Thursday, October 29, 2015

postcard from the National Museum in Jakarta

I was visiting the National Museum last week, and I'm ashamed to say that albeit my 5 years staying in Jakarta, that was my first visit. I was there because of Jalur Rempah, an exhibition that struck me hard since the first time I stepped on the museum area. There were many people there. Most of them are middle class Jakartans like me, who complaints about traffic everyday, but using the comfortable cozy air-conditioned car whenever I get the chance. Middle classes who spend more time at the malls than in a museum with dusty displays, 5000 rupiah ticket, and the chance to devour thousands of artifacts, texts, documentations and objects that show the richness of my heritage.

I'm embarrassed because I realize that during my four months stay in New York, I have visited Museum of Modern Art a dozen time, and the other museums such as The New Museum, Whitney, MoMA PS1, The Met, Guggenheim, Jewish Museum, Brooklyn Museum and The American Museum of Natural History at least twice. But never to the National Museum in Jakarta, until last week.

JalurRempah started with one question that matters. "Why not Spice Route?"
I have been familiar with the Silk Road for years. To me, that name sounds so elegant and mysterious at the same time. Smooth and slippery, also unreachable at the same time. Just like high quality, pricey silk. But not until I visited the museum that day, I understand that the most traded, sought after commodity during the time of Silk Road was spices, not silk. On that day too, I learned that there are 188 spices in Indonesia, that the most important spices --that changes the face of this world-- are clove and nutmeg, and both, for many centuries are only grown in Indonesia, in Maluku, the island of spices. Those spices that I have taken for granted, but know nothing about.

For years, I have been complaining that the Indonesian museums do not look like the ones I visited abroad. In Singapore, Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich, Pittsburgh, Basel, Oslo, Stockholm, Chicago or Washington DC. The museums opening hours are weird and impossible if you are working in the office and not joining some sort of student field trip. That there are not enough information provided, no interesting display nor theme. That the toilets are dirty and smelly. That there must be no air conditioning and it will be hot! And above all, to be honest, I really don't know what's on.
So I complained but never came.

My visit to JalurRempah was the biggest slap in my face. It knocks down all of my snobbishness to the ground. The Museum Week and The Indonesian Museum Foundation did a great job promoting this exhibition and creating an easy to follow display with important facts and interesting information laid chronologically. Another thing that makes a difference is the public programs. Numerous programs for kids and adults are prepared and created for anyone willing to join. From what I see, this is one of the success keys for this exhibition. Those who come for the exhibition stay for a public program or two, and then curiously discover other things inside the museum. I believe many people, just like me, wandering inside the museum because of JalurRempah.

No, the toilets are not dirty nor smelly. Yes, the displays are dusty and has not been changed for years. Yes, there are no air conditioners. Yes, you have to find your own way among the dimly lit objects and limited information. Yes, mainly, there are no special exhibition with special curatorial process to follow. But come anyway! See the Indonesian museums and discover the wealth of our cultural treasure.

I learned so much from my first visit. I know you will too.

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