Sunday, December 06, 2015

A wasted opportunity? Pulang Kampung is about access...

The Delft municipal government finds the Indonesian ethnographic collections in Museum Nusantara too expensive to keep and the central government of The Netherlands is unwilling to fork out what it takes to keep the collections in other Dutch museums. According to an article in a Dutch newspaper, the Indonesian government will receive the cast-off collections with enthusiasm and is even willing to lavish a new building on them. On the face of things, the discarded ethnographic collection from Museum Nusantara in Delft will go back to its rightful home, whence it came, Pulang Kampung in irreproachable style and glory.

Volkskrant 27 November 2015

The decision to de-accession the collections is financially rational. The Delft municipality made hefty real estate investments when the economy was flourishing. The financial crisis was especially hard on Dutch real estate and the return on those Delft investments was negative. Assets had to be discarded and Museum Nusantara was one of the victims, despite a huge public outcry especially from the academic community that was aware that the museum housed some of the oldest and best Indonesian collections in The Netherlands -- and the world.

The decision to allow a segment of the collections (we don't yet know how big that segment will be) to be repatriated appears modern, gallant, appropriately un-colonial, good for public relations, good for all parties concerned.

In museum and historical terms, however, the timing is bad. The newspaper article cites 'lack of visitors' as the reason for disbanding the collections, all the while museum specialists are writing about a new golden age for these apparently dusty institutions. An important new role is being nipped in the bud.

What is the new role for ethnographic museums? It has to do with reaping the cultural benefits of having stored ethnographic objects so long and so well. While they have lain safely and inert in their depots, indigenous cultures whence the objects originated, have gone into overdrive in the race to become 'modern'. But the value of things increases when they are lost. Now indigenous researchers, artists, and cultural leaders everywhere are trying to get back in touch with what once was. Their quest is about identity, self-respect and pride, about having a historical foundation on which to build a future -- an antidote to the seduction of terrorist ideologies and anomy.

It is not just that the objects in Dutch museums are stored well, but that they are increasingly accessible. Accessibility increased hugely in the digital age. Currently, anyone anywhere in the world can look at the Dutch ethnographic collections on-line and read about the circumstances of their collection and the data that were acquired with them. Pedestals, spotlights, sumptuous displays and restricted access present the objects of daily life as exotic treasures. The digital revolution reverses that and places the objects in the minds of anyone who has a computer or a smart phone. Collections accessibility hasn't yet been fully achieved, but museums are moving in the direction of making them truly 'public' holdings. Objects that were once collected for Western ends can now benefit the people who originally made them, precisely because the West stored them so long and so well, an ironic but very nice twist of fate.  It is not just about "us", the custodians in the West, for a change. In its noble new role, ethnographic museums can interact in mutually beneficial ways with indigenous cultures.

The newspaper article quotes the museum director as saying that the collection will remain accessible to the public. Was the director referring to the fact that the objects are going to a public institution instead of being sold off to private collectors? My concern is that, public institution or not, the collections will lose their accessibility. I know from vast, frustrating personal experience the amount of red tape that one has to wade through to gain access to Indonesian archives -- even the ones that were sent back from The Netherlands to Indonesia. Sometimes after spending time and money one ends up empty-handed. Even when the archives being sought have no political import and represent no threat. I know many first-hand stories about how Indonesian collections have been lost, stolen and even sold from public libraries, museums and archives, how important documentation has been thrown out because nobody could read the Dutch or recognize the name of the maker.

Furthermore, granting access to public collections means granting lots of money to the techniques of making them available. Does Indonesia have this intention? What will the follow-up funding be, after that expensive new building is constructed?

I am a champion of repatriation hence my focus on Pulang Kampung projects during the past five years. Precisely because I recognize the crucial importance of granting indigenous access to cultural objects of the past, I view this return of Dutch collections with a measure of skepticism. They are going back to the capital city, not to the villages. That makes sense; they can be well stored and maintained in a building suited
to that purpose. But they won't have come closer to their indigenous homes and, in terms of accessibility they may end up farther removed than ever. What a shame when these objects have been stored for so long and so well and have such great importance.

I would have preferred it if an innovative 'accessibility program' had been developed collaboratively between the Indonesian and Dutch museums and departments, in the spirit of shared cultural heritage. After all, the objects do also represent Dutch cultural heritage to an extent too often forgotten (embedded in the who, the rationale and the circumstances of collection and donation). I would have preferred it if the Indonesian money had been earmarked, not for a piece of architecture on one of the most expensive plots of land in the world, but for inventing a path breaking program for expanding access to the objects for the people outside the capital city. A program to translate the Dutch documentation into Indonesian would have been a really good start. Focus on accessibility would have allowed Indonesian researchers and collections managers to develop an expertise that is unique in the world and Indonesian society would have been able to reap the rewards in terms of cultural regeneration and health.

I fear that the objects are being brought back as treasures. The status of 'treasure' stands in the way of cultural regeneration. The Indonesians could have left the punctilious task of maintenance and storage to the Dutch who have established their credentials in that field, and just reaped the benefits. I fear that they are saddling themselves with the burden of ownership for the sake of a museum-going elite and for the face of things. This is a step backward if one considers what these collections could have meant for Indonesian society if they had remained, for the time being (not forever), in The Netherlands and strategies had been developed to expand indigenous access to them. Indonesia could have chosen to assume a leadership position rather than a follower position.

Recommended additional reading: