Sunday, February 25, 2024 | 04:51 WIB

Quo Vadis, Indonesia? Part I: Museums

Despite the devastating fire at the Indonesian National Museum, there is some good news and it could be used to launch a new policy on public private partnership.

Jakarta, IO – As a person involved in the field of heritage, for more than 25 years I have observed the work of ministers and director generals for culture in Indonesia since the late 1990s and I believe that in Nadiem Makarim and Hilmar Farid, we currently have the best minister and director general for culture of the whole period.

They are bringing many well needed changes that will advance Indonesian education and culture for many years to come. It is unfortunate that the Indonesian National Museum fire occurred during their term as it will surely complicate what are already not easy tasks that they face in carrying out their work. The fire was a disaster and a tragedy nevertheless, in its wake there is some good news and it presents an opportunity as a launching point to introduce a new direction with regard to public private partnership for museums and heritage buildings. There are of course also, many unanswered questions relating to the fire that need to be answered to pave a better future for the National Museum and museums in general in Indonesia.

It is surprising but there is some good news after the fire that devastated wing A of the old section of the Indonesian National Museum. The fire which began on the evening of the of September 16th 2023, climbed to the roof of wing A and then collapsed it on to the walls of the building. Six rooms suffered damages. Fitra Arda, the Secretary to the Director General of Culture of the Ministry of Education and Culture explained at a meeting of the IAAI or Indonesian Archaeology Experts’ Association on the 25th of September 2023 that Museum staff have been able to inventorize and report on the condition of the artifacts in three of the rooms in Wing A. These were the room with the Museum’s pre-historic collection which was mostly burnt and destroyed when the walls and roof collapsed on it; the room exhibiting the Museum’s Hindu Buddhist bronzes, most of which were burnt by the fire but not destroyed; and the terracotta room most of whose contents were destroyed or badly damaged by the fire.

At the meeting it was stated that the objects in three rooms of Wing A had not yet been inventorized after the fire by Museum staff namely the textile room, the ceramics room and the room with Islamic artifacts. Archaeologist Junus Satrio Atmodjo who previously held the position of head of the Directorate for Museums and Heritage Buildings at the Ministry also spoke at the meeting and said that he was pessimistic that many of the textiles or ceramics in Wing A would have survived.

From information gathered by the Indonesian Ceramic Society before the fire, members of the Society surmise that most of the Museum’s 5000-piece ceramics collection had already been transferred to the new section of the museum in 2016 and that at the time of the fire Wing A only held about 235 pieces of ceramics. Many of the members had frequented the ceramics room of Wing A and even brought important collectors from abroad to view the collection in wing A and its most precious pieces. As they had photographed the most important pieces during their visits, after the fire they were soon comparing the items on their photographs to sales of similar items at international auction houses such as Southby’s and concluding that the collection in Wing A was worth billions of rupiahs.

What is heartening in all of this, is that on social media and collectors’ chat groups (especially ceramics and textile groups), collectors have begun voicing the desire to donate ceramics and textiles from their collections to help replace artifacts that may have been destroyed by the fire. Many of these collectors are well-off individuals with extremely valuable collections that they have been putting together most of their lives and in the process, many have also become experts on the subject, frequently with knowledge and experience surpassing even that of the museum staff, experts and curators.

In the past, I have heard collectors mention how their children frequently lack interest in their collections and that as they grow older, they would like to leave their collections to the Museum but that they were worried their collections would not be safe at the Museum or that they would not continue to have access to their collections during their lifetime.

If the Museum could somehow involve collectors in the museum by for example setting up a board of advisors and inviting representatives of collectors to sit on it, it would do much to provide them with a sense of involvement in making the museum safe for their collections and would not only encourage donations to help replace ceramics or textiles that may have been destroyed in the fire but also encourage collectors to leave their collections to the museum. Beside collectors there are also wealthy benefactors who might be moved to provide grants or legacies to the museum. At the National Portrait Gallery in London a whole additional wing was paid for by the Sainsbury family. It was Nelson Rockefeller who persuaded the Metropolitan Museum of Art to accept primitive or indigenous art as a fine art and donated to his Museum of Primitive Art which then became the Rockefeller wing at the Met ( See: ).

