National Museum of Indonesia: One of the oldest and best in Southeast Asia

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One of the iconic of the National Museum is the elephant statue that located in the outside lobby museum. This elephant statue is a gift from King Siam (now Thailand), Chulalongkorn or Rama V. (photo: IO/Yoga Agusta)

IO, Jakarta – Ancient civilizations leave us a valuable heritage. This is most true with the cultural heritage of the Nusantara, the home of various dynasties. The great wealth left behind by these many civilizations through the ages must be studied and preserved. The National Museum of Indonesia is one of the parties in this noble task.

Located in Central Jakarta, the National Museum of Indonesia is a grand repository of history, archeology and geography. Its collection totals 140,000, ranging in period from pre-historic times to the colonial era. It is one of the biggest and oldest national museums in Southeast Asia. According to the museum’s curator, the National Museum started with the idea of several scholars in Batavia (now Jakarta) to establish a scientific association. This desire was the child of the Age of Enlightenment, the era of revolutionary developments in science and philosophy in the 18th century, especially in Europe.

This was the time when scientists and thinkers developed scientific method and critical and open thinking. A number of scientific associations were formed as open dialog forums for the public. A number of European scientists in the Netherland Indies also felt the zeitgeist of the Era: on 24 April 1778, the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen (Association of Art and Science of Batavia) was established. This date was then set as the anniversary of National Museum of Indonesia. As an independent association, the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen provided a forum for many researchers in fields as diverse as art, biology, and even history.

The Association was the brain child of one Jacobus Cornelis Mattheus Radermacher, a Dutch botanist living in di Batavia at the time. He endowed a mansion in Jalan Kalibesar and a large part of his collection to the Association. Radermacher’s endowment was the seed for the establishment of a museum in downtown Batavia.

Time progressed and the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen rebuilt the museum twice, as the old buildings were unable to house the ever-increasing collection. The first new building was constructed at Jalan Majapahit during the tenure of Lieutenant Governor Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. The second epic of construction was performed by the Netherland Indies government in 1862 at Koningsplein West Weg (now Jalan Merdeka Barat, where the National Museum is currently located). The museum was open to the public in 1868.

In 1923, the Dutch government recognized the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen for its contributions to the Dutch government in science. The institution had the term ‘Koninklijk’ (‘Royal’) added to its name, to mark its affiliation with the Royal Government of the Netherlands. On 26 January 1950, the Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen had another name change, when it became Lembaga Kebudajaan Indonesia (‘Indonesian Cultural Institution’).

The museum thus far managed by the Lembaga Kebudajaan Indonesia was handed over to the Indonesian government on 17 September 1962. It was renamed Museum Pusat (‘Central Museum’). On 28 May 1979, the Central Museum was further upgraded into the National Museum. It is now under the patronage of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The Emblematic Siamese Elephant Statue
The National Museum of Indonesia has a number of nicknames, the most famous one being ‘Museum Gajah’ (‘Elephant Museum’). This name became common in the 19th century, since the elegant elephant statue graced the front yard of the museum.

According to the museum’s guide, the elephant statue was a gift of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) of Siam (now Thailand) when he visited the Netherland Indies from 9 March to 15 April 1871. As the capital city, Batavia was naturally visited by the King, who had successfully reformed his kingdom. A special poem, Kedatangan Radja Siam di Betawi, was composed to welcome His Highness King Chulalongkorn to Batavia. On his arrival in Batavia, he was welcomed with a pageant of luxury that rivals the Cap Go Meh (‘Fifteenth Day’ celebrations, the Chinese celebration of the First Full Moon of the New Lunar Year, more famously known around the world as the ‘Lantern Festival’), given to him by the local Chinese Community. The national flag of the Kingdom of Siam was raised alongside the Dutch one at all major buildings.

King Chulalongkorn visited barracks, hospitals, temples and abbeys, and even museums. His Highness’ desire to gift a memento of his visit rose when he visited the Museum near Koningsplein (now the Merdeka Field). He was so impressed with the rich variety of the Museum’s collection that he finally chose to send an elephant, the emblem of his country, Siam, to commemorate his visit and to symbolize the warm diplomatic relations between Siam and the Netherland Indies.

Apart from Museum Gajah, the National Museum is also called ‘Museum Arca’ (‘Museum of Statues’). This name originates from the sheer number and variety of statuary collection managed by the National Museum. Among its greatest pieces is the statue of King Adityawarman, who was depicted as the god Bhairawa (one of the aspects of Shiva). The 4-meter tall statue was discovered in West Sumatra.

The collections of the National Museum are a priceless heritage of Indonesia’s myriad cultures. They are historical evidence of the high level of civilization of the ancient kingdoms of Indonesia. More than its age, its technique, or its materials, the collection has an incalculable historic value. It is no wonder that the museum has suffered a number of burglary attempts: in the 1960’s, the notorious Kusni Kasdut stole the museum’s gold collection. In 1979, the coin collection was burgled; and in 1987, a collection of ceramics valued at a raw price of Rp 1.5 billion was also stolen. The latest case occurred in 1996, when paintings were stolen and found again in Singapore.

Despite everything, this historic National Museum is still worthy of a weekend visit so that you can come to know more about the historic greatness of ancient Indonesian civilizations through its physical heritage.

(Muhammad Akbar)