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Sensitive objects in museums and university collections: Case studies

Transformation in the National Museum of Indonesia: Never-ending decolonisation

Transformación en el Museo Nacional de Indonesia: Una descolonización sin fin
Nusi Lisabilla Estudiantin
p. 114-123

Résumés

Colonial practices in Indonesia that lasted for hundreds of years greatly influenced various aspects of life in a nation. In the postcolonial era, the phenomenon of decolonisation developed in the former colonial countries. One of the decolonising issues that has been on the rise lately is decolonising in museums, including in Indonesia. The National Museum of Indonesia is the largest and most comprehensive museum in Indonesia. After independence, the National Museum did not change its appearance and narrative. Colonial thoughts and perspectives are very strong in this museum. The decolonising of museums in Indonesia is often associated with national identity and pride as an Indonesian nation which leads to the strengthening of national character. Decolonising a museum by changing its face requires a long process and is not an easy thing to do in practice. Gradually, efforts to decolonise the National Museum of Indonesia began in 2004 and have continued to this day.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Nusantara is a former name of Indonesia.

1Nusantara or archipelago1, the name for the range of islands from west to east between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, between the Asia Continental and Australia Continental, is a fertile and prosperous land. Its strategic location makes it a passing place for traders from various parts of the world. Since the beginning of the first century CE, the archipelago has been in contact with Chinese and Indian traders. As a spice-producing country, it then attracted the attention of Europeans to buy nutmeg and cloves. Unexpectedly, the spice trade became the beginning of colonial practice in the archipelago.

2In 1511, at the beginning of the arrival of the Portuguese in the archipelago to look for spices, they managed to monopolize the spice trade in the eastern part of the archipelago, especially in Maluku. In 1596, the Dutch also came to look for spices and colonies. After the Portuguese left the archipelago, the Dutch began to grip the archipelago, especially when, in 1602, the VOC, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or Dutch East India Company, was formed, which had a monopoly on the archipelago’s spice trade. The colonial drama began.

3In addition to the trade monopoly, restrictions on rights and space for native populations were imposed, with slavery practices, forced cultivation, tax collection, confiscation of people’s land and property, racism, and military expeditions. Resistance was carried out by the natives in the form of both physical war and diplomacy.

4The Republic of Indonesia achieved independence in 1945. However, the practice of colonialism, which has been rooted for hundreds of years, has created misery in various aspects of life. Postcolonial decolonising took place in government and society in the social, political, economic, and cultural fields, although it was progressing slowly because the colonial influence is powerful.

5In Indonesian museums, the issue of decolonising has only emerged in the last two decades, although in a different term, by changing a traditional museum into a modern one. Several museology scholars who studied abroad in the 1990s began to launch new thoughts and paradigms about museums but did not explicitly mention museum decolonising. The issue of changing the mindset and paradigm of traditional (colonial) museums to modern (postcolonial) museums became a lively conversation in the early 2000s in the museum world in Indonesia. The National Museum of Indonesia has also been in the spotlight and received a lot of criticism from academics, museologists, the community, and others for why it has remained a traditional museum after post-independence for decades. This paper describes the long history of the National Museum of Indonesia trying to rise from the status of a very colonial traditional museum by changing the concept, narration, and appearance of the museum through a process of decolonising.

History of the National Museum of Indonesia

6The long history of the National Museum of Indonesia began with the founding of the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, or The Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences (BG). This organization was founded during the occupation of the Dutch East Indies government in Indonesia. On April 24, 1778, this society was formed with the permission of the Governor General of the Netherlands East Indies, Reiner de Klerk. The main objective of the BG was to encourage research that is useful for progress in the natural sciences, health improvement, and agriculture. The history and customs of Indonesian ethnic groups were also used as topics of study. However, these latter fields only received full attention after 1850.

7Initially occupying a building owned by J.C.M. Radermacher on Jalan Kali Besar west of the capital, the Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences later became the foundation for a museum and library with the motto Ten Nutte van het Algemeen, meaning “for the public interest”.

8Since its establishment, the society has collected cultural objects and received items from members donating their collections. This society was also active in producing research articles and scientific journals which were widely spread to various countries. The collections grew: a year later (1779) this society developed into a museum and was open to the public every Wednesday, from 08.00 to 10.00 in the morning (Hardiati, 2005).

9During the British rule in Java (1811-1816), Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles provided an additional building behind the Societeit de Harmonie building to accommodate the growing collection. This building was located on Jalan Majapahit no. 3 (now the site of the State Secretariat Building). The collections were moved there in 1814.

