The Museum Nasional – Jakarta

At my first diplomatic soiree (where I noticed a distinct lack of Fererro Rocher) I fell to chatting with a gentleman who owned/was heavily involved with the Jakarta Globe newspaper.  During the course of our conversation, where we found a common ground with kids who are obsessed with Minecraft, I asked him where he would recommend in Jakarta for a cultural history day out. With matching enthusiasm he advocated either the Museum Nasional or the Nasional Arsip (Archive) Museum.

“Thanks very much,” I said, “I’ll go to them tomorrow. Tell me, how do you feel about peanuts?”

There followed a brief rhapsody on the concept of considering the online readership of newspapers with a view to financial reparation using the age-old metaphor of peanuts – which made perfect sense to me, but not, overly so, to him. Anyway, as I left him to the real business of his attendance at the party I happily moved down the tables of food – in silver burnished hot trays – selecting both choice morsels (these diplomats DO eat well) and snaffling a couple of Sprites in lieu of the red wine that was freely soaking the crowd. As I did so I found my spirits lifting with the thought of the coming trip the next day.

I DO like my Museums. Peace, erudition, history, ethnography, culture…all wrapped up in one building. Usually with a nice coffee restaurant at the end. What’s not to like?

The evening came to end, but not before our gracious Canadian hosts had permitted me a quick trip into their vast kitchen where I spotted a poster on the wall. It was Andy Warhol in style with a tiling of Marmite jars. Personally, I am in the “love it” camp when it comes to the black tar, and will robustly defend this nourishing,vitamin A and folic acid loaded salve against any Aussie who claims Vegemite is somehow ‘better’. Self delusion is a wonderful trait. National delusion is a marvel (said the Brit).

The next morning the diplomat got whisked away in an armoured vehicle to bulldoze through the Jakarta traffic to multiple meetings on very important matters whilst Isla and I patiently awaited my father who was residing in a different hotel (the Batavia apartments if you are interested, which he highly recommends to anyone looking for a place to stay). He arrived shortly after 10am. I then discovered I had lost Isla’s ruck sack (Shhh…don’t tell the diplomat!) so we’d have to take the buggy. Luckily, taxis in Jakarta, unlike their Bangkok counterparts, are not fueled by a propane gas tank in the trunk/boot so there is space to put everything. By the way, if you are in Jakarta always take either a blue or silver line taxi. Those are the official ones.

So, off we set on our 7.2km road trip. Which took 40minutes. Don’t get me started….

On the way we went through two of the only roundabouts I have seen in South-East Asia – they are the size of the one that houses the Arc de Triomphe, Paris – and into what was clearly the manicured lawns of the tourist/government area of Jakarta. The Museum is located on the west side of Merdeka square (which houses the National Monument). Throughout Jakarta you can see the heavy influence of the Dutch colonial era in its older architecture. Indeed, the square used to be called Koningsplein (King’s Square) before its present appellation which means ‘freedom’. We pulled into the semi-circular driveway and noted a fair amount of building works to our right where a small stone amphitheater was under construction. Moving swiftly past the locals trying to sell me what looked like a bow and arrow (my father got involved in a conversation trying to explain that border customs simply would not allow us to take weapons back home – a fact the seller clearly didn’t believe) we purchased our two tickets for 8000Rupiah (under 1$) and decided to take a left through some double doors.

Now, the Museum is wonderful. It had that faded Victorian look about it. Heavy dark wood cases, marble floors, aging walls, high ceilings seated atop heavy Corinthian columns. The Museum was in itself a museum piece. The first room had some grand old furniture pieces and a glorious wall length picture of a horse.



This one is a padrao (Portuguese) – a stone epigraph pillar – erected by the Portuguese to  mark their territory in 1522 in the swampy harbour of Sunda Kalapa in the Pajajaran Kingdom. It was after the victory by the Sultan of Banten in 1527 that Sunda Kalapa got renamed to Jayakarta (Jakarta).

From here we moved into the central courtyard with its cloisters. These were full of statues, metopes and pillars. Overhead the sky blistered blue and it was a relief to go back into the coolness of the Museum, but not before I’d snapped a fair few photographs. Here’s a selection:


This is the Parwati statue. The Goddess is the wife of Siwa and this particular statue represents Tribhuwanottunggadewi, the queen of Majapahit (1328-1350)


This is a bas relief from around the fourteenth century depicting village life during the aforementioned Majapahit era…


…and this is the Taji Gunung inscription dealing with the opening of that countryside in central Java around 194 (A.D?)

