Sun, 23 Jan 2000

Guided museum tours take the historical route

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): It started with some inquisitive members of Jakarta's expatriate community wanting to know more about a city that is home to more than 300 ethnic groups from all over the Indonesian archipelago and has been constantly adopting the people and customs of many foreign countries for centuries as well.

"Knowing the history of an area, the significance of different buildings and the importance of a particular landmark opens a window of understanding to a country's culture and its people. We learn about how places made history, how people made places, how Jakarta grew ... ," explains Mary de Tray, a former chairwoman of the Indonesian Heritage Society, a non-profit organization born more than a decade ago out of a desire to promote interest in, and knowledge of, Indonesia's rich culture.

Over the years, the large multinational membership of the society -- more than 400 people -- has been involved in different ways with all of Jakarta's museums, but they enjoy a special relationship with the city's National Museum in particular. Its volunteers are immersed in a wide range of activities designed to illuminate the abundant artistic, historical and cultural traditions of the country.

Members of the museum group give English language lessons to staff at the National Museum and there are at least 35 registered guides who give free guided tours in several languages. Tours in English and Japanese are most popular at the museum, which has an extensive collection of more than 100,000 items, from Chinese ceramics, ethnographic and prehistoric items, bronzes, gold objects, stone sculptures to textiles.

Guides speaking several other languages, who only get the job after intensive training, are also available on request. The society has published a guide to the museum and is happy to make arrangements for individuals or groups interested in getting to know more about certain sections, or subjects, in the museum in particular.

When Gillian Green arrived in Jakarta 19 months ago she did not know a soul. April 1998 was an exciting time to be here. So much was going on in the city. There were so many questions to ask, so much to listen to and to understand. Gillian was advised to join the Indonesian Heritage Society, which she did in September 1998.

Her stay in Jakarta was transformed. She was delighted to meet like-minded women on a regular basis, some of whom she found extremely knowledgeable. As a passionate patchwork quilt designer, Gillian initially became part of the textile study group, and made several trips to the Textile Museum housed in the graceful l9th century mansion built in Tanah Abang by a Frenchman, which is now home to an astounding collection of more than 1,000 pieces of cloth from all over Indonesia.

"We are working on a detailed inventory of the collection. To record it all we are making photo slides of each piece of cloth and of related artifacts," says Gillian, who now holds the position of vice chair of the society's museum group.

Under the more expert supervision of National Museum staff, volunteers also translate documents and label and catalog hundreds of items. "I don't know how much we are helping the Indonesians but we certainly end up learning and enjoying ourselves tremendously," Gillian told The Jakarta Post.

Another group of volunteers is busy translating ancient documents written in old Dutch into English at the National Archives. For many years the spacious country house built on Jl. Gajah Mada for Reinier de Klerk, governor general in 1777, housed the National Archives, which have now moved to a more modern building. Yet another goodwill gesture by the expatriates came in 1995, when the Dutch business community here agreed to renovate the mansion as a gift to Indonesians on the 50th anniversary of their Republic.

Gillian's own love affair with Indonesia started way back in the 1960s when her father came to work in Semarang, Central Java, under the Columbia Plan aid program. He taught at a local school for teachers. Her mother gave lessons on western art, while Gillian dabbled in batik printing during her three-year stay. Her delight knew no bounds when she realized that, in 1988, she was to return to the country, after all those long years, as wife of the New Zealand ambassador to Indonesia.

Gillian finds the museums in the city lacking in nothing. "They are as good as museums anywhere in the world. The intention is the same: to document and display the people's cultural heritage that is displayed here in abundance," she says.

She goes to the National Museum almost once a week and finds an adequate number of interested visitors. Once the 1862 building in the Greco-Roman style is renovated and expanded, she hopes it will look less cramped and can accommodate many more exhibits.

However, others feel that the necessary ambience of a world- class museum is missing. "The atmosphere is not inviting enough. There is no invitation to linger at the premises, at a cafe or a well-stocked book and souvenir shop," Elisabeth Penzias, a visitor from Vienna told the Post.

Gillian feels that recent demonstrations and rioting may have kept museum lovers away from the Jl. Merdeka Barat area where the National Museum is located, but not for long. She has never felt any fear for her own safety while museum-hopping on a regular basis, so why should anyone else? She is optimistic that as soon as tourists pour back into the country and the economy improves, cultural activities will swing once again.

For the moment, it makes sense for most Indonesians to use every penny they have on feeding themselves, rather than visiting museums.