10As the collection continued to expand and the space behind the Societeit de Harmonie was no longer able to accommodate the collections, the Dutch East Indies government decided to provide a new building for the society. In 1862, the construction of a new neo-Classical style building was designed for a museum in the Koningsplein West area, now known as Jalan Medan Merdeka Barat. In 1868, the museum opened to the public. In 1923, this society received the title Koninklijk from Queen Wilhelmina for its services in the scientific field and government projects, so the name of the society became Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, or the Royal Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences.

11After Indonesian independence in 1945 this society underwent several changes in the name and organizational structure of the museum. On January 26, 1950, the Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen changed its name to the Indonesian Cultural Institute (Lembaga Kebudayaan Indonesia). On September 17, 1962 the Indonesian Cultural Institute handed over the management of the museum to the Indonesian government, which later changed its name to the Central Museum. Finally, based on the Decree No.092/0/1979 of the Minister of Education and Culture, dated 28 May 1979, the Central Museum was upgraded to become the National Museum.

12In 1996, on the initiative of the Minister of Education and Culture, Wardiman Djojonegoro, the expansion of the new building began. This museum building offers a more modern exhibition concept. The first phase of construction of the new museum building (Building B) was successfully completed and opened in 2006. The next construction is Building C, which is currently in the final construction stage.

13The National Museum of Indonesia has, thus, undergone various changes and developments in its history, spanning nearly two and a half centuries, including changes in the location of the museum, changes in the name and organizational structure, expansion and development of the building. Changes in the exhibition concept (decolonising) and museum display are merely two of the most recent.

Colonising never ends in the National Museum of Indonesia?

14The National Museum of Indonesia has not undergone significant changes in the interior of the building and exhibition concept during postcolonialism until early 2000. On its 100th anniversary, the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen launched a book containing the development of the society. This book shows several images of the building along with its plan, drawn up in 1877, and its exhibition room. The layout shows that the exhibitions were arranged in categories of collection types. There were six exhibition rooms consisting of Hindu and Buddhist statues, ethnography, gold, bronze and antiques, shadow puppets, and numismatics.

Figure 1: Ethnography Gallery.

Figure 1: Ethnography Gallery.

© Museum Nasional, 1930. Photo Leiden University Library (KITLV).

15One hundred years later, the exhibition concept was still very simple and did not pay attention to the aesthetic elements and safety of the collections. Some exhibition rooms were arranged like shops, others like storage. The museum only contained displays of the antiques, and the narrative was limited.

16Entering the 20th century, the exhibition space underwent changes and expansion. In the minutes of the society’s meeting on July 1, 1912, it was stated that there were plans to build a second floor at the front of the museum and at the end of 1915 the construction of this second floor had been completed.

17The second floor was used as an exhibition space for a collection of gold and bronze. In the minutes of the May 11, 1931 meeting, it was stated that there were extension plans for the museum, especially for ceramics and prehistoric rooms. In 1932, construction of the extensive museum was completed.

18The Dutch East Indies government also paid great attention to this museum, providing a large budget for research in remote areas of the country as well as revitalizing its permanent exhibitions. In the exhibition rooms there were new vitrines, modern at that time, made from sturdy teak wood with various types and sizes adapted to the shape and needs of the collections. At the bottom of the vitrines there were shelves that functioned as collection storage.

19The concept and the narrations of the exhibitions in 1930s underwent no significant changes; they were still from a colonial perspective, as shown by the ethnography gallery. The archipelago was described as a collection of islands inhabited by various very traditional ethnic groups, and it was equipped with cultural objects with simple narratives. This permanent exhibition presented artifacts that were considered exotic, moreover, demonstrating the colonial power over the colonies.

20In the immediate postcolonial era, the museum underwent no changes. This can be seen in the exhibition plan published in 1948. The museum was in a declining condition and almost closed after independence because, one by one, the museum employees returned to the Netherlands, and there was no longer any financial support from the government. This is understandable because the government of the Republic of Indonesia at that time was in a critical situation, which prioritized programs to form a solid government and make improvements in the social, political, security, and economic fields. Luckily, some of the remaining museum workers volunteered to keep the museum open to the public and, most importantly, to safeguard the national treasures because the security situation at that time was not conducive.

21In 1960-1980, the museum began to reorganize, but this was not significant considering that revitalizing the museum required a large budget. Since independence until the late 1990s, there were few significant changes, only reductions and exchanges of exhibition space. The concept and display of colonial patrimony continued.

22However, consecutively from 2007 to 2010 and 2012, the appearance of the old building’s exhibition room was transformed. The appearance was made somewhat modern by paying attention to graphic design, narrative, and lighting, without changing the storyline of the exhibition. The curators did not have the opportunity to conduct provenance research, and apart from that, some curators still have traditional paradigms about provenance originating from colonial perspective.

