UNESCO world heritage status for Jakarta Old Town?

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Collapsed roof of Godown C. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

IO – This is the second disaster to hit the Jakarta Old Town historic area this month. The first was the collapse of a 19th century Chinese building in Junior High 32 earlier in the month. On Tuesday the 16th of January 2017 Godown C of the Maritime Museum caught fire. It then spread to Godown B. The fire began at 9 am and lasted nearly 4 hours. Unfortunately, the fire brigade took nearly half an hour to reach the site resulting in half of warehouse C and a small section of Godown B burning down. That means one fifth of the Maritime Museum went up in flames.

Hunisan Nzar, the director of the museum said, “One of my staff saw some of the electrical wires melt and catch fire so we suspect that the cause of the fire was  electrical but we must wait for the official police report before we can be certain of the cause.”

This is not the first disaster at the Maritime Museum. Some years ago the roof of Godown B completely collapsed due to termite infestation. Meanwhile the electrical wiring at the museum has long been a mess. “Last year the buildings was restored and the electrical wiring was due for renewal in this years budget,” explained Hunisan.

The buildings in the Maritime Museum were the former spice warehouses of the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the oldest was built in 1652. The front of the museum is a remnant of the old north-west city wall that the VOC built as part of the city’s defense. A guard house is still visible along the wall which was finished in 1645 by the renown Chinese contractor Jan Kon. The godowns in the Maritime Museum were filled with spices, silks, tea and coffee intended for Europe and Asia and ships could get right next to the city wall in front of the museum for loading. Later the harbor silted up, especially after the eruption of the Salak Mountain in 1699 when lava, large stones and ash were spewed into the Ciliwung River which carried these to the harbor causing the harbor to become too shallow for big ships.

In a town built by merchants specifically for trade the godowns were the most important buildings in the Old Town. It was in the Old Town that the specifications and measurements for godowns all over the world where the VOC had posts were determined. In recent years, measurements for a replica godown in Deishima were taken from these warehouses in the Old Town of Jakarta.

The loss of the structures holding up the godowns which consist of enormous ancient teak beams is a heritage tragedy. Replacing them alone will be extremely expensive. Nevertheless, the Deputy Governor of Jakarta, Sandiago Uno in reference to both the recently collapsed 19th century Chinese building at Junior High 32 and the fire damage to Godown C and a section of Godown B stated unequivocally, “We will restore everything in accordance with good restoration principles. We will do whatever it takes to obtain UNESCO world heritage status for the Old Town area of Jakarta!” He added the proviso that all actions must be legal, of course.

President Joko Widodo through the Ministry of Tourism has designated ten sites in Indonesia as national tourism sites that will be receiving special attention from the government and which are expected to earn precious tourism income for the country. The Old Town area with its four outlying islands of Onrust, Kelor, Cipir and Bidadari and the historic protected areas of Pekojan, Pecinan and Luar Batang are one of those designated sites and the Jakarta regional government seems determined to achieve this, starting with UNESCO world heritage status for the Old Town and its four islands. The Deputy Governor’s statement indicates a major breakthrough for conservationist. It is the first time that the regional government has so forcefully declared its full commitment behind obtaining world heritage status for the Old Town and four islands.

“That will require a first-class architect with a back ground in heritage restoration and practical experience in the field to restore the Maritime Museum, “declared Prof. Mundarjito who heads the Regional Team of Heritage Experts. The professor who is in his 80s was standing at the scene with his cane surveying the remnants of the fire. “We should be willing to receive foreign expertise as we did during the restoration of Gedung Arsip. Our architects do not have a lot of experience in this field and this should be an opportunity for Indonesian architects to learn by working together with them.

“We will require old wood to replace the original teak beams that burnt down and for the Chinese building that collapsed at Junior High, 32” cried Ms Nelita, head of the Jakarta government’s regional conservation office, enthusiastically, “I shall be contacting the Ministry of Public Works and the Secretary of State about receiving some of the old wooden benches that were removed from the stadium during renovations for the Asian Games – but for the Maritime Museum we may have to buy old teak.”

At Rp 400 million per cubic meter this will not be cheap for the city. Tinia Budiarti, the city administration’s head of Tourism and Cultural Services had spent the day before and part of the night at the Maritime Museum. This morning she had returned to check on the situation and discovered several hotspots in the old timber from which wisps of smoke were still emerging. She had just called the fire brigade to return again to deal with the smoldering wood. Hearing Ms Nelita’s comment the exhausted civil servant immediately began planning for a public fund-raising event. “The Dutch Embassy has indicated that they may help us with expertise, she added. “You know I feel that there really is a will now to truly conserve the Old Town and that it’s not all just mixed up with business ventures,” she declared happily.

“If you buy old wood make sure it is legally obtained wood” warned Bambang Eryudhawan, head of the Project Review Board for heritage buildings. “In fact, perhaps in the long term the buildings should not function as the maritime museum because the space is not large enough and so many things cannot be done because it is a conservation building. Also, the director has his hand’s full looking after a heritage building without also having to run a maritime museum,” suggested Bambang enthusiastically.

The regional government’s stance has markedly raised the enthusiasm and hopes of government civil servants many of whom have toiled under various governors none of whom ever fully committed to genuine protection of the city’s heritage buildings. Now it is up to the governor and deputy governor to keep that promise and continue to support the enthusiasm of their staff in fulfilling the heritage commitment not just to the Old Town area of Jakarta but to all of Jakarta.
(Tamalia Alisjahbana)