Treasures and curiosities
Indonesia’s National Museum is an excellent introduction to this diverse nation with an absorbing collection of fine artefacts that span the archipelago. If you are passing through Jakarta, consider this a must see as it presents an ideal opportunity to gain some context and history to the places and things you may encounter on your Indonesian travels.
Unfortunately at the time of our research much of the museum was closed for renovation due to reopen at the end of August 2018 (although there is still plenty to see). The museum is known locally as “Museum Gajah” or the elephant museum (which is what you should tell your taxi driver), named for the bronze elephant in the forecourt, a gift from the King of Siam (Thailand) Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1871.
The museum’s exhibition galleries expand over two wings, the original wing officially opened in 1868 (temporarily closed) with the modern wing added in 2007. The comprehensive collection predates the building by some 80 years and ranges from Indonesia’s pre-history through to pieces from the Dutch colonial period along with a large ethnographic collection and many marvellous classical Hindu-Buddhist artefacts from ancient Java and Sumatra.
Considering the cultural (and monetary) value of most of the treasures, the displays are a little dull and could be presented in a much more engaging way (hopefully this will be the case after the renovation). Currently the signage and labelling are hit and miss, some with small, difficult to read type and not a great deal of information with badly translated English or in the other extreme, reams of text with too much information that was unappealing to read. Regardless the pieces are visually stimulating and our minor quibbles should not prevent you from taking the opportunity to discover some of Southeast Asia’s most outstanding riches. And besides, they do a much better job than most museums in Indonesia.
The archeology exhibition includes world-famous finds including Java man (Homo erectus erectus) and the Hobbits of Flores (Homo floresiensis) discovered in Indonesia, although the bones displayed are reproductions, it is still fascinating. For anyone who loves history, writing or typography, or is just keen on a puzzle the collection of inscribed stones is both beautiful and compelling, we only wish they offered full translations (if known).
The ethnographic collection has everything from crazy hats with hornbill heads (poor hornbill) to horn and silver medicine containers, fine filigree carved turtleshell hairpieces (poor turtle), a special belt to hold gunpowder for poisoning fish (poor fish), ritual objects, clothing made from tree bark, a veritable cabinet of curiosities of the weird and wonderful.
Other collections included beautiful textiles, fine ceramics, stone sculptures and gold that would rival Eldorado (although that section was also closed during our visit, though we have seen it on previous visits and it is rather amazing).
Depending on your interests, as the collection is rather substantial it is best to start in the area you find more intriguing, otherwise you may be too tired by the time you arrive at the “best bit”—we would start at the top and work our way down, but have a quick look at the floor plan to see what most appeals.
A cloak room is available to store your bags and a cafe offers refreshment, but don’t rely on them for a meal, it’s basically coffee and cake. The Indonesian Heritage Society offer free museum tours in English Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday at 10:00 and Thursday at 10:00 and 13:30. They also provide regular tours in French, Chinese and Korean. Other languages and other times are available on request.
To continue your museum-like experience enjoy a meal at Dapur Babah Élite in an extraordinary antique-filled setting near the northwestern exit of the park close to Istiqlal Mosque. For a different style museum-like setting, try the ice cream from the shop a few doors up from Dapur Babah Élite, Ragusa Es Italia, unchanged since 1932. The National Museum is also not far from Monas. To visit, cross the road and head to the northern gate of the park, the closest to the entrance to the monument.
Indonesian Heritage Society: T: (0215) 725 870; http://heritagejkt.org
Dapur Babah Élite: 18–19 Jalan Veteran I, Gambir, Jakarta; T: (0213) 855 653; https://www.tuguhotels.com/restaurants/jakarta/dapurbabahelite/; Mo–Su: 11:00–23:00
Ragusa Es Italia: 10 Jalan Veteran I, Gambir, Jakarta; T: (0213) 849 123; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:30
Address: 12 Jalan Medan Merdeka Barat, Jakarta Pusat
T: (0213) 868 172;
Coordinates (for GPS): 106º49'20.61" E, 6º10'34.35" S
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Admission: 10,000 rupiah for foreigners and 5,000 rupiah for Indonesians
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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