The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, June 29, 2017


Study the past, manage the future                         

Even though she’s an Indonesian citizen by birth, Ida Suhardja, 66 (left), knows about discrimination.
The genes from her ethnic Chinese father seem to have dominated those of her Javanese Mom so she has round features and a white skin. Responses by others depend on their level of prejudice.
If zero then this lady is your friend and you’re welcome at her Omah Djadoel (olden  house) museum in the East Java town of Blitar.
She won’t talk about the persecution following the 1965 coup which felled President Soekarno and still a taboo topic for many.  The Chinese were targets as real or imagined Communists. According to Australian historian Robert Cribb, Communist strength in Blitar was ‘especially conspicuous’.  There are reports of three mass graves south of the town.
Instead of harboring the horrors Suhardja prefers to recall an event when she was about eleven.  Soekarno visited her school and singled her out for special attention, stimulating her sense of nationalism. 
“I liked him so much and felt very proud that I was the only child who got to shake his hand,” she said.  “He was friendly towards the Chinese.”
However his successor Soeharto imposed heavy regulations on the Chinese, curbing the use of language and signs, forcing name changes and prohibiting entry to the public service.
“It’s OK now,” Suhardja said cheerfully.  “There’s been no discrimination since Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid – fourth president between 1999 and 2001) took away restrictions.” 
By then she’d changed her religion three times – from Buddhism to Protestantism at the time of the coup and then to Islam when she married a Muslim.  “Now I just believe in God and inner beauty,” she said.
Along the way Suhardja garnered an assemblage of old tools, gadgets, knickknacks, art works and a philosophy which could have fed resentment at the absence of tolerance.   Instead she’s chosen not to dwell on the dark times and employ her artefacts to celebrate diversity.

Many came from her father who collected porcelain and statues; others were donated by neighbors for last century the Chinese in Blitar lived together in a compound of around 150 families.
In 1970 Soekarno died and was buried in Blitar where his family had connections.  His grave has become a shrine attracting thousands and supporting an industry of trashy souvenirs.  The main road to his memorial is kampung kitsch offering mass-produced toy drums, back-scratchers, plastic puppets and T-shirts featuring the fist-thrusting Proclamator.
Suhardja owned buildings close to the tomb.   Why not use these to show visitors a more substantial story of Indonesian history and culture by putting all the goodies in her home on public show?
So three years ago she opened her museum and filled it with a thousand objects.  She also took the opportunity to put up signs displaying her reasoning that “harmony creates happiness” and that the five steps to nationalism are “knowledge, respect, love, care and preservation of the past.”

To justify the museum her line is; ‘A great nation is one which cares for its history.’  Unfortunately not all get the message.  “I’m struggling against an indifferent society,” she said.
“I haven’t been to university so have no curatorial skills.  I just do what I can but it’s getting too much.  I’m not arrogant – I know I need help but I’ve shown what can be done and that many want to know more.
“The interest is there.  Now I want the government or a philanthropist to take over – not to sell the collection but to treat it properly.”
Outside her cluttered museum a concrete horse purports to pull a wooden cart while motorbikes race past.  Inside Suhardja shows schoolkids how a Morse-code tapper works, but they’re into smartphones. 
She cranks a gramophone, drops a needle and the scratchy tunes of last century flow through the rooms and into the yard; here stone coffins and troughs for pounding rice stand close to carved wardrobes.  The grotesque features of wayang puppets peer from the corners.
Some objects have been labelled and grouped according to function or style, but there’s no catalogue so the provenance is unknown. 
The show stopper is a large ceramic singing bowl which sends out a clear tone when the rim is rubbed with a wet wrist.  It competes with a drumbeat of drips from a leaky roof.
For some the phenomenon shows black magic at work; even the owner, who knows the secrets, proves her Javanese credentials by refusing to sleep in the building for fear of ghosts.
But for rationalists Faraday waves (named after a 19th century British scientist) develop when the frequency of the rubbing reaches the point where the pottery naturally vibrates.  This information is not available in the museum so the curio remains a gimmick rather than a marvel of the natural world.
The singing bowl sets the tone for Omah Djadoel – an eclectic mix of mystery and the mundane, beauty and gewgaws, trash and treasure, all looking for purpose.

“I love our heritage and culture,” Suhardja said. “By studying the past we can manage the future.  I’ve been to Europe and seen museums and the respect held for history.
 “This collection has a message about the strength of the nation, the diversity and adaptability of the people.
“Those who made these objects have long gone but their creativity lives. Some people think I’m eccentric doing this but I believe that God will help me find a place where these things can be admired. I’m waiting.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 June 2017

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