A Culture’s Heritage Facing Ruin And a Museum Unable to Save It
May 5, 2009
The disappearance of ancient scrolls from the shelves of Solo’s Radya Pustaka Museum is the latest incident to plague the museum and has raised concerns that the institution itself is at risk due to inadequate funding and a lack of professional management.
“There are a great many books in the library that do not match the catalog,” says Soemarni Wijayanti, or Yanti, a museum employee who says the fact the scrolls were missing had only been discovered over the past year. The problem started when she was preparing materials for Nancy Gradat, a scholar from the United States, who was conducting research in the museum.
According to Yanti’s inventory, the museum has 1,443 stamped or printed books and 480 handwritten books. She found that about 40 scrolls were missing.
“Nancy was also shocked at the condition of several books that are damaged,” Yanti says. “What can we do? We have no way to preserve them.”
Established in 1890, the museum is meant to house vital collections of artwork, books, scrolls and other Javanese artifacts. It is the oldest museum in the country and remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in Solo.
Ever since the 2007 discovery that a number of ancient stone and bronze statues had gone missing and been replaced by forgeries, concerns have been raised that lax security at the facility put some of the nation’s treasures at risk.
Businessman Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the brother of politician Prabowo Subianto, was tried as the alleged buyer of six ancient Buddhist statues, but was acquitted in January of this year. The head of the museum, KRH Damoriduro, was jailed for a year and a half in the case.
After the statue incident, Solo Mayor Ir Joko Widodo handed over management of the museum to a committee chaired by cultural expert Winarso Kalinggo, a former information officer to the late Sultan Pakubuwono XII. Djoko Darjata, a former chief of the regional monitoring agency, and Sanjata BA, a former chief of the cultural section in Solo’s Education and Culture Service, are also on the committee in charge of the museum. None are professional curators, but they were given the task of conducting an inventory of the archives and collections of the museum.
But despite the changes, Yanti has once again uncovered something amiss.
She says the museum lacks the resources to handle ancient texts. Crumbling documents that are hundreds of years old have never been fumigated to prevent decay and infestation.
“We just put fragrant roots on the bookshelves to keep moths away,” says another employee.
Before scrolls started going missing, it was easy to bring the ancient masterpieces out of the museum for study and copying, something unheard of in virtually any professionally run museum. But now, under new regulations, a special permit is required even for photographs. Only museum staff can take the scrolls off shelves and they can only be read on the premises.
But the head librarian of Solo’s Sebelas Maret University, Dr Harmawan, remains critical of the institution, demanding that its library be professionally run.
Aside from fumigation, he says, the books should also be duplicated and protected.
“If visitors want to access the knowledge in those books, they can get it from copies. That way the originals are preserved.”
The chief of the committee in charge of the museum, Winarso Kalinggo, says he could not agree more but still faces financial problems.
This year’s budget for the entire museum, drawn from Solo’s regional budget, is Rp 100 million ($9,500), while Winarso says that salaries alone cost Rp 102.5 million. The museum can’t even pay its electricity bill.
“Funding is a major problem,” he says. “But the mayor has promised to increase the budget. We hope he is telling the truth.”
In addition to money problems, the museum lacks sufficient security, Yanti and others say.
There is no high-tech alarm system, and Yanti suspects that the jailed ex-head of the museum and his accomplices stole the forged statues at night, “when there is no security guard.”
“After the museum is closed at 2 p.m., we only lock the door from outside,” she says.
Winarso says that so far, the missing scrolls have not been reported to the police. He says that he is waiting until it could be verified that the pieces were actually stolen, rather than getting loaned out to other museums or just being misplaced.