldn’t phone your Mom and ask for permission. Did  your mother get angry at you?


OM: Why would she? I was not at fault. And we could make no demands because we didn’t know who was responsible.


She showed me this worn photo of her demonstrating her
skills in The Hague. "I always have this photo with me."

SN: So you were told that you would receive compensation after you got home. I suppose in the beginning you believed that. And then slowly, slowly… would have become clear that the compensation would not be forthcoming.  And slowly, slowly, you would have felt sad and then increasingly bad as the awareness sank in that you had been tricked.


Ompu si Markel looked down. I think she was remembering how the slow realization settled deeper and deeper into her being.  She dabbed her eyes.


OM: But they did give us compensation while we were there. We received money for doing the demonstration and it compensated us for the days that we were not earning while we were away from home. And our food and our accommodations were given to us. My father advised me to just accept what happened. So I am not making any demands. How can I blame anyone?


SN: Of course your food and accommodations were provided! You were working in the interests of another! Did you get to do any sightseeing while you were there?


OM: Yes, I was on a train that went underground. One of the men in our group took us to the seaside. They were good men; they behaved honourably. And the flight was an experience. One girl from Eastern Indonesia sat beside me. When the plane took off it started to shudder. I put my arm around her and told her not to be afraid, that this was normal, and nothing to fear.


We chatted a little bit about trains that went underground, planes that shuddered, and the Dutch land relative to sea level.


But the tears by then could not be staunched. She kept needing to dab her eyes. 


OM: I haven’t told anyone this story. You are the first one I have told in such detail. I haven’t told my husband or my children or my neighbour. How could I tell them? They have never traveled. But you are from the Netherlands and you understand. And you speak Indonesian, so I can share my story without a language barrier. 


SN: Your story is pretty amazing. I think that the person who arranged for the collection by the museum may have been Rita Bolland, former curator of textiles at the Tropenmuseum, and one of my dissertation advisors. She wrote a publication about one of the looms, and I have used that writing in my work. I even saw the looms when she showed me the museum Batak collection. I remember her telling me about the weavers who came to The Netherlands from Indonesia. She used to live in my town and I used to visit her. And I know the TongTong Fair and the Nassaulaan and the Indonesian Embassy in The Hague. I can imagine it all. It does bind us.


She laid her hand on my arm.


SN: I don’t think your story is over yet. I would like to share your story. Would you mind if I share your story?


OM: I have nothing to be ashamed of. I didn’t do anything wrong. I am not blaming anyone. I am only telling the truth. I am not lying. I am only saying what happened.


SN: I believe you. If I share your story on social media, would you be OK with that? 


I pulled out my mobile phone and showed her LinkedIn and how stories are shared for the general public, for the whole world.


SN: Would you be OK with that? There are people concerned with restitution these days. May I share it with them?


OM: I have nothing to be ashamed of.


I wrote to a former colleague in the Tropenmuseum while I sat there with her but did not receive a response while we were together. 


SN: We will meet again. What a bitter edge to a story. And it is not over yet.  Have you lived here all your life?


OM: Yes, since I married.


And then she looked down once again. Out come an afterword about her recent, severe illness, a long and critical hospital stay which could only have cost a lot of money, that her husband received no pension, that she still had young children at home for whom she had to fend, and how her work at the loom was her only source of income aside from a small rice paddy. 


I felt so utterly, utterly sad. I saw her courage, her pride, her pain, her resolve, her humility, and especially her dignity. The fact that she had come to me to tell this story after all these years meant that it still bothered her. I grabbed her two hands in my own and felt like I wanted to pray with her, to infuse her somehow, with something. Amelioration. She said that our meeting was a blessing. And so I share her story. I still hope/plan that it turns into a blessing for her.


3 July 2023 - update

Before I left Indonesia in May I visited Ompu SiMarkel one last time. She looked much better, clearly still recovering from her long illness. Her neighbour quickly joined so that she wouldn't miss out on the excitement, so I didn't feel that I could talk. I did sadly relay to Ompu SiMarkel that several of my contacts in the Netherlands had failed to find any record of her loom. I began to wonder if it might have been acquired by a curator visiting from another European country.

