Museum Hopping in Jakarta 


The exterior of Museum Seni.

One of the things I was looking forward most to about living in Jakarta was the museums.  I have loved museums since I was a child, and even though my older, more educated self can understand how they can sometimes be quite problematic, I still fall head over heels for the way a good museum can encourage curiosity and somehow manage to capture the enormity of a culture or a time period in even the smallest of exhibits.  When I studied for a semester in London, I spent much of my time wandering in the giant national museums and galleries, as well as seeking out some of the hole-in-the wall collections they don’t always put in tour guides.  And while my Fulbright experience allowed me to head twice to D.C. and see some of the incredible Smithsonian’s that I had before only read about, the two cities I found myself placed in as an ETA were a bit smaller and did not have a particularly extensive selection of museums.  Jakarta is one of the few places in Indonesia that that has several museums, and I was eager to explore.  While I didn’t get to see all of the museums Jakarta had to offer, I did see a fair few, and a few more than once.


The statue that gives Museum Gajah its name.

Museum Gajah (Museum Nasional Indonesia)

The National Museum is the largest museum in Jakarta, and in all of Indonesia.  It has a fairly extensive stonework and ceramic collection that I never got bored of seeing no matter how many guests I accompanied there.  There is a good amount of information about some of the different cultures across Indonesia (their display of traditional houses is especially memorable), and the English descriptions, while not perfect, are generally understandable, which is not always the case in Indonesian museums.   Museum Gajah actually means Elephant Museum, and this nickname comes from a statue of an elephant outside of the museum, a gift to Indonesia from Siam (modern day Thailand) in 1871.  The museum is right across from Monas (Monument Nasional), making it one of the most visited museums in the city, so if it’s possible to do so, it’s always better to visit on a weekday.  They were renovating some parts of the museum towards the end of my grant, and while it is a bit of a bummer that some of the exhibits were closed, there is no denying that some sections were in need of some repairs, and I am glad they are taking the time to do so.  It is possible to do this museum in one visit, but if you have the time, it would be best to give yourself several visits, so that you can really take everything in.


A painting by Afandi, one of my favorite Indonesian artists.  This was part of the Presidential Exhibit.

Galleri Nasional

Galleri Nasional (the National Gallery), does not have a permanent exhibit, but rather has different kinds of exhibits constantly coming through, usually only for a few weeks at a time.    It is also within walking distance of Monas, albeit a slightly farther jaunt, and is well worth a peak if there is time.  And for folks that live in Jakarta, it is a museum to keep an eye on.  Not all of the exhibits there are equal, in my eyes, but some of them are truly stellar.  I saw a particularly good exhibit around Independence Day, which included a selection of paintings on loan from the presidential collection.


The courtyard of Museum Fatahillah.

Museum Fatahillah (Museum Sejarah Jakarta)

Most commonly called Museum Sejarah Jakarta (History of Jakarta Museum), this museum is housed in what used to be the Governor’s office, during the Dutch Colonial era.  The building itself is the focus point of Kota Tua (Old City), which is filled with old Dutch buildings that have been repurposed by the Indonesian Government, many as museums[1].  The rooms are filled with old furniture and portraits of Dutch officials that had a significant influence during the colonial era.  Nothing in the museum is labeled, so it is important to find a guide.  When I visited, I had a fabulous guide who spoke excellent English and who was able to piece together everything on display in a way that really painted a picture of the building and the different moments in history of which it played a role, but I have heard from friends that the guides there can be very hit or miss.  Still, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, though I do wish I had gone earlier in the day, as the museum is not air conditioned and can get rather stuffy.


One of the wayang at Museum Wayang.

Museum Wayang

Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppets) are one of my favorite parts of Indonesian performance art.  Museum Wayang, another of the museums in Kota Tua, has an extensive collection of puppets from across the country, and even a few from other places.  Some of them are quite old, as well, and so it is possible to see how the methods used to make the puppets and the styles of the puppets changed throughout history.  However, while the collections itself is great, the museum is in major need of renovation.  The lighting is poor, it is hot and stuffy, the English signs are almost incomprehensible, and the Indonesian signs are not much clearer or more informative.  If you go, try to get a guide, or go with a friend who knows more about wayang and can explain it to you (which is what I did).  With patience and a little help, it is definitely worth a visit, but it is not a museum I would recommend just walking into on a whim.


The inner courtyard at Museum Bank Indonesia.

Museum Bank Indonesia

This is probably the best museum in all of Jakarta[2], and it is also part of Kota Tua.  (Just be careful and don’t confuse it with Museum Bank Mandiri, which is right down the street: I never had a chance to go to Museum Bank Mandiri, but I heard that it simply did not compare to Bank Indonesia.)  It is a beautiful museum, inside what used to be the main bank for Indonesia, both during the Dutch Colonial area and even for some time after Independence.  Much of the museum is dedicated to the history of the bank, which is structured in such a way that it actually does a good job of telling the story of Indonesia as we know it today.  For those who don’t know that much about Indonesian history and prefer museums to books, it can act as an excellent introduction, and those who already know something will find the economic focus interesting.  There is also a room at the end of the museum filled with coins and paper bills from almost every country in the world, and often from different eras, which can be a lot of fun to explore.  Though it is possible to do Museum Bank Indonesia in a few hours, I revisited the museum several times with friends, and always enjoyed myself.


One of the many rooms in Museum Seni.

