Mallaby’s car: colonial subjects, imperial actors, and the representation of human suffering in postcolonial exhibitions

Susan Legêne


The iconic photograph of Mallaby’s car shows the wreckage of the vehicle of British brigadier A.S. Mallaby, which was destroyed in Surabaya in Indonesia on 30 October 1945 during the Indonesian uprising against the restoration of Dutch colonial rule. The streets show military vehicles, in control of the situation; however the billboard with ‘Once and forever – The Indonesia Republic’ indicate that the nationalists did not give up their political aspirations. The photograph is iconic in the fragile balance it depicts; a balance between violence and negotiations with many stakeholders, symbolised in the balancing car, with its front wheels, hood and left front door up and open. This photograph triggered my investigation into the impact of decolonisation on the representation of colonial subjects and ‘imperial actors’ in museums in Indonesia and the Netherlands. The image of the car appears in a recorded interview with the two sons of Mallaby, who in minute detail recount the events that resulted in their father’s death. The car points at a history of decolonisation that thoroughly changed the strong or weak citizenship entitlements of everyone involved. What role could they play, at the time, and how is this diverging agency now represented in historical or ethnographic displays? This theme is explored with close reference to the scholarly models provided by Asma Abbas in Liberalism and Human Suffering (2010), specifically the notion of re-presentation as ‘making present again’. I argue that distinct national frames, within which common histories of colonialism and decolonisation today are represented, create notions of ‘historical citizenship’ that discipline the victims of decolonisation, and refrain from challenging the legacies of the ethnographic categorisation in colonial museum displays.


Brigadier Mallaby, Surabaya, Indonesia, decolonisation, post-colonial, photography

Full text: Legene_p97-111 (PDF, 1,174 KB)


Biographical note

Susan Legêne is professor of political history at VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and project leader of the NWO-funded Indonesian/Dutch research project Sites, Bodies and Stories: the dynamics of heritage formation in colonial and postcolonial Indonesia and the Netherlands (2008-2012). She has been the Head of the Curatorial Department of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. In this chapter, she revisits the semi-permanent exhibition The Netherlands East Indies – a Colonial History, which opened in 2003 and of which she had been the project leader.

An earlier version of this material was presented on the occasion of the project conference ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’ (20 -22 November 2012, Museum of Ethnology/Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna). To view the film footage on the Open Arts Archive,, follow this link: