There’s an old saying in Indonesia that a big nation is one that appreciates its history.
Through history, people can learn about their cultural origins and their national identity. However, museums — the traditional storehouses of items from the past that help people understand the developments that shaped their society — are not very popular here. Most Indonesians seem to prefer to spend their weekends and other leisure time at the many shopping malls that are scattered across Jakarta.
But that may have started to change in the last few years, with the revitalization of Jakarta’s Kota Tua, or Old Town, triggering a new enthusiasm among the younger crowd for attending museums.
“Going to museums is actually a fun experience. More young people in this city should visit our museums instead of just going to the malls,” said Sandra Fetriana, a 21-year-old university student visiting the National Museum with some friends.
The museum, located in Central Jakarta, is trying to build exactly that kind of culture. In its favor, the museum has perhaps the most strategic location of any such institution in the city. It’s located in the heart of Jakarta’s business district, only a 10-minute drive from the city’s main train station, Gambir, and just across the street from National Monument (Monas) park.
National Museum, or Museum Nasional in Indonesian, is also the oldest such institution in Indonesia, and has the country’s largest historical and cultural collection, with more than 141,000 items. Most were collected from Indonesia’s own backyard, but there are also some items that were purchased from other countries.
John Guy, a curator of Southeast Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was at the National Museum recently taking pictures of Hindu-Buddhist sculptures.
“Museum Nasional is one of the best museums in Southeast Asia,” he said. “This museum has so many hundred-year-old collections.”
Guy visits Indonesia once a year to conduct research and always makes a point of going to the National Museum.
His favorite item is the largest statue in the collection, the more than 4-meter-tall statue of Bhairawa, a manifestation of Buddha, believed to be from the 13th or 14th century.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” he said.
The museum is also sometimes known as Museum Gajah, or the Elephant Museum, because of the bronze elephant statue in front of the building. This statue was a gift from King Chulalongkom from Thailand in 1871.