Mining the Visual Record: a View from Southeast Asia’s Archipelagic Far East May 10, 2021 23:30

by Heather Sutherland

This personal consideration of the graphic archive is like a photograph, capturing only a particular moment in time. Nonetheless, I hope my experience in compiling an image gallery on the easternmost part of Southeast Asia, will prove helpful to readers.

Evolving technologies have created a constantly expanding visual repertoire, which is now uniquely accessible through digital media. The revolution in saving, transferring, and printing images gained critical mass in the 1990s, although Benny Landa's Indigo Digital Press dates back to 1977 and the predecessors of the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) to 1983. The consequent disruptions have created challenges and opportunities for those in the knowledge business. Producers1 and consumers alike are adjusting, trying to catch up. There is now a global library of texts and images; this has fundamentally changed cost-benefit calculations in research. The effort needed to assess material has changed utterly. Many sources, once dismissed as taking too much time to check, given that the only reward might be few meagre facts or images, can now be reviewed in minutes. Once obscure sources and collections can be readily explored, creating new angles of vision.

Methodologies of textual criticism, with their roots in Biblical analysis, philology, and studies of the classics, have always been fundamental to the humanities. However, as the advertising industry learned long ago, visual information is more appealing, and absorbed more immediately, than blocks of text. But it is difficult to subject images to the same logical rigour as written argument, causing some ambivalence among those who cherish the scientific basis of their discipline. Intent and affect in sources are hard to pin down. The "scope of digital methods related to images and other visual objects based on vision rather than close reading remains…essentially uncharted",2 despite the surge of interest in (often quantitative) research in the digital humanities.3

It is not my intention here to embark upon these waters; nor do I consider the debate on the relationship of visual material to structures of knowing, power and identity. 4 Rather, I want to convey personal, practical and hopefully useful information drawn from my own experience. The focus is upon images intended as documentation of archipelagic Southeast Asia, not those created for expressive or artistic reasons.

While working on a book on trade and the state in these eastern archipelagos of Southeast Asia, Seaways and Gatekeepers I realised how unfamiliar they were to me, even after decades of interest in Indonesia and Malaysia. I found that images – drawings, maps and photographs – were indispensable in building some understanding of the region's diversity. I knew that this would be even more true for most of my readers. A book could not encompass a fraction of the material I wanted to present. When NUS Press suggested a dedicated website, I was enthusiastic. I had earlier been involved in various attempts to develop online resources, which had foundered because there was no suitable platform.

I envisaged the website as a digital appendix. The functions of academic appendices are similar to those of the human anatomical kind, both being remnants of earlier evolution, while harbouring useful resources (bacteria, in the human gut). Traditionally academic appendices were used to present blocks of relevant material that would have interrupted the flow of the main text. Now the digital material that can be presented is infinitely more diverse, encompassing images, sound and text. A digital appendix can have diverse function, either being integrated closely with the article or book, or a separate yet engaging experience. This could also be updated. Even so, in 2019 the widely used American Psychological Association style sheet specified that appendices "should not burden the reader" and be "easily presented in print format". The examples then given would have been familiar almost two centuries earlier – think of Raffles’ History of Java (1830).6

So now we have an “appendix” attached to my Seaways study, which ranges in time from the early sixteenth to the early 20th century. Our material consists of images and maps. The zoomability of digital graphics is a great advantage; see for example the detailed drawing of the defeat of Makassar in the 1660s, available through the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, or the wonderful map of the eighteenth century Philippines provided by the US Library of Congress to the UNESCO Digital Library. 7 The digital collection of the Brazilian Overseas Council (O Conselho Ultramarino), heir to the Portuguese establishment founded in Lisbon in 1643, has a fascinating seventeenth century sketch map of Melaka.8


Authors working on modern Indonesia used to have a simple task when looking for illustrations: they went to the KITLV in Leiden or the KIT in Amsterdam, leafing through lists. The publisher would grudgingly permit a handful of black and white images; colour images were expensive and rationed. Now the prospects seem unlimited, continually increasing in range and depth. The visual record is global, and the researcher not only has access to individual institutions and personal snapshots, but also to a growing array of national and trans-national platforms that create multi-collection resources. Teachers have ample opportunities to introduce their students to primary sources, encouraging them (for the VOC period alone) to view original documents,11 browse manuscripts,12 and search archive catalogues.13 Heritage funding has helped generate a spate of new sites. Platforms are typically administered by national libraries, such as Australia's Trove (2010), France's Gallica and Spain's Biblioteca Digital Hispánica (2008). The US Library of Congress prints and photograph collections have some material on Southeast Asia. The Smithsonian Institution's research information system (SIRIS) offers access to a maze of collections, but it is best to use their open access portal (opened 2020)The National Library of the Philippines has extensive text collections, from incunabula to newspapers, and a good map collection. Heritage-related material is available from the National Library Board of Singapore19 and more general images, including historical, from the National Archives of Singapore online. Malaysia's National Archives library is searchable, with a variety of material, including documents.20

Transnational platforms include those linked to the European Union, such as Europeana and, since 2006, EuropArchive. Several Dutch maritime museums have pooled their resources in Maritiemdigitaal, while the Ministry of Defence hosts the NIMH, the Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Historie.

Since 1999 the Netherlands government has been developing the Digital Heritage Network (DEN), based in the National Archives. The Ministry of Education and Culture's cultural heritage service maintains its own website,21 as well as supporting others, such as the recently renewed Geheugen van Nederland. This now provides access to the National Collection of the Netherlands and photographs from the National Archives. Government funding has also been invested in soft power projects involving former colonies.22 The Dutch National Archives, a world leader in digitalisation projects, offers documents online and collaborates with former colonies. The Atlas van Mutual Heritage (AMH) repackaged the visual legacy of the Dutch East and West India Companies, including maps; the linking of the historic image to the current Google Maps location is an extra twist. The Indonesian National Archives (ANRI) online resources now include the Batavia Daghregisters (the VOC diary of events), the De Haan map collection, Siam diplomatic letters and many lesser collections useful for Batavia's urban social history.23 The Harta Karun project is among ANRI initiatives funded by the Corts Foundation. This offers annotated key documents and is an excellent way of making historical texts more accessible.24

Useful sources can be found in specialist institutions such as the medicine-focussed Wellcome Library (1949) and those of universities.25 The latter encompass the Guillemard collection of photographs and diaries from the 1886 expedition to the eastern archipelagos,26 now kept in the Cambridge University Library, the University of Texas map collection, Michigan's extensive holdings (with a focus on the Philippines), those of Cornell and Wisconsin, or, less predictably, Bristol's impressive Visualising China or Lafayette University's images of pre-war Indonesia.27

Using illustrations from books and periodicals once required visits to libraries. Then Project Gutenberg (1971) led the way to free access to digital texts, followed by others, such as Internet Archive (1996) and the Hathi Trust (2008). The Internet Archive, for example, has a modest 500 titles for Celebes but 16 films. The latter has over half a million full-text books relating to the Dutch East Indies, over 550,000 references to Celebes, and 34 for humble Hoamoal. It also hosts the Wayback Machine, an evolving, and easily searchable, internet archive of the internet; this began in 1996. The Hathi search function locates periodical articles from, for example, the Tijdschrift voor Indische Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, complete with coloured plates.28 For the Netherlands, Delpher (2013) has become an indispensable resource. Not only has it digitalised colonial newspapers (partly searchable) but is also offering an ever-growing selection of Dutch books. Now that there are often multiple copies online it is possible to compare different versions of the same work. The results of two nineteenth century scientific commissions in the Indies can act as example: Caspar G.C. Reinwardt's Royal Commission on Agriculture, Science and Art in the colonies, which began research in the Indies in 1816,29 and Coenraad Jacob Temminck's Natuurkundige Commissie voor Nederlandsch-Indië , established in 1820. 30

Reinward's Reis31 is available in Google and Delpher versions, while Salomon Müller's ethnographic work for the Temminck commission (1838) is best consulted as one of the many well-presented and searchable works in the Biodiversity Library (est. 2005).32 Nineteenth century travel accounts are also online, including those of Kolff33, van der Hart34, van der Crab35, and a selection of voyages to West New Guinea.36 Digital versions of classics on the eastern islands such as Riedel37 and de Clercq38 are also available. The former is offered through Columbia University, while the Smithsonian Library provides both the Dutch original and an English translation of de Clercq's Ternate.

