dr. F. H. (Fenneke) Sysling

Fenneke SyslingFenneke Sysling is a historian specializing in European colonial history and the history of science. She was trained at the University of Amsterdam, the University of Oxford and VU University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden. She enrolled in 2008 in the Sites, Bodies and Stories research project as a PhD Candidate at VU University Amsterdam, in the Department of History and succesfully defended her thesis in February 2013. Her research focuses on the academic discipline of physical anthropology in the Dutch East Indies from ca. 1880 to 1962 and especially on the day to day experiences and practices of anthropologists to understand how physical anthropology works. She also has a special interest in the intellectual and material legacy of this discipline in museums and academic institutions.

PhD research: Physical anthropology in the Dutch East Indies, 1880-1962 (2008-2013)

Fenneke’s PhD thesis is a history of physical anthropology in the Dutch East Indies from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. It investigates the practices of Dutch and other European anthropologists and their, often unsatisfactory, search for boundaries between the races of the region. It is a story of both the dirty work of science and the grand questions that lay behind it, from instructions for boiling skulls to flesh them out to the question whether there existed such a thing as a pygmy race. The central objective of this thesis is to understand the processes of making knowledge and the connections of these processes with the colonial state and the lives of indigenous Indonesians.

The first half of this thesis looks at different methods of physical anthropology related to the anthropologists’ need to assemble ‘objective’ data: collecting human remains, measuring living people and making photographs and plaster casts. The second part continues the analysis by focussing on anthropological questions in the archipelago and the ways in which anthropologists tried to answer them. One of such questions was for example whether there was a clear dividing line between Papuans in the east and Malays in the west of the Dutch empire. The thesis concludes that the practices of anthropology were often tied up with colonial violence towards indigenous Indonesians but were also regularly thwarted by the individuals concerned.

E-mail: f.h.sijsling@vu.nl