Friday, December 1, 2023 | 02:14 WIB

The Museum on Fire…

Jakarta, IO – The Indonesian National Museum caught fire and began burning at about 7.45 pm on Saturday, the 16th of September 2023 and by 8 pm the fire brigade had been called. They arrived within minutes of the call, as the fire department is situated close by. Despite the long dry season, the canal behind the Museum still had water in it and soon dirty canal water was being used to try to douse the fire which rose like an orange and red rooster flying to the top of a building at the back of the old section of the Museum – the part built between 1862 and 1868.

I became aware of the fire through the deeply distressed and angry WhatsApp messages flooding heritage and history chatgroups. Reading the outraged and grieving messages, I grabbed my bag hailed a taxi and rushed over to the Museum as quickly as possible but became caught in Saturday night traffic. By the time I arrived, the fire was under control. Nevertheless, I could still feel the heat of the fire in the air around me and the road was flooded with grey canal water that eleven fire engines had pumped out of the canal and poured on to the roof of Building A of the Museum before it all collapsed into a depressing black heap of smoldering wood.

The most upset were perhaps the ceramic societies and that is understandable for the most valuable items (in monetary terms) in the Museum’s collections are its outstanding ceramic collection and this was housed at the back of the old Museum. The ceramic collection was put together by a man named Egbert Willem van Orsoy de Flines who first came to Indonesia in 1912 and left in 1959, during which time he put together the collection. The collection he created was composed mainly of Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics. It was priceless and the best ceramic collection in Southeast.  It consisted of his own collection and also the pieces that for many years he collected for the Batavia Society for the Arts and Sciences. If this has been destroyed it is irreplaceable and truly a national tragedy. Many feel that it is unethical of the Ministry of Education and Culture to keep the Indonesian people waiting for information about the collection. It has a responsibility to inform the nation whether we have lost this treasured collection or not.

National Museum
Entrance to the Indonesian National Museum during happier times. (Photo credit: Septo Kun Wijaya/IO)

Most of the Indonesian National Museum’s collections originate with the Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen or ‘Royal Batavia Society for the Arts and Sciences’. The Batavia Society was a product of the Enlightenment’s hunger for knowledge and a figure such as Germany’s foremost Enlightenment writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a member of the Batavia Society with whom he corresponded. The Society was founded in 1778 by naturalist Jacob Cornelis Matthieu Radermacher and began as a type of study club with its members reading out learned papers on all manner of topics. The Society also had a collection of antiquities and ethnological objects as well as a library. Their collections ultimately became the Indonesian National Museum and their collection of books became the nucleus for the Indonesian National Library.

On the night of the fire, the Minister of Education and Culture, Nadiem Makarim rushed to the Museum with the Director General of Culture, Hilmar Farid who is responsible for all national museums. Makarim promised the public that saving as many historical objects as possible in the affected depots would now be his main priority. The Minister has also set up a team to investigate the damage to the collection and ensure the safety of the remainder of the collections as well as treat objects that were damaged.

National Museum
The elephant donated by King Chulalongkorn of Thailand, to the Museum, with its back to the fire and the fire brigade. (Photo credit: Faisal Ramadhan/IO)

The information that has filtered through to the public is that the fire affected the back part of Building A of the old section of the Museum and that between four to six rooms were damaged by the fire. The back of Building A is known to have housed the ceramic collection, the Islamic collection, terracottas, the pre-historic collection and the ethnographic collection but which of these collections was in fact damaged or destroyed by the fire has five days later still not been announced by the Museum or the Ministry. The Museum released a press statement claiming that they were doing their best to inventorize the Museum’s collections both those objects affected by the fire as well as those objects that are in safe keeping.