We moved inside the right hand section of the Museum where it was given over to the ethnography of the entire archipelago – Java, Bali, Maluku, Sumatra to name some of it. Inside it was a cultural melting pot of artisan skills, technologies, carvings, sculpture. For instance, we learned about teeth blackening – we found a peshihungan container indigenous to the Lampung region of Sumatra. The ritual, for pubescent children, uses a concoction of burned kemuning wood and other ingredients to blacken their teeth. We also saw the Javanese Gamelan which is an ensemble of musical instruments tuned to specific pitches. Two main systems are used – the seven-toned pelog and the five-toned slendro.  The instruments in the set are essentially xylophones, a lutes, flute, penyacah (seven-keyed instrument), gongs and, kendang (small drums) the original use of the gamelan being to entertain nobility.


We found the ceremonial bedroom of the Goddess of Rice (Dewi Sri). This was a separate room set aside for her worship, usually near the storage areas for all things agricultural. It had containers for storing wheat sheaves and an oil lamp was kept constantly lit. An important Goddess as she brought a plentiful harvest. Further on was the Asmat canoe, used by peoples living close to the coasts and rivers. Travel by canoe (prau) was common and the hand-carved vessel bears motifs depicting turtles. It was also used to carry a soul to the afterlife, about 5m in length and seated about six people.


There is much, much more to see. As we ambled through the building, peering at everything, reading all manner of plaques, we were suddenly besieged by a group of school girls and their teacher asking to take photos of Isla. They were on a trip and had a list of things to “find” inside.

Locate a Canadian/British child, aged just over 1yr on the museum trail? No problem. Found it miss!


We thought we were done so we retreated back to the entrance way and requested the whereabouts of the toilets. We were pointed through a heavy curtain that was a tricky passage to navigate because a lot of cables and boxes were partially blocking it due to an event that was being set up. Emerging into a brand new atrium next to the amphitheatre that was being built outside we nearly tripped over a fair few chairs – the kind you find at weddings – which were set up for the event. Beyond the clutter was a cool, white and cream marble building with a down escalator. The steps didn’t activate till we approached which got my green vote. A good humour that rapidly turned around as I discovered that Indonesia Museum washrooms firmly believe in toilet roll holders but not actual toilet paper.

Still, undeterred we decided to tighten our pelvic floor and strolled into a “gift shop” to see if we could get a tissue for my father who was sneezing in the air conditioning. It had no gifts, unless you count toothpaste and washing powder as such. It also had several drinks and a few snacks. Our gloom was lifted when we spotted on the top shelf of this mini-mart a massive box of toilet roll.

“How much, please?”

“Teeennnn miiilllliiooonnnn rupiah.” Only joking. It was ten thousand ($1). However, I’d’ve paid ten million right about then.

Suitably abluted, we glanced to our left and suddenly realised we’d only seen a third of the Museum. A brand new wing was open, delivered in the style of Western Museums (think Science or Natural History in Kensington, London). The ground floor was pre-historic and neolithic history – displays like skulls of Homo Erectus and reproduction caves with Australomelanesid skeletons in the same position they were found. There were elevators, escalators, everything wide, spacious, well-lit – perfect for a pushchair lugging father and grandfather. Four levels ascended before us and we were privy to some fantastic history. One floor was on technologies – tools, styles, methods – , another on wood furnishing. Sub-sections on colonial era, stele, bead-working, epigraphs, fauna, flora, Arabic influences, pottery, glassware, inscriptions, textiles. You can see some examples: 





However, all of this paled in comparison to the top level which housed the gold artifacts. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted up there but take it from me it was exquisite. We saw ceremonial spears, gelang bracelets, golden helmets, earrings, necklaces, ceremonial garb from several regions. All of it behind thick glass, well-spaced out and it simply glittered.

It was the fantastic end of the trip through the Museum though our excitement was not perhaps matched by Security…


…but we felt as tired as he looked. We hailed a silver bird and made the forty minute trip back to the hotel where a couple of cool beers and a three-tier silver platter afternoon tea daintily awaited us. No marmite, but hey, you can’t have everything now, can you?

So…Museum Nasional, Jakarta. If you are nearby and you’ve got a spare two hours or so…indulge. You won’t be disappointed.

Is this what diplomacy is all about?



Categories: Jakarta

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2 replies


  1. Suan Pakkad Palace Museum « travelswithadiplomat
  2. A Potted History « travelswithadiplomat

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