Resources: Pia-Journal (University College of London, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology) / Author: Yunci Cai

The conference opened with a traditional Javanese dance performance entitled ‘Tari Gotek Menak’, and a keynote speech by Dr. Harry Widianto. Dr. Widianto spoke on the development of the Sangiran Museum Complex, which showcased the archaeological finds and ongoing research on the Sangiran archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the fossils of the ‘Java Man’ were discovered, as a preamble to the fieldtrip on the following day. The highlight of the conference was the plenary session by two renowned guest speakers, namely: Associate Professor John N. Miksic from the National University of Singapore, who discussed the development of museum education in Southeast Asia, and Associate Professor Christina F. Kreps from the Denver University (USA), who is a key proponent of the ‘appropriate museology’ concept in museum studies.

A/P Miksic proffered many ideas about the different forms heritage and cultural preservation might take in the context of Southeast Asia. He suggested that the local concept of pusaka, a word of unknown but possibly Sanskrit origin which can be roughly translated as ‘heirlooms’, could be interpreted as the first manifestation of museums in Southeast Asia. He argued that pusaka emerged in Southeast Asia in parallel with the advent of the museum concept in the West, during which the treasures and heirlooms such as religious sculptures, textiles, scriptures and jars were collected by local communities in Southeast Asia, and handed down through the generations in monasteries, temples or family homes, as well as through religious sites such as the Borobudur temple. He added that the concept of pusaka exists in many areas in Southeast Asia, where it is still popular among local communities, and could be considered as a form of museological practice. He also highlighted the proliferation of folk museums and museums focusing on rural cultures as an emergent museum trend in Southeast Asia. He concluded by suggesting five recommendations for the development of museum education in Southeast Asia, viz.:

(a) acknowledge and study local ideas about material cultures,

(b) study and foster development of private, outdoor, local, urban and university museums,

(c) figure out ways to explore the hybrid, dynamic, evolving nature of cultures,

(d) promote proactive acquisition, especially of items of popular culture, and

(e) find ways to bridge the local, national and regional cultures of Southeast Asia, focusing on the cross-cultural influences from within Southeast Asia and with other parts of the world.

A/P Kreps discussed the shift from ‘colonial’ museology widely practised in Southeast Asia up to the 1980s, to the increasing need to be sensitive to the local contexts and practise ‘appropriate museology’. She demonstrated how museums could practise ‘appropriate museology’, by discussing examples from her research with the native communities in America, as well as from her work in Indonesia and Thailand. Using the example of a storage/treasure box from the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of the Northwest Coast of the US and Canada, she showed how such objects could have multiple functions, meanings, values, and could appeal to different senses and not just be ‘objects for the eyes’ as prescribed in Western museums. The treasure box, A/P Kreps argues, has also been likened to a museum in indigenous form, as in the case of the U’mista Museum and Cultural Centre in British Columbia, A/P Kreps suggests that there is a need to move beyond a western-centric object-based epistemology that configures objects primarily as information carriers and part of ‘object-information packages’ to approaches that also include the multisensory nature of objects and their multiple interpretations and intangible properties. She further demonstrates how ‘appropriate museology’ can be applied through reconciling local, indigenous curatorial traditions with western museology in the case of the Museum Balanga in Kalimantan, Indonesia where museum staff acknowledge the existence of spirits and supernatural powers residing in museum objects by engaging with spiritual leaders to curate exhibitions and perform purifying rituals on these objects as part of the museum’s collection management strategies. Lastly, A/P Kreps demonstrates how Thai monastery museums exemplify the concept of ‘appropriate museology’ by integrating elements of local curatorship, reflecting local communities’ ways of perceiving objects and their relationships with the objects. For example, she describes the common practice of renewing museum objects, such as Buddha figures, by repainting or replacing them instead of preserving the objects for posterity in the western sense. She also describes how the donation of objects to a museum can be a form of merit-making, and how ritual prohibitions on the removal of museum objects is a means of safeguarding them. She concluded her talk by reiterating the need to recognise the existence of multiple museologies, in which each community creates its own version of museology appropriate to its local context.

Main photo: Fuzbiz Media: “Catching the light of Asia” / Author: Weerapong Chaipuck

Fieldtrip to Sangiran Museum Complex and Danar Hadi Batik Museum

The conference included a fieldtrip to the Sangiran Museum Complex in Sragen and the Danar Hadi Batik Museum in Solo to observe local expressions of the museum idea and museology. The Sangiran Museum Complex sits on a globally significant archaeological site. According to the UNESCO Advisory Body Evaluation report on the site, ‘Sangiran is recognized by scientists to be one of the most important sites in the world for studying ‘fossil man’, or the paleontological record of human development, ranking alongside Zhoukoudian (China), Willandra Lakes (Australia), Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania), and Sterkfontein (South Africa), and more fruitful in finds than any of these’ (1995, 46). The Sangiran Museum Complex is a 1.6 hectare site comprising four museum clusters, showcasing the archaeological finds from the Sangiran Early Man Site, also known as ‘Homeland of the Java Man’. The conference participants had the opportunity to visit the Krikilan cluster, completed in December 2011 featuring a visitor centre focusing on the story of human evolution over time, and a research centre for the study of the Java Man, as well as the Bukuran cluster, newly completed in 2014 to showcase the fossils from the Sangiran Early Man Site. The visit to the Krikilan cluster and the Bukuran cluster, offered conference participants an opportunity to learn about one of the Indonesian government’s latest efforts to preserve and showcase a globally significant archaeological site under its purview.

The Danar Hadi Batik Museum showcases one of the finest Batik collections in Java. Established by Mr. Santosa Doellah, the founder of the Batik Danar Hadi, a business producing upmarket Batik products for sale, to showcase his private collections, the Danar Hadi Batik Museum reflects an emergent museological trend in Southeast Asia, which is the proliferation of private galleries set up by collectors, who also run commercial entities related to the collections being showcased. These trends attests to the blurring of boundaries between the role of museums as repositories of material heritage vis-à-vis their roles in heritage businesses in the form of marketing and creating value for the heritage products on sale. It is worth highlighting that the art of Batik making is intertwined with identity-making in the Indonesian context, as different cities such as Solo and Yogyakarta have their unique signature design, and therefore Batik has a significant place in local and national identity formation in Indonesia.