Museum Seni Rupa dan Keramik (Museum Seni)

Museum Seni (the Art Museum), is yet another museum in Kota Tua, and it is the one that I was looking forward to most while I was there, because I absolutely love art museums.  The collection is fairly good, and certainly worth the admission fee.  However, the museum is in major need of repair, and the English signage is rather poor.  If you can read Indonesian or have a friend who can translate, the Indonesian signs, while a bit ragged around the edges, do give some very good information about the artists and the various painting styles that have come in and out of fashion in Indonesian art, but the English signs do not have accurate translations and can, as a consequence, can be very confusing.  As someone who loves paintings and ceramics, which is much of what makes up the collection, I was perfectly happy to work my way through the Indonesian to learn a little more about Indonesian art, but it might not be the best experience for everyone.

Taman Prasati

This was another one of my favorite museums in Jakarta.  It isn’t really a museum at all, but rather a graveyard used during the Dutch era.  The tombstones are not all originally from that particular location: many graveyards were destroyed after Independence, and people interested in preserving the history of those graveyards moved the tombstones to a new location, while the bodies, in many cases, were shipped back to the Netherlands to be reburied in family plots (though it is said that there are still some left under the buildings that have now been built where the graveyards used to be).  This is another place where I would recommend a guide, if you visit.  It is a beautiful little plot, but without a guide you can’t do more that read what is on the tombstones themselves, and unless you read Dutch and know a lot about the Dutch Colonial Era in Indonesia, you’ll probably miss much of the story.


Some of the many beautiful graves at Taman Prasati.  

[1] If you like museums, Kota Tua is definitely a good place to visit in Jakarta.  If you are trying to visit many or all the museums in that area in one day, I would recommend starting with Museum Seni, Museum Jakarta, or Museum Wayang, as none of those museums are air conditioned and can get rather hot once midday rolls around.  Museum Bank Indonesia is cool and comfortable, and I have heard the Museum Bank Mandiri is also air conditioned (though I never made it to this museum, and so can’t vouch that this is indeed the case).

[2] It is not, however, the best museum in all of Indonesia, in my eyes, though some people do feel that way.  I have to give that title to Museum Batik in Solo, Central Java, which I visited when I found myself unexpectedly in Solo in 2016.


U-Turns and Deja-Vu: Back in Indonesia (Or in Jakarta, Anyway)


The ringing, joyful tones of Indonesian fill my ears as I zig-zag my way through motorcycle traffic on my way to eat food which will invariably be delicious but is also guaranteed to upset my stomach[1].  Yep, I’m back.

Coming back to Indonesia has, thus far, been a pretty… weird experience.  I had not realized just how much I had readjusted to life in America until I landed in Indonesia and different factors of my experience here, which two months ago had seemed fairly commonplace and every day, surprised me in a way I hadn’t predicted they would.  The constant stares bothered me, even though I knew they would be there.  I almost drank tap water my first night, even though by this point I know better.  Even the prices of everything threw me for a loop.

“I’m eating for seven dollars a day.  Seven dollars a day.  In a capital city.  I mean, I know food in Indonesia is much cheaper than in America.  But seven dollars a day?”  I messaged my site mate from last year, still jet lagged and trying to contend with the fact that I was actually here, on the other side of the world.

I don’t know what to call what it is that I am going through.  I wouldn’t call it culture shock, because I’m not unfamiliar with the culture I now find myself in.  I wouldn’t call it reverse culture-shock, since this is not my native culture either.  After talking to a number of ETAs from my cohort, I’ve come up with a handful of potential names for… whatever this is, including my personal favorites: U-Turn Shock and Deja-Vu Shock.

Because I’m not being shocked by anything for the first time.  I’m more… remembering things about Indonesia which shocked me the first time, which I’d temporarily forgotten.  And then I’m always mildly surprised at myself, for being surprised at all.  It’s a strange series of tiny shocks, one which I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for.

At the same time, while part of me is already trying to navigate being back in Indonesia, part of me doesn’t feel like I’ve returned at all.

For my first two weeks here, I will be in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.  Jakarta is a giant metropolis which I associate most strongly with pollution and traffic.  It’s not my favorite city in Indonesia.

Because I am sick every time I come to Jakarta (Every. Time. There is a part of my immune system somewhere which simply does not like the fact that I have ever stepped foot in this city and wants me to know it.), I rarely venture forth into the actual city, and spend a lot of time hopping from office, to mall food court, to hotel room.

And while there are certainly parts of all of these—the cheerful “Selamet Pagi!” we receive from the receptionist at the AMINEF office each morning; the abundance of Asian food at the food courts, and the distinct lack of Western choices; the arrow in my hotel room that tells me which direction I would pray if I were Muslim—which make it clear that I am not in America, these shiny malls, towering skyscrapers, and insane highways filled with taxis are not what I think of when I think of Indonesia.

I think of rice paddies and narrow streets.  I think of colorful houses and whole families piled onto motorbikes.  I think of middle school students running barefoot home from school, and of my high school students riding their motorbikes home with the same enthusiasm.  Until I’m back in a place where this is a part of my everyday life, I won’t feel as though I am back in Indonesia.

I know this isn’t exactly right.  Jakarta is just as much a part of Indonesia as smaller towns and cities, just as New York City is just as much a part of New York State as the small farming town which I call home.  But if I had returned from my first grant in Indonesia to New York City, instead of my home, I wouldn’t have felt “back” yet.  Because even though I would be back in America, it wouldn’t be my America.

That’s what I’m waiting for.  A return to my Indonesia.

[1] Post-typhoid, the stomach sometimes can’t handle strong or spicy foods for up to a year afterwards.  I’m in for a year of not being able to enjoy some of my favorite Indonesian dishes; worth it because I want to take care of my body, but still a bit disappointing.