This is a story about my ‘serendipitous’ discovery of an unknown building designed by Herman Thomas Karsten: the Red Cross hospital in Bogor. Or, as it was called during Dutch colonial rule, the Ro(o)de Kruis-ziekenhuis in Buitenzorg.
My discovery started in 2014 when I was composing a list of town plans Karsten either designed or advised on. My initial tool for this venture was www.delpher.nl: a repository/website developed by the National Library of the Netherlands that offers free, online access to millions of pages from Dutch and the Dutch East Indian newspapers, books and journals. My research method was simple: after entering Karsten’s name in combination with the names of major and minor towns in the Dutch East Indies, Delpher showed me the documents that contained both terms.
While I was primarily searching for references to town plans, I didn’t turn a blind eye to texts about buildings. Not only because this would prevent me from having to go over all ‘hits’ again if one day I would be working on Karsten’s list of buildings, but also because you never know what you may find. For although I am a scholar and therefore like to work in an orderly fashion, I also recognise – and embrace – serendipity can be a very welcome and significant contributor to a research process.
Several hours into my desk-top research, I struck lucky. While checking ‘Karsten’ and ‘Buitenzorg’ in 1928 and 1929, I came across four newspaper articles that referred to the Roode Kruis in Buitenzorg. Two of them even contained photographs of the buildings and part of the audience during the opening ceremony. The photographs were revealing, and remarkable. Firstly because the photographs demonstrated the hospital was more than just a plan. Secondly because they gave an impression what the buildings looked like. And thirdly because they suggested that the opening of the hospital was an important event. As newspapers in 1929 only rarely included images in articles, including two photographs was highly exceptional.
Happy with my find, I shared my discovery with a colleague and publisher with whom I was working on a book on the life and work of Karsten. Their somewhat lukewarm response puzzled me but didn’t diminish my excitement about my discovery. I added the hospital to my personal list of Karsten’s oeuvre and continued with other work.
Until that day I visited the National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia (ANRI) in Jakarta, and spotted the words ‘Karsten’, ‘Roode Kruis ziekenhuis’ and ‘Buitenzorg’ in the index to the archives of the Dutch Department of Public Works (Burgerlijke Openbare Werken).
Recollecting my research findings via Delpher, the combination of the words ‘Karsten’, ‘Roode Kruis ziekenhuis’ and ‘Buitenzorg’ rang many bells. Could this be true: could this be a file containing material regarding the hospital mentioned in the newspapers?
If this was the case, I was about to find something exiting on several levels. Firstly because the file indicated Karsten worked for BOW. This would be another discovery, as so far no scholar or publication ever mentioned Karsten in relation to BOW. Secondly because, knowing BOW-files usually contain blue prints and correspondence, I soon might stand eye to eye with unique documents. Unique because archival material is unique by definition, but even more so because practically none of Karsten’s original drawings and professional correspondence survive. If the BOW-file were to contain correspondence and blue prints about the commission and the design of the hospital, it would enable me to dig deeper into and thus more faithfully reconstruct the hospital’s history and development.
After opening the file, it realized I struck lucky again: its content indeed concerned the hospital referred to in the newspapers and (hurray!), contained a fair amount of correspondence and blue prints with Karsten’s name and stamp on it. As I was now well on my way to uncover and document a building that was clearly designed by Karsten but to my knowledge so far had not been linked, let alone attributed to Karsten, I make one last inquiry.
To get an idea what the hospital actually looked like, I needed more, and preferably qualitatively better images of the hospital, than the ones in the newspapers. Once again, online tools were a great help. The online image collections of Leiden University Libraries and the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in Amsterdam turned out to contain a total of 31 photographs.[i] Depicting some of the hospital’s buildings, surroundings, and staff, they create a vivid image of what the hospital looked like. The photographs, together with the BOW-file and the newspaper coverage, sketch an interesting and intriguing insight into all aspect of the hospital’s history: the considerations and discussions that steered its design and preceded its implementation, as well as its reception and appearance. As a researcher, I could not have been happier.
The only thing that might temper my enthusiasm though, could be my visit to the site itself. For although it’s clear from Google Maps that the hospital’s original plot is still intact, Google Maps’ street view function seems to suggest the buildings have been fundamentally altered. To what extend this online impression is accurate, needs to be verified. Let’s see, next time I visit Bogor: can one be four times lucky?
[i] The photographs were taken by G.F.J. Bley in 1938. Bley was hospitalised in the Red Cross hospital for at least 6 weeks. To express his appreciation for the staff’s affectionate treatment, Bley donated an album with the photographs to the hospital.