Tue, 06 Mar 2001

History for the taking at old museum

Text and photo by Kartika Bagus C.

SURAKARTA, Central Java (JP): Pieces of the country's heritage are disappearing from the very institution that is supposed to preserve and protect them.

And it's not the ravages of time that are causing their loss to the nation -- but thieves.

Burglaries are becoming a regular occurrence at Radya Pustaka Museum, located in the Sriwedari recreational and cultural complex in the city. Thieves are breaking in during the night to steal the valuable statues and objects, presumably to sell on the black market.

Only three months after the Agastya statue dating from the seventh century A.D. disappeared, another andesite piece, Nandiswara, believed to be somewhere from the seventh century to the 11th century, was stolen one night in mid-January (the Agastya was later found in Prambanan, Klaten). Both pieces had been kept on a front terrace of the museum.

There was not much to celebrate when the museum marked the 110th anniversary of its founding last Oct. 28, even though it is the second oldest extant establishment for the sciences in the country, after the Bataviaasch Genootschap, which was founded in 1778.

In its traditional Javanese building, the museum is home to many items of great historical value, including literary works. They include Djoyoboyo, the predictions of Ronggowarsito about events in Java, and Serat Walang Reh, the verses of Sri Susuhunan Paku Buwono IV which provide moral instruction for Javanese to live their lives.

Operated on a shoestring budget, it is poorly maintained and attracts few visitors -- but worse still is the theft of the collection.

The curator of the museum, KRHT Darmodipura, said the museum did not employ a security guard at night.

"I'm deeply concerned by this situation. The museum has no money for maintenance and security. We have no money to hire a night watchman," said Darmodipura, a former national soccer referee.

As a security measure, the remaining statues on the front terrace have been moved inside the museum.

The museum's collection is diverse. In Kadipolo, the front room of the museum, there is a complete collection of shadow puppets, with a statue of KRT Sosrodiningrat IV standing in the center.

In the middle room there are collections of ceramics and porcelain, including an ornate vase that was a gift from Napoleon Bonaparte to ruler Susuhunan Paku Buwono IV. Kris are found in front of the vase, along with spears and antiques. In the space connecting the two rooms are chairs, marble tables and a cannon.

There are ancient bells, engraved mirrors and padupan (ancient prayer sites) in the center of the room, on the right-hand side. In this room, known as the bronze room, there is a recess for a statue of Avalokiteshvara, a bronze statue of the Goddess of Curda and a replica of the two hands of a statue of Boddhisatva (the original hands were taken to be attached to a statue in the National Museum in Jakarta).

Standing in the corridor between the bronze room and the library is an organ that Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly gave to Paku Buwono IV. The library is open to the public and is home to 393 carik (hand-written manuscripts), 907 books in Indonesian as well as 700 books in foreign languages.

Because the library is not provided with a proper temperature regulator, all the books are in a state of neglect. Fortunately, some were put on microfilm thanks to a grant from Cornell University in the U.S. in 1983.

Two complete sets of gamelan are kept in the ethnographic room in the rear part of the museum. Also found in this room are a great variety of blangkon (Javanese male batik headdress), kuluk (a Javanese male courtier's cap shaped like a fez) and many types of utensils used during the golden age of the Surakarta palace. There is also the highly interesting Kyai Rajamala, the bow of a boat.


Sadly, the regional administration can only earmark Rp 10 million from its annual budget for the museum, which falls far short of the amount needed to properly manage a museum.

Darmodipura said at least Rp 1 million was needed to cover maintenance costs alone.

"More money is needed to pay employees and security personnel." The museum welcomes contributions from donors for its upkeep.

As one of the country's oldest cultural and historical institutions languishes in a state of uncertainty, it might help to remember one of the beliefs of the country's first president, Sukarno.

"Never forget history," he said in a speech in the 1960s. He believed that one measure of progress and civilization were the universities and museums to be found in a country.

While universities produce intellectuals, museums allow us to look back at our history, from painful times, such as colonization, to our past glory.

But we are only able to appreciate it if the objects are still in their rightful place.