Editor’s note: In a conference on Nias architechture held in Vienna on October 2006, the participants of the Conference established the so-called Nias Island Research Network (NIRN) – www.nirn.org. To know more about this Network, E. Halawa* from Yaahowu website – www.niasonline.net – requested an interview with the Ntework’s Coordinator, Petra Gruber. The following are Gruber’s responses to Yaahowu’s questions.

Can you tell us the reason behind the formation of Nias Island Research Network ?

The formation of the Nias Island Research Network is to bring together the individual efforts of research of the Nias Culture, Art and Architecture. When we started to investigate the architecture, we only slowly found out about other people already having done documentation. To make the information and the people behind it more accessible we decided to form a loose network and establish a website, so that in future it will be easier to access the works of people and get into contact. Some of the researchers, who have been working on Nias for twenty years, have never met before. We also hoped to attract interest of Indonesian people who are interested or have worked on Nias themselves. We are happy that we evoked your interest with our initiative.

In the Vienna Declaration 2006, the declarators of the Network stated “their interest and concern about the cultural heritage and the wellbeing of the inhabitants of Nias Island“. What are the interest and concern of this NIRN on Nias culture and wellbeing. How do/will NIRN address these concerns ?

After the earthquake, we had long discussions about how we could help. We decided to do what we can do best – give input according to our professional experience as researchers. What we can contribute to the Nias culture is what our expertises are, and account for documentation and recording of what has survived of the unique manifestations. The documentation is essential, because it makes the particularity of Nias visible, and will hopefully contribute to the preservation efforts and further development. The results of the research efforts of international experts will in this way also be accessible for the Nias people themselves.

As we learned from NIRN website, NIRN is “a group of international experts from a wide range of disciplines of the cultural heritage of Nias …” How do you define “international experts” in this context ? Are there any measure (objective or otherwise) of expertise of the people gathered at the Vienna Conference ?

NIRN was founded as a platform for scientists who have interests in research on Nias. It is an open network created by the people who attended the conference in Vienna in October 2006 and we invite also other scientists and people interested to join the group.

The participants of the Vienna Conference were selected according to their work and publications, which evidence their expertises in ethnology, art history, arts, architecture, reconstruction and according to recommendations from different sides.

The aim was to bring together all the researchers who we were informed about. We also had invited representatives of BRR and ICOMOS Indonesia, but unfortunately they did not attend the conference.
Fr. Johannes Hämmerle was very important for us as a source of information. His long stay on Nias has made him an expert – moreover he represents one of the few accessible sources of Nias culture. His collection is doubtless very important.

Was the conference held in Vienna on October 2006 a scientific conference where papers were peer reviewed ?

The conference was held as a scientific conference, with the aim to bring together experts who have been doing research in Nias or who are still working there covering a wide range of disciplines. People have been invited either because of their extensive publication or because of recommendations. We abstained from peer reviewing the talks and papers as we wanted to provide a platform for people to show different aspects of research done in Nias as open as possible. In starting this initiative we want to create a network of scientists to exchange results and encourage discussions of already available data to improve the knowledge about Nias culture, art and architecture in the best way of co-operation. To begin an initiative like this with a peer reviewed selection did not seem appropriate for us.

The Conference theme was about “Traditional Architecture and Art in Nias …” Why did paper(s) not related to this topic such as that written by Prof. Kennerknecht appear in that Conference ?

In our opinion it is very important to include research of other disciplines into a research about architecture or art. That includes also disciplines, which are not related to the topic on first sight. As we understood Prof. Kennerknechts work it will provide new cognitions about the migration of Nias people. As migration movements are always influencing art and architecture, the outcome of the research will also provide interesting aspects for these fields.

Prof. Kennerknecht was recommended by Fr. Johannes Hämmerle. He was invited because the information on the genetics of the Nias people could perhaps bring important information on migration of the Nias population and cultural relations between maybe different ethnic groups. He had informed us beforehand, that he could only present preliminary results. We decided that in spite of that the topic was interesting. We think that it would be important for the interpretation of cultural heritage to know more about the migration patterns on Nias.

From our previous communcation you informed us that Prof. Kennerknecht finally modified the above mentioned paper. Why ? Which version of the paper was presented at the Vienna 2006 Conference ?

At the conference Prof. Kennerknecht held a lecture. The papers were collected within the following six months. After Prof. Kennerknecht informed us about the complaints, we immediately withdrew the paper from the web and he replaced it with a new version. We are sorry that some people felt offended and hope that the problems are solved with the new version.

As you may be aware, there were some “complaints” about Prof. Kennerknecht paper from Yaahowu’s visitors. Are you in the position to tell us whether there are ethical and other issues that should have been properly addressed by the authors of the paper (Prof. Kennerknecht and Fr. Johannes) before submitting and presenting the paper at the Vienna Conference ?

Before publication even on the website, all authors had to declare that they are aware of their responsibility of the presented material, including photographs. We cannot take responsibility about the work of other researchers, and are not in the position of moderation of a discussion.

What fascinates you about Nias architecture and culture ?

Personally I can only speak as an architect and think that Nias architecture is absolutely unique, worldwide. The aesthetics and quality of the wooden constructions are striking. We are impressed about the deep relation to the traditions.

We think that it is difficult to preserve the structures in the changing society and economic conditions, but that all measures should be taken. All the more documentation and information on these achievements are important. The culture on Nias is doubtless very interesting, and the rapid changes that have occurred within the last decades are for sure very difficult for the Nias people, who have to carry out a balancing act between modern world and tradition.

We were impressed that the Nias people accepted out efforts for documentation very friendly in a difficult situation shortly after the earthquake, and have experienced great hospitality.

Can you tell us your “interdisciplinary research project” on Nias architecture? What have been the outcomes so far and what will be the plan for the future?

The interdisciplinary research project we started in 2003 concerns the recording of the traditional architecture of Northern Sumatra and Nias. In 2005 we did intensive research on the different building types on Nias. We are sorry that we could not yet publish more of the findings of our field trip in 2005, but we carry out the research within the frame of our work at the Vienna University of Technology without any additional funding. So far, we have carried out tests for the wood and made virtual models with the help of our students. One of the South Nias house models has been tested by engineers to earthquake resistance. The results of this investigation will be published shortly.

Documentation was also carried out by photogrammetric measurements. We have documented all four remaining Omo Sebua by means of photogrammetry. These results from the field trip have to be processed. The other part of the project is a documentary film, which will be worked on as soon as our applications for funding will be successful. This project includes also the documentary work on the architecture, within the context of society and culture.

The next step of the project is the publication of the Conference papers in a book, which will hopefully be printed in spring 2008.

What aspects of Nias architecture which need to be preserved and applied to modern dwellings in Nias and the world in general ?

The traditional Nias architecture has many qualities, which should be transferred to modern building. It is in many respects well adapted to the environmental conditions, the earthquakes being one of the influencing factors. The inside climate of the houses is very comfortable within the hot and humid climate, and can serve as a role model for passive measures to achieve good inside climate. But we think as well, that modern living has to be introduced into building, so that the inhabitants have modern comfort as well. Other problems are the lack and the price for wood, and the remoteness of the traditional villages.

We think that preservation of the cultural heritage is an important asset of the Nias people, that they will have to share and care about themselves. What we can offer is to use our own possibilities for support on a scientific base, and hope that Nias people can make use of it.

Thank you for your time. Ya’ahowu.

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