Step into the Indonesia’s past at Museum Nasional

JAKARTA: A long weekend holiday is frustratingly short because you’re just about to leave when you’ve just arrived. But it can be a not-so-short weekend holiday when you spend it in Jakarta. Fly in Friday night and leave on Sunday night. Take a budget airliner because the flight is only less than two hours so it wouldn’t matter if certain services and amenities are not available. 
That was the idea of my friend Apo who flew in the holy weekend of April 2 onboard Tiger Airways, having planned it way back in January. Admittedly, I thought he’d be bored out of his wits but, as he mentioned in his e-mail after returning to Singapore, “I just had one of my best weekends! Terima kasih for the warm welcome in Bekasi (not Besakih).” 
So what does one do in Jakarta? Fortunately, Apo has a penchant for exploring the museums so museum hopping was the order of the day dovetailed with trips to the country’s national monuments and old harbor. 
The Museum Nasional (National Museum) was the first stop, which was fitting as it’s the oldest and biggest museum in the country. It was established in 1778 and houses more than 141,000 items from the various Indonesian islands and its neighboring countries.  It is divided into two parts. The first part is the open museum with artifacts depicting mostly the various mythological figures from Ramayana mostly towering over the visitors.  It’s a pity that the displays, being out in the open, are dusty and the description plates hard to read.
The second part is air-conditioned and features the pre-historic era of Indonesia on the first floor highlighted by mammoth tusks, human skeletons and various artifacts while miniature version of the houses of the Indonesian ethnic tribes and other cultural items are displayed on the second floor. Unfortunately, explanations about the artifacts were missing thus one had to fill in the blanks. Other sections of the museum are divided into ceramics, stamps, textile, geography and ethnography areas.
The good thing about museum hopping in Jakarta is that the rest are located within the same area namely Fine Arts Museum, Wayang Museum and Jakarta History Museum. The three are triangulated within Fatahillah Square, which was once the center of the Dutch colonial administration in the 18th century.

Balinese Dancer by Don Antonio Blanco

Fine Arts Museum could do a bit of proper curatorship because the paintings and some sculptures were displayed helter-skelter. One can’t contextualize the painters and their works although an assiduous art lover would probably take down the artists’ name and do research later. Given my scanty knowledge on Indonesian painters, the only recognizable work was Don Antonio Blanco’s Balinese dancer. Not only curatorship in terms of concept is missing, but also the physical set-up of the museum – the paintings, sadly, were exposed to the natural elements thus most had become dark because of dust and one sculpture had a piece broken.
Most of the visitors turned into a theme park where they shot endless pictures of themselves besides paintings and the sculptures. Nevertheless, despite the dismal organization, one gets a glimpse of the artistic heritage of the Indonesians who are currently enjoying the spotlight in auction houses and the international art scene.
Wayang Museum was slightly better in terms of curatorship although, after 20 or so minutes, in the words of Apo, it was “wayang overload”. The colorfully crafted puppets, placed in glass cabinets, lacked explanation in English, which can be frustrating for someone whose knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia is very limited. However, it was interesting looking at the various wayang on display, ranging from tiny to humongous. There was a wayang show in Bahasa Indonesia, which proved interesting although certain nuances were lost on me.

The puppets await their puppeteers

Of the three, the Jakarta History Museum, which seemed to promise an afternoon of edification, was a huge disappointment considering that the country has a rich history. The pseudo museum opened to a huge painting that depicted a war – perhaps between the colonized and the imperialists we couldn’t tell – and a staircase that led to the upper floors that resembled a warehouse holding an antique sale. One floor was reminiscent of Hampton Court because it was huge and had a high ceiling. Dismally though, what could have been a potentially great exhibit on how the Dutch’s dining area in Batavia looked like was nothing but a dull, attic-like display of furniture wrapped in plastic twine lest visitors cart away the chairs. 

Interesting to note was the behavior of the visitors whom Apo and I took to be not from the city. The teenagers had fun photographing with two tall blonde women who didn’t disappoint them on the first floor while some posed with a tall red-haired man on the second floor.