One useful feature of online collections is that the copyright situation is relatively clear. It is usually specified what is public domain, and what is covered by a Creative Commons license. These were introduced in 2002 and enable copyright holders to grant general access to their material, breaking from the general guideline that an author's rights are protected until seventy years after his or her death. Such information removes the uncertainties surrounding "fair use", as (vaguely) defined in the United States.

Conditions of obtaining material have also been transformed. Once carefully selected images were provided at a cost per copy or negative, prices ranging from the exorbitant to the reasonable. The proliferation of images online, and the inability to control their distribution, necessitated new pricing structures. Some institutions still charge fees for access to high resolution copies as well as for publishing permission (the British Library) others, such as Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, make all images already in high definition available online free of charge. This generosity is increasingly common, other examples being the New York Public Library, the KITLV, all online material provided by the Dutch Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB) and Nationaal Archief (NA) (National Library and Archives respectively), and any on Wikimedia Commons. Others adopt a middle course, charging a flat fee per publication (the NMVW).

A final suggestion: it saves considerable time and trouble if the image and all the information necessary for citation (including copyright and persistent url) are well organised from the very beginning. Since image files are large, it is better not to store them inside the database itself, but to have a designated field in the informational database that provides a path or link to the specific image file. These can be kept in the local file system or stored on the cloud. If several people are collaborating on a large project a cloud-based platform can make transmission of files and data relatively easy; Airtable, which combines features of a spreadsheet and database, is an example. For smaller projects a simple database such as Access can store information, while images can be linked to the Access form.

This overview has focussed on the evolution of the pre-twentieth century graphic repertoire, and digital access to it. The potential is even greater for research on contemporary issues, when material created within the digital environment can be called upon. Sound, still images, film, video and the stream of digital media themselves will all contribute. The Netherlands Sound and Image Archive has newsreel and other material from the Netherlands Indies and Indonesia, while more films are available from the EYE Museum.39 The exploitation of television footage, blogs, YouTube and so on, will demand focussed attention as well as methodological and theoretical discipline. We have barely begun.


Aa, P.J.B.C. Robide van der. Reizen Naar Nederlandsch Nieuw-Guinea : Ondernomen Op Last Der Regeering Van Nederlandsch-Indie in De Jaren 1871, 1872, 1875-1876 / Door De Heeren P. Van Der Crab and J.E. Teysmann, J.G. Coorengel En A.J. Langeveldt Van Hemert En P. Swaan ; Met Geschied- En Aardrijkskundige Toelichtingen Door P.J.B.C. Robide Van Der Aa. 's-Gravenhage: Nijhoff, 1879.

Bate, David. "Photography and the Colonial Vision." Third Text 7, no. 22 (1993): 81-91.

Clercq, F. S. A. de. Bijdragen Tot De Kennis Der Residentie Ternate. Leiden: Brill, 1890.

Crab, Petrus van der. De Moluksche Eilanden: Reis Van Z. E. Den Gouverneur-Generaal Charles Ferdinand Pahud, Door Den Molukschen Archipel. Batavia: Lange, 1862.

Dobson, James E. Critical Digital Humanities: The Search for a Methodology. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2019.

Eleanor M. Hight, Gary D. Sampson, ed. Colonialist Photography. Imag(in)Ing Race and Place. London: Routledge, 2002.

Fox, Justin. "Covid-19 Shows That Scientific Journals Need to Open Up. Publishers Have Had a Good 355 Years, but Change Is Coming." Bloomberg Opinion 30 June 2020 (2020).

Guillemard, Francis H.H. The Cruise of the Marchesa to Kamchatka & New Guinea with Notices of Formosa, Liu-Kiu, and Various Islands of the Malay Archipelago. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1886.

Hart, C. van der. Reize Rondom Het Eiland Celebes En Naar Eenige Der Moluksche Eilanden, Gedaan in Den Jare 1850, Door Z.M. Schepen Van Oorlog Argo En Bromo, Onder Bevel Van C. Van Der Hart. vols. s'Gravenhage: K. Fuhri, 1853.