It stands to reason that access to the Museum’s storage rooms must be off limits to the public but surely not the lists of inventories for without these how can the public ask to see specific items in storage? As an example, a book is being written about Egbert Willem Van Orsoy de Flines who donated and put together the Museum’s ceramic collection which is the finest in Southeast Asia. However, until today no access has ever been allowed to De Flines’ inventory or his notes regarding the ceramic collection. How can the authors write an overview of the ceramic collection if they are not allowed access to the inventory. Why would the Museum not provide such access? Other museums publish their inventories online.

Collectors, experts, philanthropists and the general public when made to feel truly welcome in museums also in a sense help to act as guardians of the national patrimony for they frequently notice if something is missing from a collection or if something is amiss with the facilities or systems of the museum and can report it. In 2018, I reported three times to the head and staff of the Museum Bahari or Maritime Museum that if they did not attend to their electric wiring which hung down in a tangle of wires frequently with no double insulation, there would be a fire. No one paid any attention to me.

Also, private sector volunteers are prepared to do a lot of volunteer work such as helping to inventorize museum collections, translate documents and books and act as voluntary museum guides. The Indonesian Heritage Society has been assisting the National Museum as well as other Jakarta museums in this for decades. For example, the man who inventorized all the graves in Taman Prasasti or the ‘Tombstone Inscription Museum’ so that now museum staff can easily show visitors any grave they may be looking for, is an Indonesian Heritage Society volunteer who also helped Jakarta museums inventorize their ceramics and antique furniture collections.

There are experts in museum artefacts more experienced and knowledgeable than museum staff and curators who are willing to volunteer their time to help inventorize museum collections. The reason the Museum Sejarah Jakarta, Gedung Arsip in Jalan Gajah Mada and the National Museum all have their colonial antique furniture inventorized and identified (period, type of wood, style, maker etc) is because when I was director of the Archives Museum on Jalan Gajah Mada, I persuaded Jan Veenendaal, the expert in Dutch colonial furniture to come to Indonesia and identify each piece of furniture in these three institution so they could then be properly inventorized. He not only did this voluntarily, free of any cost but also paid for his own travel expenses and hotel.

It bears remembering that Indonesia’s National Museum’s origins are rooted in the private sector. Our National Museum derives from the Batavia Society for the Arts and Sciences which was founded in the 18th century during the Enlightenment by idealistic individuals with a passion for knowledge, especially knowledge related to Indonesian culture and history. It was also their collections which in the beginning created the collections of the Batavia Society. The most important of these was the Museum’s ceramics collection which created by Egbert Willem van Orsoy de Flines who donated his own collection and then became curator for ceramics at the Museum and continued to expand the Museum’s collection until it consisted of about 5000 pieces.

When I was young and the well-known jurist and historian Han Resink visited us, I remember my mother telling me how his brother Tom Resink had donated his magnificent family collection of antiquities and ethnographic artifacts collected for decades by this Indo-European family, to the National Museum. No one seems to remember that anymore. We are a nation that respects our elders and ancestors, perhaps it is time now to start remembering these early donors again and remove Van Orsoy de Fline’s painting from the Museum’s storage facilities and return it to the rooms with the ceramics he cherished and loved so much, not only to honour him but also that it might again act as an inspiration and motivation for other collectors. Perhaps, the museum could consider holding a donors’ day to honour past donors and to which collectors and those who are passionate about the Museum might be invited?

One of the best-run, and most well-developing museums in Jakarta has been the Jakarta Textile Museum. The museum has held many activities such as learning batik making and textile dying. It holds discussions, lectures and nearly every two weeks a new interesting textile exhibition, it has many visitors, collectors have donated textiles (see:  and volunteers have helped to inventroize its collections which the museum was also restoring and for which it was creating the correct climate -controlled storage facilities; its textile library was increasing. Why was this the case? Mainly, because its head was extremely open to the concept of public private partnership and the public becoming involved in the Museum. She worked very closely with non-profit textile organizations, philanthropists, collectors, experts, academicians as well as the general public to make the Museum a success. In fact, the Jakarta Textile Museum’s whole collection of 3000 textiles were all donated by the private sector. And this is important because the best collections of Indonesian textiles are not in Indonesia. They are in museums and galleries in Australia, in the Netherlands and in the United States. Our textiles fascinate collectors all over the world and it is high time that our museums build up their textile collections – and here again the private sector can play a pivotal role.