The various homes of God


From the museums, it was off to pay homage to one of the biggest homes of Allah in Southeast Asia. Called Masjid Istiqlal (Independence Mosque), it is the largest mosque because it can welcome more than 120,000 of the faithful at one time. Its history, according to Wikipedia, goes back to the country’s independence from The Netherlands in 1949, and the call to build a structure that would honor that independence and that fact that it’s the largest Muslim nation. A committee for construction was formed in 1953 under the leadership of Anwar Cokroaminoto, one of the two major proponents of creating a grand Indonesian national mosque – the other was then Indonesia’s minister for Religious Affair KH Wahid Hasyim – whose plan was wholeheartedly supported by President Sukarno.

Construction of the mosque officially began with the laying of the foundation stone by President Sukarno on August 24, 1961, and was finished 17 years later showcasing the theme Ketuhanan (Divinity) by architect Frederich Silaban. Construction cost was said to have amounted to Rp7 billion.

Within the area was another house of God, Gereja Santa Maria Pelindung Diangkat Ke Surga (Church of Our Lady of Assumption), which is commonly referred to as Gereja Katedral Jakarta or Jakarta Cathedral. Wikipedia says it was built in neo-gothic style, the popular architectural style of the times, and that church business was first officiated in 1901.


Photo op for Apo at Monas

It would be a shame to miss the national emblems of Indonesia. The first one is a symbol of the country’s fight for independence that inspired one fast food chain to name its soft serve ice cream in honor of it. Monumen Nasional, or Monas, is a tower over Central Jakarta measuring at 128.7 meters and topped with a golden flame. Under architects Frederich Silaban and RM Soedarsono, construction began on August 17, 1961 and finished 14 years later.

The queue to the viewing platform always snakes around, and it seems it’s a matter of luck and patience to get to the top, which, at that time, Apo and I sorely lacked. A friend said that you see the whole of Jakarta and the monument’s manicured gardens. Apo and I contented ourselves with seeing it from the ground. Besides, the sun was beating down our backs pushing us to make a speedy retreat to our van.

The pinisi stays afloat in the sea of modernity

 A much cooler monument was Sunda Kelapa, the old harbor of Jakarta on the north, which was originally called Sunda Kalapa (Coconut of Kelapa) and was the main port of Sunda Kingdom of Pajajaran. The interesting aspect of this port is it only berths the pinisi, traditional two-mast wooden sailing ship, which keeps the inter-island freight service of the entire island alive. When we reached the port, a group of workers were busy loading a pinisi with bags of cement that they effortless carried on their backs to the pinisi while walking the bouncy plank connecting the pinisi to the dock. As we gazed at the workers, completely taken by their strength, a group of tourists cycled up to Sunda Kepala. Apparently, it’s possible to ride the rented bike from Fatahillah Square all the way up to the harbor.

 The day was drawing to an end and we barely covered one-fourth of it. Most people I know would pass on the idea of visiting Jakarta because they think there’s nothing to see. On the contrary, there are a lot of things to see and do in Jakarta, which a real traveler Apo didn’t fail to see but didn’t have luxury of time. After all, a country’s splendor is not found in posh malls and fancy tourist traps.

Within Fatahillah Square on Jalan Taman Fatahillah No. 1 West Jakarta

Fee: Rp2, 000


Medan Merdeka Barat 12

 Fee: Rp750


Within Fatahillah Square on Jalan Taman Fatahillah No. 1 West Jakarta

 Fee: Rp2, 000


Within Fatahillah Square on Jalan Taman Fatahillah No. 1 West Jakarta

 Fee: Rp2, 000


Lapangan Merdeka, Jakarta

Viewing Platform Hours: 8:30am – 3pm 

 Photography by Apo Aguila



4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Hady Depp on April 10, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Wonderful trip ! 😀

    Eh, If you like science, you must visit the IPTEK’s Museum in TMII (Taman Mini Indonesia Indah). There is so many unique items in that museum – specially for Science.

    God bless you LD


  2. Posted by apo Aguila on April 10, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    yehey!!! i’ll share this on my fb! 🙂


  3. Posted by ajb on April 15, 2010 at 9:00 am

    I like the photography….Are you working in a travel agency? or a tourism consultant of indonesia? heheheheheheh. they need to pay….


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