Museums have a way of bringing history to life – some through the preservation of old artifacts, others through the usage of modern technology to bring the past to life. I consider museums that can combine both in presenting history to be incredible ones.
When I first passed Fort Vredeburg in Yogyakarta, I got the impression that the museum inside it would fall into the “preserving historical heritage” category.
The building was used as a Dutch military headquarters during the time they occupied Indonesia and not much of the structure nor architecture has changed since the 18th century, given that a renovation took place in 1982. In order to get to the museum building complex from the parking lot, I had to cross over a bridge which spans across a moat surrounding the fortress and pay IDR2.000 in exchange for a ticket in the fortress’ tunnel.
Once going through the tunnel, what the complex inside the fortress’ walls really look like finally come in sight.
The museum consists of about half a dozen buildings clustered around a concrete patio and patches of grass. The patio itself is field with realistic-looking statues of Dutch and Indonesian soldiers and cannons as well as seats with curtains of leaves covering them from sunlight. There are also two statues of notable Indonesian generals guarding the other end of the field opposite the tunnel.
There are four buildings in the complex which are open for public and these four buildings are meant to be explored in a chronological order starting from Building 1, as told by the security guard of the museum. Following his advice, we started our journey from Building 1.
Building 1 gives off the impression of a typical Indonesian museum focused on telling the story of Indonesia’s fight for independence. The building is lit in yellow light, with walls painted white and an assortment of dioramas and artifacts gathered from the past with a plaque telling the story behind each display underneath their glass cases.
The dioramas and artifacts in Building 1 describe the things that happened somewhere in the 18th century, including Prince Diponegoro’s fight against the Dutch and the forced labor policy applied by the Dutch. Building 1 still seems like a typical Indonesian museum describing our fight for independence.
Building 2 is actually adjoined with Building 1 and thus, without needing to exit, I continued my journey throughout history. This time, I was heading into the 1920s-1930s era of Indonesia.
It was an era when the organized fight for independence actually began. The era included a lot of congresses among the youth in various parts of Indonesia, men, and women. Again, there were plenty of dioramas and artifacts from the past, such as flags and clothes used in the past. But there was also another interesting feature of this part of the museum.
In building two, boxes shaped like an old fireplace can be found in various corners of the building. Curious about these boxes, I approached one and took a peek. It turned out that each box had an LCD touch screen attached on top of it, presenting information in an interactive way. Stories were typed on to the screen in slides and all one has to do is scroll right or left. In short, the touch screen allows visitors to control which part of history do they want to learn more of.
Admittedly, this object made me begin to think that there is something interesting about this museum.
As we walked outside, I noticed that the exhibition of historical artifacts extended to the porch of Buildings 1 & 2. Curious, I drew closer to the shelves which turned out to display remains of guns and knives used in the past, sniper mirrors, and table ware. A gigantic 3D model of the Dutch battle map during the 18th and early 19th century era is also available for viewing with lights that can be lit by pressing a switch, marking the territories of the Dutch at each era.
Although all of these were interesting for me, there was one thing that drew my attention immediately.
It is what looks to be a tombstone with an inscription saying “The first rock, by the president of the Republic of Indonesia, 5-10-1949, the grave of an unknown soldier.” The last line of the inscription made me wonder: is someone buried underneath this museum? Or is there a mass grave of unidentified soldiers underneath the museum? I was honestly curious about this.
Leaving the curious stone and exhibition behind, I continued my journey throughout history to Building 3 – but not before climbing the fortress walls on the other side of the museum.
It was a strange feeling to stand on higher ground, right by the outer walls of the fortress. As I stood there, I pictured Dutch soldiers standing by the same wall, freaking out when they saw Indonesian troops making a move toward their fortresses. I pictured cannons being installed on top of the walls and snipers taking aim (albeit with less high-tech weapons.) I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how Indonesians managed to win a couple of battles considering most of the weapons we had back then consisted of sharpened bamboos against Dutchmen on higher grounds like this.
Descending the stairs, I made my way to Building 3 – a building located across Buildings 1 and 2. The building’s front terrace honestly looks like a Catholic school’s hallway with muted colors and a tall wooden set of doors.
I opened those doors expecting something similar to Buildings 1 & 2 behind them. How very wrong I was.
Inside, Building 3 was a huge improvement compared to the previous two buildings. For one, the building hosts far less dioramas and more historical evidence with summarized stories behind them on an electrically-lit box underneath each case containing them. There were several items in this building that drew my attention.
It was exciting enough for a history lover like me to explore these buildings and look at these fantastic items from way back when, but there was something special in Building 3 that became the highlight of my visit to Fort Vredeburg.
Upon getting to the end of the hallway before exiting the building, there was a notice on the wall that read “Rules & Regulations of Entering the Facility” on the last curve of the hallway. Sentences on this notice include “do not spend more than 30 seconds here” and “once you’re in, you cannot get out.” I was intrigued but a bit scared of what I might encounter. As I stepped foot on the so-called “facility”, I heard a loud “shh” noise, but there was no one behind me.
I legitimately thought I was about to enter some sort of haunted house.
As I stepped in, I saw life-sized, realistic statues of Indonesian soldiers. Walking past them, I heard the sound of a door creaking and footsteps. I rushed further towards the end of this hallway to leave the facility. Running past a statue of a soldier in front of a wall painted with red splatters, lights began to flash and I heard gun shots ringing near my ear. And that was when it hit me that the “facility” was a type of simulator triggered by motion sensors in order to give the fort’s visitors an experience in history involving our senses.
I’ve never seen this in any other museum I’ve visited before so I thought that was genius and every museum should try to create a similar experience somehow. However, a lot of other visitors were terrified and didn’t go through this facility and turned around instead because they all thought it was some sort of haunted house so perhaps there should be a bit of a spoiler of what’s ahead so people won’t be freaked out.
Entering Building 4, I had low expectations because it would be hard to top that motion sensor experience in learning history. Building 4 turned out to be anticlimactic compare to Building 3 but served as a great closing to the story of Indonesia.
Looking a bit like an octagon Peranakan shophouse, the building itself already looks a tad more modern than the rest of the complex.
The interior looks modern and stylish with black walls and glass cases containing dioramas and LCD touch screens telling the stories from 1960-1990s. It felt like entering a time machine from an older era to the present.
One cool feature in Building 4 are the numerous touch screens hung on the walls with games in it for us to play in order to internalize the things we learn into our minds or merely for the sake of learning history in a fun way. The games include historical trivia quizzes, find-the-difference, word searches, and memory.
Okay, I’ve used up more than 1500 words talking about the awesome ways this museum presents history. But what if you’re not a history lover? Fear not, you can spend about 1-2 hours riding tandem bikes or rickshaws for IDR15.000 around the museum complex (which is a large one, mind you, I don’t know how those Dutchmen don’t get tired of walking around a complex this big.)
Walking out of the museum, I was impressed with the well-kept state it’s in and how high-tech it is compared to other museums that might have a more expensive ticket price in Indonesia. I entered this museum with IDR2.000 and got out with an experience worth more than what I paid for. Fort Vredeburg combines preservation of old heritage and artifacts with the usage of modern technology really well, utilizing them to guide visitors through various eras in time with such finesse. I’m seriously hoping that one day, all museums in Indonesia would have all the state-of-the-art technologies used to tell history in Fort Vredeburg, if not better because when history is presented in an exciting way, it would be easier for people of all ages including the youth to have a passion to learn it and love it.