This is a strange statement. When I was executive director of the National Archives Museum in Jalan Gajah Mada for 13 years, our inventories did not just state the number, name, description and provenance of the objects in our collection but also the location of each object. So, for example object A is located in the main building, second floor, room A, cupboard number 2, shelf number four from the top. This is how we were taught to create an inventory by the Tropenmuseum in the course it provided at the History of Jakarta Museum years ago; a course that was open for staff from any Jakarta museum. Does the National Museum not already have such an inventory? For with such an inventory, museum staff must already know what objects were in the rooms destroyed by the fire. They might not be able to provide details such as the exact objects that were not destroyed by the fire but as a whole, they know which part of the collection was damaged or destroyed. The public has a right to know which collections were most badly damaged or destroyed. The Museum and the Ministry promised that they would be transparent in their investigations.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Mahendra, Pelaksana Tugas (Plt) Kepala Badan Layanan Umum Museum dan Cagar Budaya or ‘Acting Head of the Public Services Agency for Museums and Cultural Heritage’ of the Ministry of Education and Culture has been quoted in several media as claiming that the objects worst affected by the fire were merely replicas and that the rest of the collection was safe. If this is true then it begs the question, why did the Museum provide so much storage space, time, energy and expense to procure and store replicas when they could have used these to procure and store original historical objects?

National Museum
The modern section of the Indonesian National Museum was unscathed. (Photo credit: Septo Kun Wijaya/IO)

In 2015, the oldest Chinese temple in Jakarta, the Jin de Yuan temple suffered heavy damage due to fire. In 2017 Godown C of the Museum Bahari or Maritime Museum in the Old Town area, caught fire. Preparations for an exhibition as a memorial to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea with model ships from Australia, the United Kingdom etc were destroyed during the fire as well as massive amounts of 400-year old teak. The cause was said to be due to inadequate electrical wiring.

That same year the Jakarta Municipality inadvertently bulldozed Bastion Zeeburg, one of the last remnants of Batavia’s 17th century city wall and in 2018 the 19th century Chinese house in SMP 32 collapsed. In fact just a few years ago, there was a small fire in a room of the National Museum itself which the Museum managed to put out.

Whatever happened last Saturday at the national Museum, raises many questions which tax payers deserve to know the answers to. Questions such as: After the fire a few years ago, were the electrical system and cables replaced where needed and checked every year? Were there smoke detectors, fire alarms, fire extinguishers and a sprinkler system in place at the National Museum? Were they functioning? If not, why not? Did the staff have the proper training in fire prevention and disaster mitigation and did they carry this out? Was there supervision and control to check that such systems were installed and properly carried out?

Another fundamental question is whether the government and parliament provided the Ministry and the Museum with the funds needed to install such systems and obtain such training? At a disaster mitigation seminar in 2018, the director general for culture, Dr Hilmar Farid stated that the Indonesian landscape is full of heritage buildings but that the national budget does not have the funds to carry out the preservation and maintenance that meets the national standard, including proper disaster mitigation steps. (See: We are also aware that whenever there are budget constraints, the government tends to look first at culture and the arts to make budget cuts.

In 2018 the Indonesian government created a new cultural strategy that was to become the basis for the government’s development program in all areas. (See: In the past development programs hinged on policy perceptions that were based almost wholly on economic indicators.  By 2018 however, a new view had emerged among experts who saw culture as a central theme of development which should not only guide but also be used to measure the success of development. It was in this climate that UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova told Indonesia that whereas Indonesia may not currently be a military or economic super power, Indonesia is already a cultural super power – and Indonesia created its new cultural strategy. If the government is serious about such a cultural strategy, then there need to be the funds available to create state-of-the-art museums, libraries and archives.

The government does not seem to be truly aware how important our historical artifacts, manuscripts and archives really are. The historian, former Oxford don and Prince Diponegoro expert, Peter Carey explained, “Historical artifacts, archives, genealogies and so forth – these are all a form of DNA that give the Indonesian people their national identity and cultural savoir fare. Losing them is like losing the crown jewels – once they are gone, they are gone forever. If you do not have them then you do not truly know what really happened in the past and anyone can make anything up. A culture and an identity need to be based on the truth.

National Museum
Smoldering remains of Building A of the Museum. (Photo credit: Septo Kun Wijaya/IO)

When you look at dictators such as Hitler and Stalin, you see that they knew that one of the best ways to crush a people is by stealing their identity which they did by stealing or destroying their cultural riches.”

They stole paintings and sculptures and other works of art, ransacking museums, libraries and galleries. The Khmer Rouge murdered the royal Cambodian dance corps. ISIS and the Taliban do the same. In fact, ISIS which destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria boasted that it checks UNESCO World Heritage lists in order to know what to destroy. Meanwhile, the Taliban which blew up the ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, upon their return to Afghanistan after the American withdrawal have reportedly rounded up village folk singers and dancers and killed them. The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia determined that systematic crimes against cultural heritage can amount to crimes against humanity for all of humanity is injured by their destruction.

Peter Carey notes that keeping historical objects and archives safe is only a part of a government’s responsibility. Collections also need to be curated, described, digitalized and made available to the public on a grassroots level to be understood and celebrated through books, dance, song and the arts.

National Museum
Collapse of roof up close. (Photo credit: Faisal Ramadhan/IO)

In July of this year, Dutch State Secretary for Culture and Media, Gunay Uslu announced that the Netherlands would be returning approximately 470 historical objects in Dutch museums to Indonesia. Some of these objects were intended for the Indonesian National Museum. This is part of a larger Dutch restitution program of historical objects. Recently, only the Singosari statues have been returned to Indonesia and they are safe and not affected by the fire. The NOS or Netherlands Broadcasting Service said that Gunay could not confirm that the historical objects intended for the Indonesian National Museum would still be going there. However, the Secretary did say that there is no question of the refund being revised. She added that the Indonesian government decides where the objects are then displayed.

The official attitude in the Netherlands seems to be more or less, that the fire at the Indonesian National Museum is not the business of the Netherlands. It is their responsibility to return the objects and what is done with them thereafter is up to Indonesia. The attitude seems to be that the colonial period is over and it is not for the Netherlands to tell Indonesia what to do or not to do with the returned objects.

Caroline Drieenhuizen who is assistant professor in Cultural studies specialized in colonial collecting and collections, at the Open Universiteit in the Netherlands agrees with this, “My feelings have not changed after the fire. There are Indonesian objects in the Netherlands that need to go back and that, no matter what, they should. Fire can always happen, especially during renovation activities.”

However, she adds that this is not the view of everyone in the Netherlands. “The Dutch traditional and social media, however, implicitly and explicitly question this and future restitution. The recurring question is whether the objects already returned are still safe there, and underlying this question is implicitly the question of whether future objects would still be safe.”

Peter Carey described how once a delegation from the Jogjakarta palace went to Britain to demand the return of palace archives and historical artifacts that the British had taken after storming the Jogjakarta  Keraton in the 19th century but after visiting  the places where the objects were kept such as the British Library, the Royal Asiatic Society etc,  and seeing how well the manuscripts were stored and maintained in rooms with the proper climate control and safety facilities, they realized that they could not provide such facilities in Jogjakarta and they came to the decision not to ask for the return of the manuscripts but to wait until they had such facilities available for them. Some years ago, the British gifted the Keraton with microfiche copies of all the Jogjakarta manuscripts held in British museums. Unfortunately, the Keraton did not have the proper facilities to look after the microfiche which are now badly damaged by fungus and no longer usable.

In 2018 Brazil’s National Museum was gutted by fire. It was the biggest natural history museum in Latin America with invaluable collections. Much of their 20 million objects were destroyed. Marina Silva, a former Brazilian environment minister described the fire like ‘a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory’.

Last Saturday, Indonesia lost only a part of its national museum, what if we had lost all of it? When we accept antiquities and archives back from the Dutch, we take on a special responsibility and perhaps, it is not so much a question of whether the Dutch should and will continue to return historical artifacts to Indonesia after the National Museum fire, but rather the question that we Indonesians should truly be asking ourselves is whether we should be asking for and accepting such historical treasures back at this point in time when we do not truly have the state-of-the-art facilities and systems in place to keep them safe not only for future generations of our children and grandchildren, but for humanity itself?  

Should we not perhaps, first create museums with state-of-the-art facilities and systems, before we receive back national treasures which if lost are irreplaceable? (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

National Museum
The flag visible over the burnt section of the Indonesian National Museum. (Photo credit: Septo Kun Wijaya/IO)

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

– Quo Vadis, Indonesia? Part I: Museums :

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


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