Heartbroken at Public Indonesian Museums

If there’s one thing that’s most apparent on my blog, it’s probably my immense fascination towards history. There’s something so magical about learning things people did in the past, especially at museums. Museums are meant to immortalize history through displaying items that belonged to a time before the present and actually tell the story of those items’ significance. However, visiting some Indonesian museums have only left me heartbroken at their state and made me realize that perhaps, this love of history is not even shared by authorities meant to incite it.

I recently visited two museums that left me disappointed over the sorry state they were in. The first one was Museum Gunung Merapi in Kaliurang, Yogyakarta. The museum is located about 10 kilometers away from the actual volcano it’s focused on. The building also looks really awesome, somewhat depicting Mt. Merapi in shape.

Museum Gunung Merapi

Entrance to the museum cost IDR5.000 and the ticket officers asked whether my dad and I would like to pay an extra IDR5.000 to see a 20-minute film about Mt. Merapi. I was curious so I thought “hey, why not?” As soon as we got the tickets checked by an officer (sitting right across the ticket counter itself which made him quite redundant), we rushed to the theater at the second floor to catch the film. The air-conditioned theater looked like a private one you’d see on MTV Cribs with an LCD projector putting the film on full display on a screen but the seats had several threads pulled out and the air smelled a bit like mold. The screen then displayed an old DVD player brand’s name with “loading” on its top-right corner and the film started playing. My expectations about the film were immediately shattered when for the next 20 minutes, I fought to stay awake because the film was literally a geography lesson from the government on why we should love and fear Mt. Merapi with the most cliche words a scriptwriter can put together.

When the 20 minutes were done, I was actually glad to finally get on with exploring the museum. However, it turned out the museum was as poor as the short film I had just seen. All they had were dioramas depicting the eruptions of Mt. Merapi with photos, some captions, and a lot of diagrams. However, there was no one to explain these photos and charts and I didn’t learn things from the museum I didn’t already know in geography class. They also had samples of rocks from Mt. Merapi and equipment used by geologists surveying the mountain but no story about them except for what they were used for and what type of rocks they were.

Dioramas

Geologists' Equipment

Rock samples

Diagrams

There was a small cubicle with furniture in it that was supposed to be an earthquake simulator, but it had a sign glued to it saying “Do not touch except for officials” and there were no officials around. There was a souvenir shop which looked really sad with its dusty items. There was an outdoor area filled with a bunch of wood and sand, seemingly under construction but without a sign to say it was.

I honestly believe that the museum has a lot to tell about the scientific explanation of Mt. Merapi’s eruptions and how geologists work in making sense of the volcano’s patterns. The thing is, Museum Gunung Merapi cannot tell it and it only perpetuates the stereotype of “boring museums” that Indonesians hold on to.

The second museum I visited recently was Museum Kereta Api Ambarawa located in Ambarawa, Central Java. The museum also serves as the starting point for tourist steam trains going around the Ambarawa-Tuntang area. For IDR10.000, visitors get to explore the entire museum complex which included reconstructions of old stations in the Ambarawa area, old steam locomotives, and a building containing old employee registry and station equipment.

One of the steam locomotives

Another one of the steam locomotives

Steam train

Employee Registry

Station Equipment

Old Stations Reconstructed

Again, the museum has a lot of artifacts from the past and with them, plenty of stories to tell. The thing is, the only explanation about the significance of these items and what they were used for was displayed on a long strip of wall with general descriptions or small pieces of paper talking a bit about them. There was also no guided tours around the museum, which was a real pity considering the amount of unique things the museum has on display.

The steam trains could have been used to transport dignitaries and we wouldn’t know. The reconstruction of old stations had holes on them that looked suspiciously like ones created by bullets. I mean someone could have been killed as a hero there and we wouldn’t know. And don’t get me started on the employee registry – I would spend all day poring over them, trying to learn about these people that no one would probably care to remember.

Bullet holes?

I think the museum is more often used for photo shoots than they are for actual learning. During my visit there, there were more people taking photos in the old stations and around the steam locomotives than there were in the building with employee registry and old equipment. The current station for tourist trains also look like it could be the set of Hugo with the right light. And the railways are incredibly photogenic with the modern hustle and bustle of life in one direction and nothing but empty railroads on the other.

Modern life in the distance

I Am Ambarawa

The current train station

Fancy old clock

Is it bad that Museum Kereta Api Ambarawa becomes more of a photo site than a place of learning about history? It’s not because at least people are aware of this museum’s existence and there’s a chance to get people curious about the things that become their set or photo objects. However, the fact that there’s so little explanation about everything at the museum and no guides to tell the story will not lead to that curiosity being satisfied and what happens is either more curiosity to learn elsewhere or total ignorance. Sadly, what tends to happen in Indonesia is ignorance since it’s been so deeply-rooted in the nation that history is boring and we don’t need to learn it.

I’ve been to museums in Indonesia that can fulfill their purpose in generating interest among its visitors about the stories it’s meant to tell like Lawang Sewu, Fort Vredeburg, and even Museum Bank Indonesia so it saddens me that there are still museums that simply display historical items without explaining their significance at all. I know the government in Indonesia has sufficient funds to actually spice up these museums and add features that would spark interest and curiosity which makes me pissed off that these resources are not optimized as they should be. What’s worse is that there is an ever-growing mentality among a lot of Indonesians, especially our youth that museums are boring and history is unimportant.The government goes on and on about wanting to do something about it and yes, there have been improvements. But museums like Museum Gunung Merapi and Museum Kereta Api Ambarawa just show that their efforts aren’t good enough yet. Thing is, these museums can also be a great source of income – look at Lawang Sewu and its numbers of visitors – but again, they’re not optimized yet. Visitors are disinterested at these museums because the museum itself is uninteresting and you can’t polish something uninteresting too much.

I love history and it’s sad to see historical objects and places being treated as nothing more than photo booths when heroes might have used them and people might have died for a cause there. It breaks my heart to write about these museums, but I hope that small is it may be, it can be a wake-up call for us and the government to do something about the state of museums in Indonesia.

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