Ignatow, Gabe, and Rada Mihalcea. Text Mining: A Guidebook for the Social Sciences. London: SAGE Publications, 2017.

Kolff, Dirk Hendrik. Reis Door De Weinig Bekende Zuidelijke Molukse Archipel En Langs De Geheel Onbekende Zuidwestkust Van Nieuw-Guinea, Gedaan in De Jaren 1825 En 1826. Amsterdam1828.

Koole, S. "Photography as Event: Power, the Kodak Camera, and Territoriality in Early Twentieth-Century Tibet." Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 2 (2017): 310-345.

Maron, Nancy, Kimberly Schmelzinger, Christine Mulhern, and Daniel Rossman. "The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology." Journal of Electronic Publishing 22, no. 1 (2016).

Müller, Salomon. "Land-En Volkenkunde. Verhandelingen over De Natuurlijke Geschiedenis Der Nederlandsche Overzeesche Bezittingen." edited by C.J. Temminck Natuurkundige Commissie voor Nederlandsch-Indie. Leiden: S. en J. Luchtmans en C.C. van der Hoek, 1839.

Protschky, Susie, ed. Photography, Modernity and the Governed in Late-Colonial Indonesia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015.

Raat, A.J.P. "Alexander Von Humboldt and Coenraad Jacob Temminck." Zoologische Bijdragen 21 (1976): 19-38.

Raffles, Sir Thomas Stamford. The History of Java. Volume 2. London: J. Murray, 1830.

Reinwardt, C.G.C. Reis Naar Het Oostelijk Gedeelte Van Den Indischen Archipel, in Het Jaar 1821. Amsterdam: F.Muller, 1858.

Riedel, J. G. F. . De Sluik-En Kroesharige Rassen Tusschen Selebes En Papua. Gravenhage: M. Nijhoff, 1886.

Rosenberg, H. von, and W. Vogler. "De Mentawai-Eilanden En Hunne Bewoners." TITLV 1 (1853): 399-442.

Sander Münster, Melissa Terras. "The Visual Side of Digital Humanities: A Survey on Topics, Researchers, and Epistemic Cultures." Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 35, no. 2 (2019): 366-389.

Strassler, Karen. Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java.. Durham: Duke, 2010.

Sutherland, Heather. Seaways and Gatekeepers. Trade and State in the Eastern Archipelagos of Southeast Asia, C.1600–C.1906. Singapore: NUS, 2021.

Weber, Andreas. Hybrid Ambitions. Science, Governance, and Empire in the Career of Caspar G.C. Reinwardt (1773-1854). . Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012.

