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Introducing: Melinda Susanto

Melinda Susanto is appointed as PhD candidate at the Institute for History since April 2020. She introduces herself below.

Starting my PhD research in the midst of a pandemic is not something I would have predicted at any stage of my career thus far. My prior training and work experience was in art history and museums. I graduated with a BA from the Australian National University in 2011, followed by an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2012-2013. I discovered a passion for early modern printed materials, while writing my MA thesis on representations of botany and landscape in early modern Dutch travel accounts of China.    

My interest in botanical histories continued to evolve through my exhibition projects as an assistant curator at National Gallery Singapore between 2014 and 2018. My role involved taking care of the galleries documenting early modern interactions between Europe and Southeast Asia. The most exciting part of my job was visiting the storage depot and discovering materials from the collections. I came across visual materials which were produced during European scientific explorations and propagated particular worldviews – maps, prints and illustrated texts representing the Southeast Asian region, ranging from natural history, ethnography to archaeology. At the same time, I also found various instances of local intermediaries who facilitated European knowledge production in Asia. I became curious to discover more about the role of Southeast Asia in early modern circulations of knowledge.

This inspired me to look for opportunities to further my research. I was part of a cohort of five students accepted in the Cosmopolis Advanced programme here at Leiden University in 2018. I arrived in Leiden in July 2018 to begin intensive Dutch language courses for two months, which constituted the first part of our training. Once the academic year began, we attended history seminars as part of the MA in Colonial and Global History, while also taking further Dutch lessons to develop our reading skills, practising early modern palaeography, and familiarising ourselves with the Dutch East India Company records in the National Archives in the Hague. I remember our initial visits to the archives led by our coordinator, Dr Lennart Bes. One of the most surprising things he shared with us was a pressed botanical specimen, which still survives all these years, bound in one of the records!

Developing my long-standing interest in botanical histories, I wrote my thesis on the history of cinnamon in the eighteenth century, tracing its intellectual and cultural histories alongside its cultivation in Sri Lanka. I came across mentions that both locals and the Dutch used cinnamon as therapeutics. This eventually led me to develop my current PhD project on the role of tropical therapeutics from Indonesia in the early modern period. My research proposes to investigate the utility of plants and indigenous knowledge from the archipelago within the context of tropical medicine.

Starting my PhD research has been strange with the current measures to work from home. My biggest challenge so far has been establishing a routine for myself at home – I sometimes share the kitchen space with my housemates, where we work together and motivate one another. Thankfully, I have enough resources to embark upon my research, including utilising the library’s book collection service. Some of the Dutch East India Company records have been digitised, which I am able to access online. Working on digitised materials on a computer screen is quite a different experience, and I miss working with tangible materials. I am looking forward to a time when I can research in the archives again, as well as finally meeting colleagues in person at the Institute!

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