A Hidden Museum in Jakarta

One of the things I’ve found hardest to understand about Indonesia as a state is its deep love of administrative structures. I mean that in both ways: there are ministries (kementerian) for everything, many of whose missions seem to overlap, and these ministries all have huge, elaborate, buildings, or sometimes several blocks of buildings all to themselves. I have even noticed that many of these kementerian compounds include their own mosques, banks, restaurants, and other amenities that would seem rather far from whatever mission the ministry has. I can almost understand why the Ministry of Finance has a commercial bank built into its complex of buildings, but why a mosque? From my perspective (and I’m sure I’m missing something crucial about the culture that would make me understand it all) a lot of this seems like the worst kind of administrative bloat—a functional jobs program for a certain type of person, perhaps, but maybe not the best way to accomplish the ministry’s core mission.

And yet, the largesse of these ministries sometimes has unexpected benefits. That is why I found my way to the Kementerian Kelautan dan Perikanan RI, or the Republic of Indonesia Ministry for Marine Affairs and Fisheries, to look at a gallery of shipwreck ceramics hidden on the second floor of Building IV in its complex, not far from the Monumen Nasional. It took some asking around to get there, but the effort is worth it if you share my pathological interest in old pottery. Don’t get too distracted by the “Gallery” of living fish (most not even from Indonesia, but someone with an aquarium hobby had fun putting it together) in the lobby of Building IV. The ceramics gallery is on the second floor, accessible through the elevators behind the helpful receptionists.

It may be the best-designed display of archaeological material I’ve yet visited in Indonesia. Ceramic, metal, stone, and glass artifacts from three Indonesian shipwrecks around the tenth century CE are organized according to the wreck from which they came, and after that according to artifact material and type. Most of the artifact have clear labels, and they are all displayed in clean, well-lighted glass cases. The exhibit is not quite finished—there were some workers putting one of the last displays together when I was there. A couple docents were around to answer questions; both have archaeology degrees from Indonesian universities. They let me take some photos, which will be valuable references if I ever suspect I’ve found a tenth-century fragment at my sites.

The simplicity of the exhibit was perfect for me, because I was visiting for mercenary reasons—I wanted to build up more background on the different ceramics flowing along Indonesia’s trade routes in the distant past. I’ll be astonished if I find anything as old as the pieces in this gallery, but I wanted to build my comparative knowledge just in case. I had seen images of some of these artifacts before, but seeing them in person is much better.

A couple things struck me while looking at this collection. First, most of these ships were carrying a combination of high-fired, glazed Chinese tradeware, and low-fired unglazed earthenware produced closer to where the ship sank. The former was better represented in this gallery, but there may be a taphonomic factor at work here: earthenware doesn’t survive as well, especially in high-energy and chemically harsh environments. However, even if we assume that the local earthenware was deposited in the same proportion as we see in the gallery, some of it was obviously for trade rather than for the use of the ship’s crew; the ships had taken on cargo from multiple sources. Whether that was at one port or not is up for debate. I like to think the ship stopped in different places along a circuitous trade route, buying and selling as it went, but there’s no way to be sure of that with the evidence I have. Equally likely, the ships picked their whole cargoes up at one entrepôt, after these cargoes had been brought there from diverse other places. With enough data, and some clever ways to test each hypothesis, maybe we can figure out what’s going on. But it’s clear that artifacts from different sources are mixing together as they get brought on board the ships.

Another thing that struck me was how fine some of the work on these pots was. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture them as luxury items, even in the complex and wealthy societies that flourished in western Indonesia at the time of the wrecks. Finally, we should keep our minds open to the possibility that some of these pots may not have been the most important trade good, but rather they may have had contents which were the primary attraction. The pot in that instance might have been a useful bonus—this marketing scheme is alive and well today.

I tried to ask the docents (I was having a bad language day, and couldn’t articulate my thoughts very well) why all these artifacts ended up in the headquarters of the Kementerian Kelautan dan Perikanan, rather than, say the National Museum. Their explanation was, as best I could understand, that a powerful official wanted to put them there and make them completely accessible to the public, which they are: no entry fee, and very accessible, if you can find the place. Except, important to note, it’s only open on weekdays. I suppose the artifacts fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries by virtue of their being found underwater; the Indonesian government’s complicated relationship with the shipwrecks in its territory could fill an entire blog of its own for decades, and I suppose at some point I should write a post or two on that topic. For now, suffice it to say the Indonesian government is trying to find a way to navigate between the Scylla of expending impossible amounts of resources protecting the hundreds of thousands of historical wrecks in its waters, and the Charybdis of unfettered looting. Threading the two has tended to involve some government-sanctioned unscientific salvage operations, and I can’t entirely blame them for it.

So, likewise, I can’t complain too much about administrative bloat in this case. The gallery is a hidden gem of Indonesian archaeology, and other museums would do well to emulate it, if their collections are cohesive enough to allow the same kind of organization. Directions to the building are here.

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