An Australian friend of mine was very excited to learn about Jakarta when he came to visit last week. First off, he wanted to go to the museums, thinking that was a good way to learn about Indonesia. So off we went, visiting two well-known museums the first day: the National Monument, or Monas, and then Museum Fatahillah in old Batavia.
The trip to Monas was fine as the dioramas are an interesting way to look at history, although there was no guide or docent to help us.
I asked a man who seemed to be a teacher visiting with a group of young students, if he knew where we should start. “Just start from whichever direction you like. They all look the same anyway,” he said. It worked.
We then moved on to Museum Fatahillah in Kota Tua. Originally used as the City Hall under the Dutch in the 1700s, the museum building looks grand from the outside and is a lovely architectural landmark. Unfortunately, the rubbish littering the ground made the area look shabby.
We were also quite surprised to discover we only had to pay Rp 2,000 ($0.23) per person to get in. However, it soon became clear why the entrance fee is so meager.
Museum Fatahillah, also known as the Jakarta History Museum, was established in 1974. It contains paintings, antique furniture, weapons and other items from the Dutch period.
But the dullness of the museum was apparent as soon as I entered. Apart from the poor lighting, a lot of the displays were missing labels and offered no information for visitors about the importance of the objects.
There were “no photographs” signs in some rooms but no one seemed to care.
As we moved on, there seemed little planning. A number of large rooms only had a few items scattered about.
Was this the best we could offer ? I felt embarrassed taking a foreign friend to our museums.
As I was looking in another direction, I heard behind me the snapping sound of my friend’s camera.
“This is brilliant. A very beautiful collection,” he said, as if he was admiring something.
I turned around only to find him staring in awe at two empty displays.
“Look at these. Aren’t they great?” he said cynically.
A Better Place
On another occasion, I visited the Museum Nasional, also known as Museum Gajah, or the elephant museum, because of a statue — a gift from the King of Thailand — in front of the building. Located on Jalan Medan Merdeka Barat, this museum is home to more than 140,000 items including statues, jewelry and ceramics. The rooms on the second floor display jewelry from kingdoms in Java, Sulawesi, Bali and many others. Objects here are neatly arranged and tagged with information in both Indonesian and English.
I spent more than an hour reading about and looking at each display with admiration.
A visitor I met there, Sakti Lazuardi, came with two colleagues during their lunch break. The 24-year-old expert staff member at a government office said Museum Nasional is one of the best museums in Jakarta for several reasons.
“Although they have some facilities that need improvement, I think this is one of the best places to go in town. It has a wide ranging collection of things with a lot of information,” said Sakti, who first visited the museum as a primary school student.
“Some other museums in Jakarta are very poor in terms of facilities and maintenance. It is too bad because they could be a great learning source for a lot of people,” he said.
Behind the Scenes
“Ideally, a museum should have complete facilities that can help visitors learn about the things on display. A very basic thing to make that possible is to provide information next to each item or frame,” said Oting Rudy Hidayat, the head of public relations for Museum Nasional.
Tour guides, informal or formal, can be helpful and are usually hanging around the museums looking to charge a fee, he said.
“We also have official guides available at most times and visitors usually tip them because we don’t charge. Apart from that, we also have free tour guides provided by the Indonesian Heritage Society on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting at 10 a.m.,” he said.
He added that visitors sometimes tend to be destructive at the museum. “For example, some visitors have tried to take off the labels,” he said. “The ‘no photos’ signs are also often ignored. We have security officers and CCTV but you often miss things like that, especially now, when it is easier than ever to take photos on a handphone.”
Meanwhile, Agum Suhanda from Museum Fatahillah said that visitors to that museum also destroy things.
“They take off labels, write things on the old cannons and the walls, sit on the artifacts and much more,” Agum said.
He chafed at my criticism of the museum, however, saying that maintenance standards at the facility were adequate.
“We are currently in the process of starting a renovation. Things that are broken or missing, such as labels, will be replaced once we are ready,” Agum promised.
A Hidden Treasure
Kartum Setiawan, who works with Komunitas Jelajah Budaya (Cultural Adventure Community) said that museums should be important centers of learning for society.
“If a visitor wants more details, an education section is usually available with helpful sources,” he said. “People don’t go to museums to just see things and leave. They want to learn something.”
Kartum said many of the 50 or so museums in Jakarta run by the central government, local administrations or private institutions are in very poor condition.
“Museums are often seen as dull, dusty and sometimes haunted,” he said. “Someone’s first visit may be their last, especially if they don’t see something interesting or learn something new.”
Kartum said a museum revolution is needed here to make them better knowledge centers for everyone.
“Museums should be made as attractive as possible to make people want to come,” he said.
Apart from good management and maintenance, he said, museums can also create programs that can make one’s experience unique.
“For example, when you go to a ceramic or batik museum, not only can you see the collection, but you should also learn how to make ceramics or batik,” he said. “I always believe an interactive museum is better than just a silent one.”
Kartum said he hopes to one day see better managed museums and historical sites in Indonesia.
“Most museums in the provinces outside Jakarta are in even worse condition. It is pretty sad to see them,” he said. “A national treasure should be well looked after instead of becoming damaged.”