Earning through yearning
If it’s true that American industrialist Henry Ford once said ‘history is bunk’ he would have heard the applause of many Indonesians.
Though not Dwi Cahyono. His hands would have been folded, his features grim. Although he hasn’t built any cars, the Australian-educated Malang entrepreneur has made a pile of money in his East Java hometown.
He’s also spending it – on history. His project has so far drained around Rp 1.5 billion (US $130,000) in set-up expenses. Then there’s the running costs including the wages of ten people. Click COMPUTE: That’s close to Rp 30 million (US $2,600) a month.
All this is feeding a cash-hungry beast that Dwi knows (and if he didn’t others keep enthusiastically reminding him) will continue to gnaw through his wallet.
“But the funny thing is this,” he said. “The more I spend it seems the more I earn from my other businesses. And then there’s the satisfaction that comes from doing something worthwhile to make a difference.”
What difference? Well, to date more than 15,000 schoolchildren have been transported into the past after stepping into Dwi’s Museum Malang Tempo Doeloe (old days), which opened last year. .
Unlike most dim-lit DON’T TOUCH museums, particularly those run by governments, Dwi’s enterprise is a bright hands-on affair. Visitors can caress the stone chip tools of pre-historic times and make terracotta figures like those from the Majapahit Era, half a millennium ago.
The imaginative ponder this: The dirt under their fingernails was once trodden by princes.
How do you spin a potter’s wheel without using electricity? Our ancestors didn’t have smart phones but they weren’t stupid.
Students don the clothes of Javanese nobility, take happy-snaps, paint masks and act out puppet shows. Later they can look in awe at a life-size model of first President Soekarno at the 1947 KNIP (Central National Committee of Indonesia) Congress in Malang and generally have a jolly time.
Fun in a museum? That’s an oxymoron.
“For most kids these places are boring, dull, even scary, nothing like shopping malls,” Dwi said. “They think old is bad, new is good.
“Museums in Indonesia are usually just storage places, warehouses. The color is always the same – gray. I want to change the situation.”
So he has. His version, bright as a detergent commercial, is in a converted 1928 house with high ceilings and original tiled floors of such beauty it should be a crime to tread the ceramic. The displays are as inviting as any fashion boutique.
For Rp 15,000 (US$1.30), and less for students, it’s a walk-through experience starting with the arrival of humankind’s ancestors in the archipelago. The remains of Java Man found last century on a bank of the Bengawan Solo River could be more than 500,000 years old.
The trail then leads into the development of civilizations and the arrival of traders and invaders.
Finally the rise of kingdoms, Dutch colonialism, the Japanese occupation, the Revolution and into the modern era. This is no kill-time experience waiting for a train at the nearby station: set two hours aside to properly enjoy.
Building a museum has long been Dwi’s dream. As a student in Sydney he saw how the city first founded in 1788 was crazy about preserving its past – and not inside glass cases.
Whole streets of stone and timber buildings, particularly around The Rocks where the British first settled, have been preserved. Many have been converted into offices, shops and restaurants attracting tourists and earning their keep.
Back home he opened the Inggil (Javanese for ‘high’) restaurant with a history theme and filled it with all the curious and quaint artefacts that came his way, most relating to Java – and that includes the cuisine.
He says this has been a success and is now an essential stop for European tour groups. A few years ago he initiated the Malang Tempo Doeloe festival staged in Jalan Ijen, the grand boulevard of Dutch houses. Visitors, and they come in thousands, are expected to dress in the clothes of yesteryear. That means pith helmets and baggy khaki pants for tuan, and cloche hats and pleats for nyonya.
Next year’s event should be spectacular as it marks the centenary of the Dutch establishment of the city – though written history goes back to 760 AD
Dwi has also organised groups of up to a thousand volunteers to clean and paint old buildings threatened with demolition. His campaign against the giant billboards that scar the cityscape is still underway.
Although he’s visited museums in China, Vietnam and elsewhere to glean ideas, it’s those in Singapore that Dwi finds most attractive, like the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Malay Heritage Center and the Peranakan Museum, - a celebration of Straits Chinese-Malay culture.
Singaporeans clearly envy Indonesia’s rich and ancient past; although the tiny red-dot city’s story only really began in 1819, it squeezes every passing year for drops of memory.
One of many difficulties facing Indonesian museums is the lack of local curators. Dwi has yet to find a tertiary institution teaching museum management. Another issue is persuading citizens not to call in the rombeng (second-hand goods traders) when they clean out grandma’s cupboards.
If the collection that includes Japanese uniforms and equipment is an indicator he’s been mighty persuasive, though who knows how much has been tossed out by folk who think like Mr Ford?
“We learn from history,” Dwi said. “We need to remember and understand what our parents and grandparents did to develop our cities and culture, our religions, art and language.
“Unfortunately the government doesn’t understand the importance of culture, though there’s one good sign. The new DPR (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat – Legislative Assembly building) has followed the style set by Dutch architect Thomas Karsten, who designed Malang Town Hall in the 1930s.
“Malang is rich in history, we are so blessed. It was the heart of the kingdom of Majapahit that controlled much of lower Southeast Asia. This is ours – our traditions.
“Of course making money is necessary – but what we do with it is also important.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 September 2013)