23The exhibition space became more lively, large colorful graphics, lighting, and informative narratives, so that visitors can more easily understand the messages conveyed in the exhibition. Despite widespread praise for this change, though, criticism persists because, once again the colonial aroma still lingers and seems difficult to avoid.

Decolonising the National Museum of Indonesia

24When Building B (the new building located next to the old/colonial building) was completed in 2004, the National Museum designed a new concept in collaboration with experts from various fields, such as archaeologists, anthropologists, historian, prehistorian and museologist. It took the form of a thematic exhibition storyline adopted from the seven universal elements of culture, consisting of:

  1. religious systems and religious ceremonies

  2. social systems and organizations

  3. knowledge systems

  4. language

  5. arts

  6. livelihood systems

  7. living equipment systems and technology

25According to Indonesian anthropologist Koentjaraningrat, cultural elements are universal and can be found in the culture of all nations spread across the world. However, two cultural elements are not presented in the exhibition gallery due to a lack of space: the religious systems and religious ceremonies, as well as the arts. Instead, the priority collections are presented, such as the collection of golds/treasures and foreign ceramics on the fourth floor.

26The idea of decolonising the National Museum started in the early 2000s. However, at that time the term museum decolonisation was not widely known. Efforts to decolonise have been advocated since 2004 by removing the influence of a colonial perspective from what was interpreted as a more modern display system.

  • 2 The FGD participants was asked to write down their opinions and views after seeing the exhibition r (...)

27However, the public continues to criticize this permanent exhibition because the narrative is considered to adopt a colonial view. Anthropologist Iwan Pirous2, one of the Focus Group Discussion participants to review the exhibition at the National Museum in 2014, gave the example of the treasure room, which displays many heirlooms looted from local kingdoms by the Dutch army during military expeditions. The war between the Dutch and the local kingdoms is not told from the perspective of the cultural actors (Indigenous people), but from the perspective of the colonialists (as the winners of the war).

28The tragic aspects of the war seem to be kept under wraps and considered unimportant to convey to visitors. The royal heirloom thus seemed to be a trophy symbol of colonial victory. Decolonising has not been completely successful.

Figure 2: The Treasure Room shows the collections of National Hero Prince Diponegoro.

Figure 2: The Treasure Room shows the collections of National Hero Prince Diponegoro.

© National Museum of Indonesia. Photo by the author, 2020.

New themes, decolonising themes

29In 2014, an overhaul of the concept and storyline of exhibitions began in Building A and Building B. The National Museum curators worked with experts in their field to develop a new storyline. Tough and lengthy discussions were held. There were two different views: Team A, which was very anticolonial, wanted to radically change the entire display system. Everything influenced by the Dutch must be removed, they said, not only the concept and storyline of the exhibition but also the interior and exhibition facilities, including the vitrines in the old building. Team B agreed to the changes, but this more romanticist team wanted a bit of Dutch heritage to be left as part of the history of this museum.

30By accommodating inputs from various parties, the preparation of the storyline, which took up to three years, resulted in three major themes that are applied to the two museum buildings:

  1. Becoming Indonesia (Building A)

  2. Indonesian Heritage (Building A)

  3. Sustainable Indonesia (Building B)

31In 2016, a temporary exhibition was held to try out the theme of Becoming Indonesia. This exhibition aimed to capture visitors’ opinions to be used as recommendation material when the museum implemented the storyline in a permanent exhibition. In 2019, the themes of Becoming Indonesia and Indonesian Heritage began to be installed in Building A, a heritage from the Dutch, and were completed in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic brought this project to a halt.

32The theme of Becoming Indonesia was applied in the old Ethnography room. This is a very significant breakthrough because the space had not changed since the 1800s. The narrative it built strengthens the identity of the Indonesian people as a nation that is independent, tolerant, cultured and upholds the values of humanity and unity.

33The gallery of Becoming Indonesia is divided into several sub-themes:

341. Cultural History of Indonesia narrates the origins of Indonesia from prehistoric times, the classical period (the period of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms), the period of the arrival of Islam, and the establishment of Islamic kingdoms until the arrival of Europeans.

352. Tanah Air Indonesia, or Indonesia’s Homeland (Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia) presents a visualization of the struggle of the Indonesian people against Dutch and Japanese colonialism. Apart from that, what is very important is the video of the moment of the proclamation of Indonesian independence in 1945, the revolutionary war in the face of post-independence Dutch aggression, and diplomatic efforts with a series of agreements that finally made the Dutch recognize the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia in 1949 during the Round Table Conference in The Hague.