A curator at the Tropenmuseum and key people at the former Nusantara Museum,  the TongTong Fair and the Indonesian Embassy in the Hague had all responded to my blog but their efforts didn't yield anything. Apparently there were no holdings in the Tropen and no financial records going back that far; no acquisition record of the loom in Nusantara; no records at TongTong, although they did their best to put me in touch with the museum curators.I decided to hold off with my search until I was back in The Netherlands. So I left Ompu Si Markel with a promise and a little bundle of rupiah notes to make her feel that she had received at least a token for compensation.

Back in the Netherlands I was initially swamped with catch-up, but I eventually got in touch with my old friend, Koos van Brakel, former head of collections at the Tropen. He was first on my list because he had known Rita well and I thought he might remember the looms of the TongTong Fair. He did! He confirmed my own memory of Rita Bolland's excitement about those looms and suggested I contact the current head of collections in the museum. Another old friend, from the days when I documented the Batak textiles in the museum, Richard van Alphen!

Richard was incredibly empathetic and helpful and immediately found a loom from the TongTong Fair of 1978! I thought that we had hit the jackpot, but no. This loom was from an Angkola Batak weaver who was making an Ulos Godang (Rita had written about that textile), while I was looking for a Toba loom with a half-woven Pusuk Robung textile. According to the acquisition record, the Angkola loom had been acquired by the Twents-Gelders Museum in Enschede. Five  years later it was transferred to the Tropenmuseum. Apparently I had worked on the on-line description for the loom myself when I worked there, but I have no recollection of that.

The Twents Textile Museum hasn't yet put its collection on-line, so I couldn't search their collection from my armchair. I sent them an email to see if they had anymore looms from the TongTong Fair of 1978. An answer is pending...

Then I coupled back to Richard van Alphen who dug deeper into the museum acquisition records and found vague and confusing mention of a Batak loom, one apparently a heddle rod and shed stick loom (backstrap) that had gone to the Education Museum in The Hague. It was not what I was looking for (the museum record had a photograph) but I also immediately wrote to the National Education Museum and was put in touch with the collections manager. This museum's holdings are also not yet on-line. So far, they haven't found the loom, but will search further. 

That is where the matter now stands. As I wrote to Richard, it just doesn't seem likely that a loom would be misplaced or de-acquisitioned, so we retain some hope that we may uncover it as yet. Stay tuned!

7 July

It turns out that there are two education museums. The one I contacted was in Dordrecht and not The Hague, but when they found nothing matching my description in their holdings, they suggested I contact the one in The Hague, which I did, and am awaiting further information.

Stay tuned!

13 July, 2023.

The loom has been located! Yesterday, to my great joy and surprise, I received an email from a staff member of MUSEON-Omniversum  (The Hague) with a scan of an acquisition card and the news that she thought she had found it. It matches the description that I received from the weaver, including the Pusuk Robung textile half woven.

I wanted to phone the weaver immediately, but it was too late in the day. I did call Gisele, the MUSEON staff member, who was most helpful. One puzzle solved, but it yielded many more puzzles. The loom was acquired in 1980; where had it been in the meantime? Was it used in the exhibition on gold yarn textiles before then? What did the message from the Tilburg person have to do with the story? How was the Ambassador involved, besides as the donor? We are going to try to find out.

This morning early I tried, without success, to call the weaver. Her telephone was not receiving calls. Was she out of call credit? Was her phone broken or lost? Was she not well? I called my trusted and kindly becak driver and asked him to look in on her next time he drove by. He promised, saying he would do so tomorrow. I will call him again the day after tomorrow. 

If I can somehow contact the weaver by telephone, I can ask her about her wishes. Does she want her loom back? Would she prefer compensation in the form of money or something else? Clearly, it is a 'stolen object' because, for whatever reason, the owner did not get paid for it. And that matter needs to be cleared up by hook or by crook.

Stay tuned....

18 July

The becak driver said that the weaver was out working in the fields. This is harvest season. The neighbour would let her know that I was trying to contact her.

Today the weaver picked up her phone when I called. She received the news politely. I told her we were still trying to find out where the loom was located between 1978 and 1980.

She said she did not need the loom back, but she would gratefully receive money for it. I passed this news on to MUSEON and await their answer as to how to proceed.

