Sun, 23 Jan 2000

No glut of visitors to lonely Taman Mini museums

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): A weekday is really not the best time to visit the museums at the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah recreation park. For what you will find are sleeping ticket booth attendants. Sometimes the sight of a visitor on a workday is so unusual, a dutiful security guard will approach, asking suspiciously "Can I help you, Sir?" before realizing that all we want to do is check out the museums.

Inside, the atmosphere is not so welcoming either. The museums are generally dark and cold places. And that's figurative speech, because at some places the air conditioning is not on. The telecommunications museum was so hot that going through the displays arranged on its four floors almost became a workout. At the sports museum, we stumbled upon a diorama that supposedly depicts various Indonesian traditional sports, such as the Irianese boat race or the Maduranese Bull Race. But in the absence of proper lighting, we were with nothing but unimpressive silhouettes.

But what can you do? In this time of an economic crisis, there is an urgent need to be, well, economical about things.

"On week days, we shut off some of the power," said Terry Semestari, the chief of education and research at the Purna Bhakti Pertiwi museum, as we mounted the turned off escalator.

This particular museum was not at all dark, it was well-lit and air conditioned. Only the escalators and elevator were not powered. Well, let's hope nobody in a wheelchair comes anytime soon.

The thought that these museums should only be open on weekends sounds absurd. But this is the reality with such places. It's inevitable for the museums to conduct such energy-saving measures when visitor turnout is so low.

Nono Sumarsono, a tour guide at the oil and gas museum, said this past weekend, the last weekend before the start of school, he still saw some schoolchildren going into his museum. But they weren't exactly flocking to the museum, either. A lot of Taman Mini visitors were around the park pond, or at more recreational spots such as the bird park, only a small percentage was in the vicinity of the museums. Sumarsono probably didn't know that on that very weekend, as a comparison, the roads going to Ragunan Zoo and Ancol Dreamland Park were heavily jammed with last-minute recreation-seekers.

"We still need to improve the public's level of appreciation of museums," said Nanang Iskandar, the oil and gas museum's director. "Most of them obviously don't know the benefits of museums."

His museum has hit an all-time low, with a mere 81,155 visitors last year, while in 1997 it attracted 162,037 people. It's a condition he attributes to the economic and political situation, but inseparable from the fact that museums here are not a priority.

Iskandar sees it a challenge for museum curators and administrators in Indonesia to get the public to love museums. And the responsibility to educate the public about the importance of museums also lies with what he calls mediators.

"With this, I mean not only museum guides who have to master what they are supposed to tell the visitors," he said. "The media also have the influence of becoming knowledgeable mediators between museums and the general public."

Museum staff themselves still find the constant need to upgrade themselves. Semestari, for example, is ebullient about being more educated in museum science. After almost seven years working at Purna Bhakti Pertiwi, she still feels there is room for improvement. That is why she tries to take advantage of the regular training programs held by the Museum Directorate, under the Education Ministry.

No matter how enthusiastic she and her colleagues are, self- improvement is not exactly smooth sailing. The limited capacity of the training programs is mainly reserved for the staff of state-owned museums, leaving a meager one seat, or sometimes none at all, for private museum staffers such as Semestari.

Agus Ramdan, an official from the Museum Directorate, affirmed that his office holds annual month-long training sessions for employees of state-owned and provincial museums. Sometimes, collaborating with foreign donors, such as the Ford Foundation, the Directorate is able to send a museum scholar abroad, either for six month's training in the U.S., Canada or the Netherlands or on two-week seminars in ASEAN countries such as Singapore or Thailand. But he attests that a selection process conducted by the state-affiliated Nusantara Jaya Foundation always results in candidates from state-owned museums.

Semestari is not worried, however. Her museum has struck a deal with the Directorate. The Purna Bhakti Pertiwi museum now holds educational training of their own, with lecturers coming to Taman Mini from the Directorate, hired to teach a significant number of the museum's employees on subjects such as conservation and display arrangement. Everybody is happy.

"It's much easier now, since Soeharto resigned," Semestari said. This comment, of course, is related to the fact that Purna Bhakti Pertiwi is an exclusive place that houses private collections of the former president and his family. And she doesn't mean anything negative by what she said, it's just that Soeharto, as the head of the foundation that largely supports the Museum, now has more time for Purna Bhakti Pertiwi.

"The old management used to dismiss any idea I might have," said Semestari. "And I was told not to bother Soeharto with unimportant museum matters. But the current management is much more open. And we are allowed time to meet with Soeharto regularly. He listens to all our needs and complaints. We have been able to accomplish so much since then."

R.M. Sadono, the curator of the oil and gas museum, had some ideas of his own that almost fell through because Taman Mini management almost nixed it.

"They couldn't understand why we had to have a dinner party, when the Taman Mini was supposed to be closed at night," he said. "They don't see that we need to do all we can to keep potential donors, benefactors and museum-lovers coming back to our museums."

At least both Purna Bhakti Pertiwi and the oil and gas museum are planning a year-long program, full of educational sessions and outreach programs to keep their museums alive. But the most important aspect of a museum, according to Sadono, is when a museum can effectively touch and inspire people.

"I once guided a naval academy cadet and his parents through the displays in the museum," he said. "I explained to them our country's potential wealth of oil and natural gas. And you know what the young man said? As he pointed at the Natuna and Aru seas and other places on the map, he said, 'If I have to die in these places, at least now I know what I'm defending.' That really moved me to tears. The museum made a connection with the kid."