363. Indonesian Symbol narrates the state motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, a quote from the ancient manuscript Sutasoma from the 14th century CE, meaning “Unity in Diversity”. This motto reflects that Indonesia’s people – from various ethnic groups, religions, and cultures – are still one in the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia. This room also displays the national symbol of the Garuda bird and Pancasila (Panca means five and sila means principle) as the Indonesian’s official state philosophy consisting of five principles: belief in the one and only God; a just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; democracy, led by the wisdom of the representatives of the people; and social justice for all Indonesian people.

Figure 3: The Indonesia’s Homeland room shows the moment of the proclamation of Indonesia’s independence in 1945.

Figure 3: The Indonesia’s Homeland room shows the moment of the proclamation of Indonesia’s independence in 1945.

© National Museum of Indonesia. Photo by Budiman, June 2023.

374. Nature of Indonesia narrates the natural landscape of Indonesia in the Ring of Fire area. Indonesia is an archipelagic country with volcanic mountain ranges, both inactive and active. Its fertile nature is a paradise for animals and plants. Indonesia’s nature consists of oceans and mountains as well as a variety of flora and fauna that influence the social and cultural life of the Indonesian people.

385. Indonesian Culture narrates various cultures based on the nature of the place where they live, so that, for instance, maritime culture and agricultural culture are formed with the local wisdom.

39The sub-theme of nationality finally appeared at the National Museum, something that had never happened before. It could be said this step was a rather late movement and there is still a lot of work to decolonise the museum. Abandoning old paradigms, changing colonial-style work patterns, being critical in responding to issues that are currently trending (especially about decolonization), and learning from the other decolonised museum’s experience are become part of museum decolonising.

40The National Museum still has a great task of creating a space with the theme of Sustainable Indonesia, where the storyline will increasingly confirm its status as a decolonising museum. Sustainable Indonesia will emphasize Indonesia’s identity as an independent nation, full of creativity in the field of culture both traditional and modern, an educated nation, and a nation with a variety of local wisdom.

Conclusion

41Museums, and particularly national museums, play a very strategic role in introducing culture, especially material culture, to their societies in order to enable them to understand cultural dynamics and diversity. This understanding of cultural diversity is greatly needed in Indonesia given its multiethnic nature. Through such understanding, it is hoped that ethnic groups will value and understand the cultures of other ethnic groups, with the result that intersocietal or intercultural conflict will be averted (Sitowati, 2006). Apart from that, the National Museum of Indonesia has a role in increasing a sense of pride and as a marker of Indonesian national identity, which is built through narratives in the exhibition space.

42Museum decolonisation is a process that takes time for museums changing their appearance and narrative to become museums that are free from colonial views. There is a need to do provenance research of the collection and to unify perceptions about the meaning of decolonising among museum staffs, because it is possible that each person interprets decolonising differently.

43The sustainability of decolonisation at the National Museum has made us aware of the need to continue to explore the potential of what the country has as as independent nation. Decolonization in the National Museum of Indonesia is part of global decolonization which can inspire museums in Indonesia, especially regional museums and former colonial countries.

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Bibliographie

Hardiati, H., & Keurs, P. (Eds.). (2006). Indonesia: Discovery of the past. Kit Publisher.

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Notes

1 Nusantara is a former name of Indonesia.

2 The FGD participants was asked to write down their opinions and views after seeing the exhibition rooms in building A and building B as the recommendations for the museum’s transformation.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Ethnography Gallery.
Crédits © Museum Nasional, 1930. Photo Leiden University Library (KITLV).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/iss/docannexe/image/5595/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 628k
Titre Figure 2: The Treasure Room shows the collections of National Hero Prince Diponegoro.
Crédits © National Museum of Indonesia. Photo by the author, 2020.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/iss/docannexe/image/5595/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 424k
Titre Figure 3: The Indonesia’s Homeland room shows the moment of the proclamation of Indonesia’s independence in 1945.
Crédits © National Museum of Indonesia. Photo by Budiman, June 2023.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/iss/docannexe/image/5595/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 166k
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Référence papier

Nusi Lisabilla Estudiantin, « Transformation in the National Museum of Indonesia: Never-ending decolonisation »ICOFOM Study Series, 52-1 | 2024, 114-123.

Référence électronique

Nusi Lisabilla Estudiantin, « Transformation in the National Museum of Indonesia: Never-ending decolonisation »ICOFOM Study Series [En ligne], 52-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2024, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/iss/5595 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11zlx

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Auteur

Nusi Lisabilla Estudiantin

Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology – Jakarta, Indonesia
Email: d.nirartha70[at]gmail.com

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