I let my becak driver know that his mission had been accomplished.

Stay tuned...

July 20

The last word is that the museum is pleased that Ompu si Markel knows that her loom has been located and is being cared for well. I let them know that Ompu si Markel's preference would be to be paid for her loom. They are discussing the matter internally and also continuing to try to find out what happened to the loom between 1978 and 1980 when it was finally acquisitioned by the museum. I understand that this is not a pleasant position for the museum to be in and they will want to know who was responsible for the promise to the weaver and where things might have gone wrong. By accepting the loom they have, through no fault of their own, been placed in a position of responsibility. I hope their research turns up the information that we are all looking for. We did not agree on a deadline. I should probably go after that because things like this can drag on for a long time, and the weaver is not getting any younger.

September 1

MUSEON has written to me with the news that an article appeared in the Trouw newspaper on 4 July 1978 to announce the acquisition of the looms by Dutch museums:

 “De Indonesische culturele attaché drs. Koesnadi Hardjasoemantri heeft zondag de Ikat-weeftoestellen, waarmee weefsters uit Sumatra, Borneo en Timor demonstraties hebben gegeven, geschonken aan het Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, het Museum voor Land- en Volkenkunde in Rotterdam, het Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara te Delft, het Twents-Gelders Textielmuseum in Enschede en het Museum voor het Onderwijs in Den Haag.” 


 [translation:" The ikat looms that the weavers from Sumatra, Borneo and Timor used for their demonstrations were donated by The Indonesian cultural attaché drs. Koesnadi Hardjasoemantri  to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, Museum voor Land- en Volkenkunde in Rotterdam, Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara in Delft, the Twents-Gelders Textile Museum in Enschede and the Museum voor het Onderwijs in the Hague."]

This is important information. It means that the fault does not lie with the Dutch museums; they simply acquired a donation through the Indonesian Embassy. 

But there are outstanding questions. 

Who promised the weavers compensation for their looms but subsequently did not pay up and why not?  

And why was the Batak loom not registered as part of the MUSEON collection until 1980? 

These questions will probably never be answered. Only one thing is really clear: those least able to afford it were the ones who paid for 'the gift'. 

How that came about looks, on the face of it, to be a tale of power, hierarchy, coloniality, status and possibly mischief or error, certainly neglect. 

Funny how things come to light after 45 years.

September 6

One question has been resolved. MUSEON has explained to me that the official registration of the loom in the museum collection may have occurred a bit behind schedule. It may have been acquired in 1978 but only been officially acquisitioned in 1978. It seems that the loom was inspected in the meantime.

October 17

The past month has seen some exciting developments in regard to the Ompu si Markel's loom. The very kind and clear-sighted curator of MUSEON-Omniversum, Hub Kockelkorn, took the matter to heart. It is no museum's pride to hold stolen objects and if the past can be rectified, all the better. That a museum is unable to 'purchase' a museum object some 40 years after it was officially acquisitioned, makes good sense. Mr. Kockelkorn proposed that Ompu si Markel supply a newly-woven ulos for the museum under terms and conditions of sale that will represent a win-win for both parties. I shared his proposal with Ompu si Market through a WhatsApp call, and we made a plan for the three of us to meet through another WhatsApp.

It was a successful meeting. Ompu SiMarkel and Hub Kockelkorn were both able to state their positions and felt mutually understood. Ompu SiMarkel was willing to weave an ulos for the museum. The down payment has been sent. 

As soon as she receives it, Ompu SiMarkel will be able to buy the yarn for her ulos. She was no longer able to make the 'pusuk robung' type that she wove in 1978 (the supplementary weft patterning is hard on her eyes), but she offered to make a 'mangiring', the traditional cloth that is a specialty of her village. Hub preferred a red one to a black one (it comes in two varieties) and Ompu SiMarkel will do her best. I do hope for a happy ending for this story. May it end with pride for both sides.

November 11

Last Saturday, market day in Tarutung, Ompu SiMarkel purchased yarn for her museum ulos. Yesterday, when I contacted her daughter, she told me that the ulos was finished (this is customary in Tarutung; weavers spend a week on their ulos to prepare it for market a week later) and had sent to the twiner to make the patterned edging. She wants to have it ready to send to The Hague next week. I can hardly wait to see it.