  1. Nancy Maron et al., "The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology," Journal of Electronic Publishing 22, no. 1 (2016). The most contentions arena has been periodical publishing, where gatekeeping scientific journals enjoy profit margins of up to forty per cent Elsevier (RELX) has been a particular focus of criticism; the firm, inspired by a sixteenth century Leiden business, was founded in 1880 and now issues between 2,500 and 2,000 journals. It has been a fierce opponent of Open Access. Justin Fox, "Covid-19 Shows That Scientific Journals Need to Open Up. Publishers have had a good 355 years, but change is coming.," Bloomberg Opinion 30 June 2020 (2020). Wikimedia, "Elsevier".
  2. Melissa Terras Sander Münster, "The visual side of digital humanities: a survey on topics, researchers, and epistemic cultures," Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 35, no. 2 (2019).
  3. Gabe Ignatow and Rada Mihalcea, Text Mining: A Guidebook for the Social Sciences (London: SAGE Publications, 2017). James E. Dobson, Critical Digital Humanities: The Search for a Methodology. (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2019).
  4. For example: David Bate, "Photography and the colonial vision," Third Text 7, no. 22 (1993). Gary D. Sampson Eleanor M. Hight, ed. Colonialist Photography. Imag(in)ing Race and Place (London: Routledge, 2002). Karen Strassler, Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java.. (Durham: Duke, 2010). Susie Protschky, ed. Photography, modernity and the governed in late-colonial Indonesia (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015); S. Koole, "Photography as Event: Power, the Kodak Camera, and Territoriality in Early Twentieth-Century Tibet," Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no. 2 (2017).
  5. Heather Sutherland, Seaways and Gatekeepers. Trade and State in the Eastern Archipelagos of Southeast Asia, c.1600–c.1906 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2021).
  6. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, The history of Java. Volume 2. (London: J. Murray, 1830).
  7. 1734. Una carta hidrográfica y corográfica de las islas Filipinas, Bibloteca Digital Mundial. On the Library,
  8. “Fortaleza de Malaca” from their collection [Fortificações portuguesas - Ásia - Mapas - Obras anteriores a 1800][\_digital/div\_cartografia/cart1102901/cart1102901.jpg](
  9. For the wills of VOC officials and subjects,
  10. Such as the journal kept by Arnoldus Lieranus on this travels kin Amboina, 1631-1635, in the Badische Landesbibliothek, Karlsruhe, Cod. Karlsruhe 476,
  11. See the TANAP overview:
  20. On the Shared Cultural Heritage Programme see This also includes the Atlantic World, in co-operation with the library of Congress.
  21. Harta Karun was part of the Corts Foundation funded DASA project (2011-2018); see the website of the foundation: Also
  22. For the VOC period alone, the TANAP programme and the digitalisation of documents (such as testamenten
  23. For the UCLA's overview of Southeast Asian Images Resources, go to:
  24. Francis H.H. Guillemard, The Cruise of the Marchesa to Kamchatka & New Guinea with Notices of Formosa, Liu-Kiu, and Various Islands of the Malay Archipelago, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1886).
  25. East Asia Image Collection, Gerald & Rella Warner Dutch East Indies Negative Collection;
  26. The first number, for example, contained H. von Rosenberg and W. Vogler, "De Mentawai-eilanden en hunne bewoners," TITLV 1(1853). This included 2 maps and 26 plates. Access limited for post-1879 volumes.
  27. Andreas Weber, Hybrid Ambitions. Science, Governance, and Empire in the Career of Caspar G.C. Reinwardt (1773-1854). (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012).
  28. A.J.P. Raat, "Alexander Von Humboldt and Coenraad Jacob Temminck," Zoologische Bijdragen 21(1976).
  29. C.G.C. Reinwardt, Reis naar het oostelijk gedeelte van den Indischen archipel, in het jaar 1821 (Amsterdam: F.Muller, 1858).
  30. Salomon Müller, "Land-en Volkenkunde. Verhandelingen over de Natuurlijke Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche overzeesche bezittingen," ed. C.J. Temminck Natuurkundige Commissie voor Nederlandsch-Indie (Leiden: S. en J. Luchtmans en C.C. van der Hoek, 1839).
  31. Dirk Hendrik Kolff, Reis door de weinig bekende zuidelijke Molukse archipel en langs de geheel onbekende zuidwestkust van Nieuw-Guinea, gedaan in de jaren 1825 en 1826 (Amsterdam1828). The English version is also online.
  32. C. van der Hart, Reize rondom het eiland Celebes en naar eenige der Moluksche eilanden, gedaan in den jare 1850, door Z.M. schepen van oorlog Argo en Bromo, onder bevel van C. van der Hart, vols. (s'Gravenhage: K. Fuhri, 1853).
  33. Petrus van der Crab, De Moluksche eilanden: Reis van Z. E. den Gouverneur-Generaal Charles Ferdinand Pahud, door den Molukschen Archipel (Batavia: Lange, 1862).
  34. P.J.B.C. Robide van der Aa, Reizen naar Nederlandsch Nieuw-Guinea : ondernomen op last der regeering van Nederlandsch-Indie in de jaren 1871, 1872, 1875-1876 / door de heeren P. Van der Crab and J.E. Teysmann, J.G. Coorengel en A.J. Langeveldt van Hemert en P. Swaan ; met geschied- en aardrijkskundige toelichtingen door P.J.B.C. Robide van der Aa. ('s-Gravenhage: Nijhoff, 1879).
  35. J. G. F. Riedel, De sluik-en kroesharige rassen tusschen Selebes en Papua (Gravenhage: M. Nijhoff, 1886).
  36. F. S. A. de Clercq, Bijdragen tot de kennis der residentie Ternate (Leiden: Brill, 1890).