Museums need to change with times: Expert
By Bruce Emond
JAKARTA (JP): Sudarmadji Damais, popularly known as Adjie Damais, knows a thing or two about museums. The head of the Jakarta History Museum from 1989 to 1999 has spent more than a quarter century in the museum world, earning respect for his part in the stunning makeover of the Taman Fatahillah area in North Jakarta.
He has his own very personal ideas on why public interest is lacking in museums in Jakarta and the few scattered in cities around the country.
And he also is ready with answers for those Indonesian intellectuals who have an enduring lament about the state of the country's museums.
Generally, it's a state of disrepair, of musty collections unseen and little thought of by most Indonesians, who would rather take in some window shopping at a gleaming mall.
Blame is laid liberally on both museum directors, for not doing enough to gain interest, and the public, for lacking the intellectual curiosity to take a look at their past.
For Adjie, the problem is not so simple as finding fault with either museum administrators for being set in their ways, or the cultural ignorance of the man in the street who is more interested in filling his stomach and keeping up with the latest sinetron.
He believes it is a more complex issue of taking the generally accepted concept of museums borrowed from the West, which has been transplanted almost intact here, and adapting it to what the Indonesian public wants and needs.
"We have to look at the issue from four aspects, the concept being one thing, the matter of management, our culture and human resources," he said on Thursday.
He is quick to defend museum directors, who usually bear the brunt of criticism about the sorry state of their institutions.
"We have to remember that before World War II, all museums here were in private hands, either under foundations or palaces. There are really old examples, from North Sumatra and Solo (Surakarta). Today, there is no autonomy for them and they have to answer to the government, be it central or regional. Everything is too centralized, but that's the story of Indonesia."
He notes that the country retains a culture where deference to authority still reigns -- and the museum world should not be expected to be any different.
"We talk about giving autonomy to museum directors or curators, but if I'm the museum director, I'll keep on dictating to others. That's a problem of us Malays. I'm not going to tell my cook in the morning 'Make whatever for dinner' but I'll say 'cook this and that'.
"It's easy to criticize, but it's another thing to put our plans into action. We're as much responsible for the state of things."
He points out that it is inappropriate to blame the public for a lack of interest in museums, a concept borrowed from the West and imposed on them.
"If Indonesians go to a temple or traditional site, they know how to act, to behave reverently. But a museum is something else to them. Remember, the first museum here was founded by Burghers; learned, devout Dutchmen who wanted to learn more about the different parts of the islands."
He points out that museums include ethnographic sections, which are today incongruous throwbacks to the days when the Burghers wanted to pursue intellectual exploration of the peoples in the archipelago.
Having an ethnographic section today, he muses, is tantamount to the confusion of "us looking at us" instead of "us looking at them".
The government requires schoolchildren to take field trips to museums "which is a good idea if a bit fascistic. In Europe, they (museum visits) are supposed to come freely".
There is also the paradoxical cultural clash of wealthy Indonesians -- often at the forefront in advocating the development of museums in the country -- and their, perhaps, skewed view of what constitutes part of their history.
"Some of these people will take a look at a VOC chair in an exhibition and admire it as a beautiful piece," Adjie said. "But they'll say 'kasar sekali' (that's really crude) if they see a piece of traditional Irian Jaya sculpture."
Adjie also acknowledges the lack of personnel skilled in museum administration -- "there are perhaps 10 or so in Jakarta" -- and, perhaps more importantly, those who know the ins and out of marketing and promoting exhibitions.
"I can tell you of someone who went abroad to get a degree in museum management and came back here full of ideas about what to do to improve the museums. But now that person is crying every day because it is so difficult to implement the plans."
Is the desire to have museum galleries packed with visitors a sorry case of overreaching by affluent dilettantes, of striving for ambitious goals in a bid to keep up with the cultural Jones' of the West?
"It again comes back to the issue of whether our concept of museums is right for Indonesia. We talk about the need for more autonomy for museums when it still isn't true for the rest of society. It's still a case of people in any organization having to ask others for permission to go ahead with things."
He draws on his experience working with a foundation to promote a theatrical company.
"The problem is that there is no professionalism in the Western sense. I mean, I'm still searching for an Indonesian equivalent of 'company', it doesn't translate. And everything is done in the way it would be done back in Surabaya or whatever.
"Looking for someone to do a job? Well, we're more likely to look for someone in our family or someone we know."
He notes the fundamental cultural dichotomy in appreciation of historical objects.
"In the West, even in class divided society like England, there is that appreciation for old objects in the general public. Here it's not the same thing. If we don't have something, well we can just make a copy. I think it's the same among Chinese and also those Japanese who haven't been too influenced by the West. People in the West wouldn't think of doing a copy or reproduction. They would scream."
Among Indonesians themselves, Adjie says there are bound to be differences in how they put objects in historical and cultural order.
"To a Javanese, for instance, Borobudur is part of their old historical past, but to a Batak, well, it's a reality of only 100 years ago."
It's a decidedly complex and frustrating picture: Are Indonesian museums doomed to remain government-subsidized white elephants, their collections languishing with nary a visitor?
Or, will some hotshot museum curator brimming with ideas come in and create a stir, bringing in the crowds with a concept borrowed from scenes from a local mall?
The answer, Adjie says, will probably fall somewhere in between.
"What we have to do is find a third way between the so-called traditional and the so-called modern of the West. We have to look at whether Indonesians look at a beautiful chair because it is beautifully made, or because it has historical value? Or both."
Adjie notes that the critics may be hoping for too much, too soon.
"We have to remember that the massive exhibitions in the West only really began 20 years ago with the 'King Tut' exhibition at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City). And that took a lot of planning, a lot of money."