A museum of dioramas

A diorama from the independence museum in Bali, Indonesia

A diorama from the independence museum in Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Jeffrey Mellefont

On a recent trip to Indonesia I was struck by how many museums were based around dioramas. Rather than how we usually think of museums — as a display of things from the past (objects) with labels and text — many Indonesian museums are solely based around snapshots of history, with no objects in sight. They are examples of how museum-makers quite literally construct the past for their audiences.

We often think of dioramas as an outmoded, old-fashioned display method. But in Indonesia they are quite an accepted way of communicating stories. Many tell a sanctioned, official version of history. But I was surprised by just how popular they are with audiences.

The entrance to the Museum Benteng Vredeburg

The entrance to the Museum Benteng Vredeburg. Photo: Stephen Gapps

As outlined in previous posts, in September 2015 I worked with the Museum Benteng Vredeburg in Yogyakarta to prepare and launch the Australian National Maritime Museum travelling exhibition Black Armada. The exhibition — which is currently simultaneously on display at both museums — showcases Australian support for Indonesia’s struggle to maintain their independence against Dutch attempts to re-colonise Indonesia between 1945 and 1949.

The Museum Benteng Vredeburg (translated somewhat ironically as ‘peaceful fortress’) was constructed by the colonial Dutch in the mid-18th century as part of their network of military power that spread across the Indonesian archipelago since they arrived at the lucrative ‘Spice Islands’ around 1600. After being used by Japanese occupying forces, then the Dutch and then Indonesian military between 1942 and the 1970s, in the 1980s, the by then dilapidated fort was restored and opened as a ‘museum of national struggle’ in 1984.

The fortress was also an important site for Indonesians as a reminder of the battle by Indonesian resistance forces against the Dutch in Yogyakarta on 1 March 1949.

Reenactors of guerrilla independence fighters.

Reenactors of guerrilla independence fighters. Photo: Jeffrey Mellefont

As a museum about the resistance to the colonisation of Indonesia over time, the museum interprets Indonesian history from the earliest rebellions against Dutch authority such as Dipenogoro’s 1825 uprising, up to 1949 when the Indonesian republic was recognised on the international stage.

The museum was based around a series of dioramas depicting key moments in the progress towards independence. In fact there are 55 dioramas, all painstakingly created by model makers and set in a long parade of showcases that runs throughout four buildings in the museum.

Monas - the national monument to the struggle for independence

Monas: the national monument to the struggle for independence

There are objects in the museum, too. There are some iconic possessions of the famous Indonesian nationalists such as Sukarno and Hatta, and some weapons and other items used by guerrilla fighters between 1945 and 1949. There are also some commemorative sculptures and plaques. But they are intermissions in what is a museum that was effectively based around a narrative created by slices of time frozen in dioramas.

Dioramas have long held had an interesting place in museum displays. In Australia the once-iconic dioramas in the Australian War Memorial from the 1920s had by the 1970s become worn and jaded, overtaken by new display technologies. Dioramas were once common and thought to be important ways of showing history on a human scale. They were educational pictures of the past, long before the digital age.

But recently, perhaps in response to the mediation of the real object through the morass of the digital, dioramas have made a comeback. The Australian War Memorial for example has refurbished their dioramas and, reinstalled and re-interpreted, they are now a much loved part of the museum again.

Perhaps they are popular because they are a nostalgic method of display in an increasingly digitised museum experience. I know from experience with the diorama created for the ANMM’s War at Sea – The RAN in WWI exhibition that people are intrigued by dioramas. A visitor study showed that everyone stopped and looked at the diorama — even people walking straight through the exhibition.

It would be easy to relegate the Museum Benteng Vredeburg diorama collection to an outdated mode of display. But as I visited more and more museums in Indonesia, and saw more popular culture, I came to revisit the diorama as a museum technology.

In fact it wasn’t until I visited the Wayang Museum in Jakarta that I made some connection between story-telling in Indonesia and museum dioramas. The Wayang is a traditional puppet show type of theatre that permeates Indonesian society and performance. It is not only famous for its beautifully crafted shadow puppets and marionettes, but for the ability of the narrators to make incisive political and social commentary.

Indonesian museums really began after Independence was secured from 1949 and official commemoration of Indonesian history was very much focused on telling the story of uniting a nation in a struggle against colonial forces. Indeed there was a ‘small industry of films, statues, dioramas and museums’ that bloomed from the 1950s. These expressions of nationalism often positioned the story of the armed struggle front and centre above everything else.[1]

Dioramas tell the independence story at Monas

Dioramas tell the independence story at Monas

But in many ways the diorama — very much a 19th and 20th century western museum interpretation method — seems more complex in Indonesia than simply mimicking this western tradition. Indonesian dioramas all have elements of performance through caricaturised figures. In many dioramas, figures are constructed with sign-posts to an already educated audience about what particular characters are doing or what is happening in any scene. In fact, the diorama seems to emanate just as much from a local tradition of statues, puppets and performance as from a western museum tradition. Indonesian dioramas seem to fit within a tradition of story-telling where the power of immersion and gesture is important. There is much more to museums of dioramas in Indonesia than we might first think.

– Dr Stephen Gapps, Curator

[1] Francis Palmos, ‘Revolutionary Surabaya as the Birthplace of Indonesian Independence’, PhD Thesis, University of Western Australia, 2011 pp 52-54; Katharine E. McGregor History in Uniform – Military ideology and the Construction of Indonesia’s Past, Asian Studies Association of Australia and NUS Press, Singapore, 2007.

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