December 13

A week ago I contacted the museum to find out if the cloth had arrived in the mail. It hadn't. I had another look at the proof of shipping and found nothing hopeful there: no insurance, no track and trace, no request to have the package returned to sender if it could not be delivered. I became upset again. Could the fates really be conspiring to have Ompu Si Markel fall victim to bureaucracy again? I started to devise strategies and Plans B. (These took me an entire night of thinking....) but the next day when I called Ompu Si Markel's daughter, Esther, she showed me a second proof of shipping that had track and trace. It turns out that the package is hung up in Dutch customs. So we have to sit tight, be patient, and pray. I have lost textiles in the Dutch postal service before....

December 16

According to the track and trace, the package was ready to deliver to the museum but had not been accepted by the museum. I immediately contacted the curator who tracked down what had happened. Apparently a letter had been sent to the museum requesting payment of the customs invoice. It was not paid on time, so the package is now being returned to Indonesia. Needless to say, we are all very disappointed. We have to try again and do it better. But the most immediate priority is to make sure the cloth does not get lost on the way back to the weaver. I suggested that the weaver's daughter go to the post office immediately on Monday to let them know that they are waiting for the return of the package. Argh.

December 20

The past few days have been a scramble to try to figure out what happened and to try to ensure that the package does not get lost on its way back to Indonesia -- also to figure out how to send it better the next time (if there is a next time).

The curator obtained interesting information from the 'complaints' line. It turns out that the Post Office had used an email address that it had 'on hand' but was not the email address of the museum and was not even a valid address! This was why the museum did not receive the request from Postnl to pay the import duties. It is odd that the Post Office did not use my phone number, which was listed on the package. All very frustrating and evidence of a refusal to accept responsibility. There is something rotten in our postal system. Clearly.

I have also been in touch a lot with Ompu Si Markel's daughter to coach her through thisl, making sure she visit the Post Office in Tarutung, that they have her number, that they will call her if/when the package comes back. She was concerned that she had done something wrong at her end when she sent the package, so I had to reassure her that the problem lay with The Netherlands. Sad for them, as they had looked forward to the final payment before Christmas.

4 January

It was feeling critical. The package should have arrived back in Indonesia by now. I wrote to Ompu Si Markel's daughter, Esther, and asked whether she had been able to visit the Post Office again to ask whether the package had arrived. She wrote back immediately.  Yes, she had been to the Tarutung Post Office and they had told her to rest easy, that they would contact her and tell her to pick it up when the package arrived. 

Then it seemed to me that the time had come to pose the next, rather challenging questions: How long should we wait?  And what will we do when we have given up hope?

This question also received an almost direct response, and it was very different from what I expected. It was a photograph of the package.

"I have just picked it up," she wrote.

Halleluja!  The  New Year had just been rung in!  I wrote to the curator immediately and he joined the chorus. "Now for the second attempt," he wrote.

I know that this responsibility will again fall to me. How to do it better the second time? I am still pondering my strategy. Uppermost in my mind is making a complaint to the Dutch post office, but I have to set my ire aside and tackle this properly.

16 January

The curator has requested that the shipping fee be transferred to Indonesia. When the weaver receives it, she will re-send the package. This time we will follow the track-and-trace and make sure that we get the package as expeditiously as possible. For now, we wait for the museum admin and the banks. In the interim we researched other means of shipping, but there are no others in little Tarutung.

16 February

Well, the weaver re-sent the package by post and the Indonesian track and trace said that it arrived in The Netherlands on the 4th of February. By today, it had not been picked up by the Dutch track-and-trace system. I called customer service and they said that they had no information on the package. Obviously, I found my shirt once again in a knot. How was it possible that all initiatives for this weaver could end up being stuck under such dark clouds?

Only minutes later, the curator wrote to say that he had received the billing from customs, and he had paid it immediately. Now we have to sit tight and wait for it to be delivered. Fingers crossed.


22 February,

Is it possible?? Should I pinch myself? The curator writes to say that the cloth has arrived! Hallelujah! This story nears its end. The weaver will now receive her last installment. And the past will have been straightened out. We can shift gears towards the future. Hallelujah! 

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