The attitude and policy of embracing the private sector of the head of the Jakarta Textile Museum is not the attitude of most government museum. Such an atmosphere of welcome and cooperation in museums would require a change of attitude in both museum and Ministry staff. This was reflected during the outstanding Raden Saleh exhibition at the National Gallery in 2015. Twenty thousand people attended the exhibition and crowds lined up in the street for a chance to view it. It was the first exhibition ever held in Indonesia of what is perhaps Indonesians most cherished artist, Raden Saleh. The exhibition was held by the Goethe Institute in cooperation with the National Gallery, the State Secretariat and the Ministry of Culture.  Despite the Germans having paid a hefty insurance to cover the safety of the paintings during transportation and exhibition, the Ministry official heading paintings would not allow the paintings to be moved to the National Gallery until midnight of the morning before the opening and only after intense pressure from his superiors. One can imagine the stress and chaos that created. Later, the same individual almost sabotaged the whole Raden Saleh restoration project of the Ministry with Goethe Institute (who brought in a German expert art restorer) and philanthropist Hashim Djojohadikusumo (who paid for the restoration). Consequently, there was not enough time for all the paintings to be restored and the restorer was a month in Indonesia without any restoration work – for which Pak Hashim still had to pay. The Ministry official holding everything up said at the time, “The government has plenty of funds. It does not need any help from the private sector. We also have Indonesian restorers who can restore the paintings. I, myself am an art restorer.”

The German art restorer, Susanne Erhards who worked on the government owned Raden Saleh paintings at the time told me that she had had six years of education in art restoration and then another six years of apprenticeship with an expert art restorer before she could call herself an art restorer. I was told that the Ministry official had done a six months course in art restoration in Australia. He later became head of the Indonesian National Gallery and coordinates museums and heritage buildings at the Ministry.

Such an attitude is not a rare exception but all too common in Indonesian museums and amongst Ministry staff. At the Indonesian Archaeology Experts’ Association meeting last week one of the speakers who was a former Ministry official was again speaking out against the use of foreign experts. He said, “We don’t need foreign experts to help us. We have plenty of Indonesian experts.”

In other countries, governments very much encourage public private partnership for museums and heritage buildings in general, especially the non-profit part of the private sector. For such cooperation to really thrive there needs to be a new policy and a concerted effort towards creating an atmosphere in our museums that embraces not only collectors and philanthropists but the general public. For this it is very important to garner public trust and with regard to the fire at the Museum the Minister must keep his promise to be transparent. At the Indonesian Archaeology Experts’ Association meeting, Fitra Arda, the secretary to the Director General of Culture was asked whether after a small fire caused by electrical problems a few years earlier, the Museum had had its electrical system checked and replaced. If not was this because of a shortage of funds?

Fitra Arda replied that this had not been done and that there were plenty of funds available. A young woman then asked point blank about the fire, “Who bears responsibility and what will the sanctions be?” After the fire at the Maritime Museum, no one was publicly held responsible or sanctioned. To earn the respect and trust of the public and to ensure the future safety of the Museum, this should not be repeated.

In Indonesia, the Ministry has never truly exploited the resources and wealth of benefits that can be derived from working together with philanthropists, collectors and foundations – in short, the non-profit part of the private sector. The fire at the National Museum last September could be used to change that and launch a new policy not only in improving the National Museum’s facilities and systems but also to bring forth a new public private partnership policy and initiative for museums and heritage buildings in Indonesia. This will be determined by the direction the Minister decides to take the Museum. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may enjoy reading more on this topic by the same writer:

The Museum On Fire… :

– Quo Vadis, Indonesia? Part II: Heritage Buildings :


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