The National Museum in Jakarta

A view of the National Museum’s new wing.

It’s Thursday, and we’re gathered in the main foyer of the National Museum’s new wing for an English-language guided tour. With the old wing under renovation, the tour is limited to the new wing exhibits. But between the artifacts, scale models, and multilingual tours, the exhibits in the new wing alone paint a detailed portrait of Indonesia’s history.

A Sanskrit tablet from ancient Indonesia


Depiction of a mythical creature, possibly the Indonesian version of a Qilin.

We start with the natural history of the world and humankind (Man and the Environment), where the guide shows us replicas of proto-human skulls and patterns of human migration. We then follow her up to the second floor, where the tour of Indonesian culture begins. It’s an epic tale of cultural evolution driven by what Indonesia does best: trade. The cultures of Indonesia adopted new ideas that flowed along the trade routes, starting with Hinduism and followed by Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. The result was a cultural melting pot unrivaled by any other pre-modern civilization.

Decorative belts from ancient Indonesian cultures


A ornate ceremonial gold, silver, and quartz crown.


An intricately-woven basket in the exhibit

The number and variety of artifacts in the exhibits is staggering. We pass ancient stones carved with Sanskrit, ceremonial jewelry worn by the islands’ various ethnic groups, and scale models of temples. The guide stops at one of these scale models and introduces it as Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Inscribed in its walls are the stories of Buddha and his enlightenment. I think Stoytcho and I have found our next destination.

A scale model of a traditional house–NOT Borobudur, which had poor lighting and was difficult to photograph.


Necklaces, bracelets, and other adornments that were potentially used as funerary gifts.

We end our tour on the top floor, with the treasures of Indonesia. We’re not allowed to take photos, due in part to a heist that happened here in 2013. But the pieces here match those of Europe’s crown jewels: gold rings, necklaces, and brooches threaded with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Ornate Kris blades, encrusted with jewels. It’s stuff from the dreams of Ali Baba. While we’re finishing up in the exhibit, the lights flicker for a moment and go out. We’re left in darkness, and fumbling for our phones, manage to shed some light on the glass displays. Thankfully, this isn’t a heist; the museum has been suffering intermittent outages thanks to the construction next door. We wrap up and head downstairs, into a sea of fidgeting, giggling schoolchildren waiting for their own tours to begin.

A student rests behind an Indonesian depiction of a dragon.

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