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Lecture | LIAS Lunch Talk Series

Text Matter: The Material and Political Lives of Javanese Manuscripts

Wednesday 29 May 2024
LIAS Lunch Talk Series
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 1-4
2311 BZ Leiden
Vrieshof 3, room 1.04 (Verbarium)


On June 20 1812, the Yogyakarta Kraton (royal palace) fell to British forces. Sultan Hamengkubuwana II’s valuable belongings, including his library of more than 150 manuscripts, were looted by the British senior officials in command of the attack. On March 7 2019, Moazzam Malik, then British Ambassador to Indonesia, presented a hard drive with 30,000 digital images of 75 manuscripts that, having been stolen during the 1812 raids, had ultimately ended up in the British Library. The initiative was greeted on both sides as a digital “return” (I. kembali) for its promise to make the manuscripts accessible again to the Javanese public. 

In this talk, I examine the notion of a digital return in relation to shifting assumptions about the nature of texts, their audiences, and their materiality. The rationale behind digitization initiatives, as well as Javanese voices celebrating the “return” of the texts, understands manuscripts primarily as bearers of textual knowledge of a cultural heritage that should be freely accessible. A look back into the history of producing, looting, and holding manuscripts in Islamic Java and the West, however, suggests these notions are completely at odds with those prevalent in the environment in which the texts were originally produced and stolen. As I outline the material and political lives of manuscripts, I also ask what these insights mean for us as scholars, as well initiatives of digital or physical restitution. 

About the speaker

I am an Assistant Professor (Universitair Docent) of Islam in South and Southeast Asia at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies. In my work, I draw on ethnographic field research, training in contemporary critical theory, and literary studies in Javanese, Malay, and Arabic to investigate questions of Islamic identity, the role of memory and the formation of heritage, and the transmission of knowledge across time and space. Before coming to Leiden, I received my PhD in Islamic Studies at Columbia University and held a postdoc in Norway.

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