Dear Prof. Legêne, you are the Chairwoman of the Koninklijk Nederlands Historisch Genootschap (KNHG), which is our guest of honor at the 2018 German Historikertag. How would you describe the functions and goals of your association? What are the most important issues in your term?
First of all, thank you very much for the invitation; it is a real honor for KNHG to be the special guest at the Historikertag. And thank you for these questions. KNHG is a membership organization. It has a broad mandate aimed at advancing historiographic debate as well as strengthening the role and position of historians in the Netherlands. We organize conferences, meet-ups, and co-edit the website Historici.nl; and we have our own A-rated journal, BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review. The journal is an important platform for state-of-the-art work in the field. The editorial board is independent of the board of KNHG and comprises scholars from Belgium and the Netherlands. KNHG as such is not focused exclusively on the history of the Netherlands (or the Low Countries), but rather serves as a professional organization for historians in the Netherlands and facilitates international contacts with them.
Currently KNHG is going through a rapid process of transformation, which is related to a kind of generational shift and to a strong awareness that historians need to reflect on the basic premises of our profession in order to keep pace with technological developments and with the ways history is invoked in public discourse. Further, we need to understand and deal with deep-rooted but problematic distinctions and divisions within our profession as it relates to academic and public history, to research and teaching, and to history and politics. In this process, we are also inventing new ways of interacting with our members and the professional Umwelt. We invite them to present initiatives we can facilitate. We have a working group on the Ethical Code of Historians and publish best practices. We’ve established a network of “correspondents” who write for our website. And, which is really new for us, we’ve succeeded in establishing several awards and to organize award ceremonies for other sponsors of awards in the field of history.
What are the most pressing issues for history in the Netherlands?
In my view, the most pressing issue for history in the Netherlands concerns the historiographic debate among historians. I’m not talking about so-called “navel-gazing.” As historians, we play a role in public discourse on identity politics, on decolonization of the public sphere and academia, and on understanding social frictions and tensions in terms of both the national framework and a larger transnational or global perspective. Many of us do respond to these challenges and do not shy away from the role of public intellectual. As I see it, however, we have too little debate among ourselves on historiographic starting points, rhetorical frames, and (interdisciplinary) approaches; so we run the risk of the historian’s voice being perceived as just “one” political perspective among others, instead of there being multiple voices that come out of intellectual debate within the profession as a whole and that also reflect our own work.
Another urgent issue, which is relevant for its impact on both the position of historians and the direction of the discipline, has to do with digitally mediated tools, resources, and data in historical research and their introduction. This development, which by now is widespread, requires us to rethink the archive, to reconsider the role of the historian – as the singular author of an historical analysis and/or as “moderator” of historical data – and to be proactive with respect to the computer sciences, pushing them to provide us with tools that can help us find answers to questions relevant for history.
You are a professor of political history in Amsterdam; what is your current research project?
My current research is focused on colonialism and processes of decolonization as related to state formation, citizenship, and nation building. When I was working at the Royal Tropical Institute and Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, I was involved in development cooperation and international cultural projects and came to understand the impact of the colonial past on our world today, especially on our views about humanity and what makes for a good society.
I approach imperialism as a common European history, one that was “nationalized” only after the Second World War with the project of European integration, which seemingly emerged from the wish for collaboration by certain European nation states. I argue that that collaboration is rooted in a deeply entangled colonial past. I find it regrettable that the House of European History in Brussels, which opened last year, has so far failed to show those roots.
The group Jong KNHG [Young KNHG] is part of your organization. What are its goals? How are they integrated in and supported by KNHG?
Jong KNHG is a really vital new part of KNHG, and we have embraced the initiative, which was presented to the board “from the bottom up,” so to speak, as a sign that the younger generation of historians is no longer impressed by the grey hairs of their well-established professors. The goals of this young and up-and-coming generation are to strengthen their own academic and social position and self-awareness. Some of these younger historians have postgraduate positions, but many work outside academia as independent scholars, or in museums, schools, and the media. They organize regular trainings and debates, and are involved in the correspondence networks; and one of them serves on the KNHG Board. We have drafted a statute that guarantees their independent status as a working group of KNHG.
The topic of the Joint panel of the KNHG and the VHD at the Historikertag is “The Peace of Westphalia 1648 – 2018.” What is the value of drawing long lines? Can we learn from history?
For me this panel on Westphalia between 1648 and 2018 is an example of the historiographic debate I mentioned before. Can we draw long lines? We will see. We have posed the question to the panelists, and I look forward to their responses. The red thread that runs between these two dates, 1648 and 2018, is the issue of nation-state formation. We tend to regard nation-state formation as a longue durée European political phenomenon, with imperialism as a conjuncture and decolonization as an event. The long line I would draw is not about this Eurocentric long-term history of political thinking about borders, boundaries, and social fragmentation into (proliferating) nation-states now collaborating within the EU. Rather, I would like to approach it as a history of legal, philosophical, and political ideas and practices rooted in histories of inclusion and exclusion, hierarchies and exploitation, with which we need to come to grips. An impressive example of work on this issue is German artist Dierk Schmidt’s project The Division of the Earth: Tableaux on the Legal Synopses of the Berlin Africa Conference. Can we learn from history? We can learn from our discussions about history; and those discussions need to be inclusive and thorough.
KNHG organized the first Historikertag in the Netherlands, the Historicidagen, in 2017. What were your experiences with this type of conference? Will there be another Historicidagen in the future?
Yes, with our first Historicidagen in Utrecht, last year, we followed your example, and it was a big success. The next conference will take place in 2019, in Groningen. The program in Utrecht was varied and inspiring, with many historians proposing panels and sessions. We noted that quite a number of these addressed historiographic issues rather than “merely” presenting research finding; and we were very happy about that. At this grassroots level, the emphasis turned out to be on modern and contemporary history; but for the next edition in 2019 we are also looking to attract medieval and ancient historians.
Thank you very much!
Professor of Political History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; since 2012, Chair of KNHG; since 2011, Chair of the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (KITLV, Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies). Previous positions include: Founder and Publisher of KIT Press (Royal Tropical Institute); Head of the Curatorial Department at the Tropenmuseum (Royal Tropical Institute); Affiliate Professor of Cultural History of the Netherlands, with special emphasis on material culture, for the Royal Antiquities Society (University of Amsterdam); and Member of the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO. Legêne obtained her PhD at Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, with a dissertation on imperialism and nation-building and the legacies of nineteenth-century colonialism in Dutch culture (De bagage van Blomhoff en Van Breugel: Japan, Java, Tripoli en Suriname in de negentiende-eeuwse Nederlandse cultuur van het imperialisme, 1998). For more information and a list of publications, see Prof. Legêne’s personal page on the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam website: https://research.vu.nl/en/persons/s-legene.