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The Treasures of the Museums in Jakarta: West Java

Museums, perhaps spots that are not very popular to hang out these days, are actually important places to observe the journey of a nation. By visiting our museums, we will recognize and appreciate our nation’s history, and hopefully continue the spirit of our forefathers. Jakarta has more than 50 museums, from the National Museum to thematic museums for traditional puppetry, stamps, textiles, transportation, energy and science, and even to a museum dedicated entirely to insects.

Museum Nasional, or the National Museum, is the most complete site to look back on Indonesia’s history. Located at Jl. Merdeka Barat No. 12, Central Jakarta, its birth dates back to 1778, when Dutch scientists and collectors established an organization to promote art and science.

To accommodate this purpose, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles erected in the early 19the century a building at Jl. Majapahit No. 3. In 1862, the Dutch government decided to build a permanent facility, later known as Gedung Gadjah, or the Elephant Building, due to the bronze statue of an elephant at its front. The statue was a gift from Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn, Ani Suswantoro explains.

In 1979, the building was dedicated as the National Museum by the Indonesian government.

“The collection is really extensive. You need a whole day to observe it thoroughly,” commented Rita, a visitor on Sunday, Dec. 23, 2007.

The museum houses more than 109,000 pieces consisting of prehistoric relics such as the Yupa Inscription, a sample of the first recorded writing in the 5th century from Kutai, East Kalimantan.

The collection also holds archaeological, ethnographic, numismatic/heraldic and historical items. Many archaeological artefacts, such as statues of Hindu deities and temple reliefs, were influenced by Indian culture and found in East and Central Java. The 8th-century Durga Mahesasuramardhini and the 9th-century Shiva Mahadewa — the supreme god of Shivaite-Hinduism — and the famous 9th-century Ganesha, god of science, are a few examples.

The numismatic and heraldic collections feature coins and currencies from old Indonesian kingdoms to the colonial era and up to the independence era. Ceramics that date as far back as 206 BCE from China, as well as terracotta pieces, household utensils, ethnic houses, accessories, old weapons and textiles, complete the museum collection.

“During the holidays, we usually have students coming in groups with teachers. For them we offer a special price for the entry tickets,” said Muji, a member of the museum security. The discount is rather surprising, considering that the normal entrance fee is only Rp 750 for adults and Rp 250 for students/children.

Visitors should be informed that permission must be obtained before taking photographs inside the museum.

Traveling farther north, we come to Jakarta’s Kota Lama (Old City), where three museums are found close to each other: the Jakarta History Museum, the Wayang (Puppet) Museum and the Arts and Ceramic Museum.

The Jakarta History Museum, located at Jl. Taman Fatahillah No. 1, West Jakarta, was once the Batavia Mayor’s Building, erected by Governor-General Jan van Hoorn in 1707. On March 30, 1970, then Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin officially dedicated the building as the Jakarta History Museum.

With a collection of around 23,000 pieces, the museum contains the history of Jakarta from the prehistoric era, represented by artefacts of 1,500-year-old stone axes, through the ancient kingdoms to the Dutch occupation and up to the modern era. Ciaruteun, Kebon Kopi and Jambu inscriptions found in Bogor during the Tarumanegara Kingdom, then under the reign of King Purnawarman, depict life in early Jakarta.

Meanwhile, a vast array of antique furniture from the Dutch colonial era stand as witnesses of those olden times.

At the basement level is a dungeon used to jail opponents of the Dutch, as well as the sword used to execute the rebels. In the rear courtyard still stands the famous cannon Si Jagur, weighing around 24 tons and seized in 1641 by the Dutch government from the Portuguese in Malacca, Malaysia.

“I arrived just a few days ago from the Netherlands for a vacation, and this museum is the first tourist (destination) I have visited so far. My relatives talk about Old Batavia, so here I am now,” said Maartje, a Dutch visitor.

Across the Jakarta History Museum stands the Wayang Museum at Jl. Pintu Besar Utara No. 27. In 1626 it was a church called De Oude Hollandsche Kerk (The Old Church of Holland), later rebuilt as De Nieuwe Hollandsche Kerk (The New Church of Holland), until an earthquake in 1808 turned the church into ruins. When another building was erected on the same site, the Oud Batavia foundation bought it and turned it into a museum, which later became the Wayang Museum.

Among its collections are classic wayang kulit (shadow puppets) with timeless characters such as Pandawa and Kurawa from the Mahabharata epic, displayed in its many variations from across Indonesia.

Visitors can also observe the Wayang Revolusi (collection Revolution Puppets) of the 1950s that illustrate Indonesia’s Revolution Era, featuring Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta as the central characters, and Wayang Wahyu, or Revelation Puppets, which were used to teach Christianity. The traditional wayang golek, wooden puppets from Bandung and Bogor, and Wayang Kaper — small puppets for children made from cardboard, and various wooden masks also fill the museum.

From abroad, the Puppet Museum has marionettes, dolls and puppets from Britain, China, France, India, Malaysia, Suriname and the United States.

Another highlight is the fact that 18 Dutch governor-generals were once buried in the lower grounds of the museum, including the fourth governor-general of the East Indies and founder of Batavia, Jan Pieterszoon Coen. In 1977, their remains were removed to the Dutch Cemetery in Tanah Abang, leaving behind several gravestones at the museum.

The Arts and Ceramic Museum is housed in a building designed in the classical style, located at Jl. Pos Kota No.2. It was erected in 1870 as the Raad van Justitie, or the Court of Justice. Former president Soeharto dedicated the building in 1976 as the Art and Ceramic Museum.

Here, visitors can view the journey of Indonesian art history from master painter Raden Saleh (1800-1880) to masters such as Soedjojono, Affandi, Barli, Dullah, Rustamadji and Arie Smit — the Dutch painter who lived in Bali — and many others.

“When renovations are finished in January next year (2008), visitors will be able to view a more complete set of paintings,” remarked Muslih, a museum guide.