Spotlight on Indonesia's museum conservators

The Jakarta Post had a double feature on the publicly funded Conservation Institute, responsible for the conservation of Jakarta’s museum. Like most conservation agencies, they suffer from a lack of funding and manpower, as well as a lack of confidence from private collectors.

Museum conservation specialists step up
Jakarta Post, 11 September 2008

Local restorers have yet to gain credibility
Jakarta Post, 11 September 2008

Museum conservation specialists step up
Agnes Winarti

Observing the cultural and historical collections displayed in museums in Jakarta, we might wonder whom we should thank for conserving and restoring our legacy.

Unknown to the general public, the Conservation Institute — established as the municipal conservation lab in 1997 — has been handling conservation and restoration at the seven museums under within Jakarta’s jurisdiction since 2002.

It certainly is not an easy task.

“We are overwhelmed with our work, especially because we are also responsible for the daily maintenance of the permanent collections.

“So many collections, too few staff and a limited budget,” said Enny Prihantini, head of the institute.

There are about 40,000 items held by the city’s seven museums, the Jakarta History Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Puppet Museum, the Ceramic and Fine Arts Museum, the Textile Museum, the Joang 45 Museum and the Prasasti Museum.

Enny said the institute employed 10 staff, only three of whom could rightly be called conservation specialists based on their training.

“It all started as just a duty that we had to take care of, but gradually I began to like conservation work,” said 53-year-old Andia Sumarno, one of the three conservators. He started as the maintenance officer at the Textile Museum in 1989.

“I participated in trainings and study tours on conserving textiles and paintings,” Andia said, adding he had gone through no formal education background in conservation before that.

Andia was involved in the recent joint venture between his office and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam to restore a 3-by-10-meter oil painting done by the late S. Sudjojono in 1974.

Enny said the specialists were all more than 40 years old and some were getting close to retirement.

“We urgently need new blood, it’s true. But it’s hard to find anyone interested in the field of conservation,” said Enny, who acknowledged the last conservation training for her office staff was held back in 2005.

Until 2005,the institute had brought in artists from Yogyakarta and Bali with conservation experience to train staff as well as museum experts from Australia, the Netherlands and the United States.

The problem lay in the limited funds, she said.

This year the institute was allocated Rp 1.1 billion (US$120,879) for collection conservation, 60 percent of which has already been disbursed for conserving 40 items in the Maritime Museum, 75 in the Prasasti Museum and the Sudjojono oil painting in the Jakarta History Museum.

“We are still waiting for the disbursement of the remaining 40 percent of this year’s budget to begin conserving three ancient 200-page books in the Jakarta History Museum rare books collection and another 40 items in the Textile Museum,” Enny said.

She said each museum was registered for the conservation program at least once a year.

“However, this year, the Ceramic and Fine Arts, Puppet and the Joang 45 museums couldn’t participate due to insufficient funds.

“Our priority is to restore damaged items. The museums should be handling their own regular maintenance, with our supervision. This is a never-ending job which we have to take care of together,” she said.

The conservation staff work in different locations depending on the size of the item. A large painting will be repaired at the museum where it is kept. Smaller collections will be brought to the Conservation Institute’s workshop and laboratory on Jl. Pintu Besar Utara in West Jakarta.

Enny estimated 15 to 20 percent of the 40,000 items in the seven municipal museums are estimated to suffer 30 to 40 percent damage on each item.

“That’s why the museums need to contribute from their maintenance budget. Ideally, a museum sets aside 20 percent of its total budget to maintain its collection,” said Enny, adding museums had only recently started to raise their maintenance allocation.

Enny said she regretted most museum management also lacked awareness about the importance of ongoing care.

“It’s not that they don’t know about conservation. We’ve held several trainings for them,” said Enny, adding the latest was held in 2006.

“We really need their support to keep their collections in good condition. Once any item is restored, it still needs regular attention.”

Local restorers have yet to gain credibility
Despite human resource and funding restraints, the city’s Conservation Institute can offer conservation services to private collectors and other museums.

The institute also invites the public to learn the basics of conservation at its Central Jakarta workshop.

However, some private collectors still doubt the institute’s ability to conserve cultural and historical collections.

“Honestly, I have never heard of or seen their work,” said private collector Hauw Ming, who has collected antiques since 1999: furniture, paintings, books, World War II-era enamel advertisement placards, and Chinese-Indonesian artifacts, just to name a few.

Director of the Indonesia Contemporary Art Network, Antariksa, held a similar view.

“What are the backgrounds and qualifications of the people at the institute? As a public institution they have seemed inaccessible until now.

“It would be hard to entrust the conservation of a painting worth Rp 3 billion (US$320,000) to people or an institution without strong backgrounds and qualifications,” said Antariksa, who established his commercial organization for the visual arts in January 2008.

The city’s Conservation Institute, whose offices are located just a stone’s throw from the Jakarta History Museum in Central Jakarta, has been involved in the restoration of Indonesia’s first red-and-white flag in 2003, the 200-year-old portrait of an East Indies Company governor general by Raden Saleh last year, and the 3-by-10-meter oil painting by the late S. Sudjojono this year.

Head of the institute, Enny Prihantini, said her office had not done enough to promote the services it can offer private collectors.

“It’s all about trust. They need to know their collection will be safe during restoration and that we are skilled. We still need to get that message out.”

Antariksa said private collectors usually organize themselves to invite foreign conservators to restore several collections in private homes at once.

Hauw Ming cofounded the Association of Art Devotees in 2002. He said he usually invited a Belgium-educated restoration expert to repair any damaged pieces and did the rest of the basic maintenance himself.

Some 1,200 private collectors of paintings, sculptures and antiques are members of ASPI nationwide, with membership concentrated around Jakarta, West Java, Central Java and East Java.

“Most of us rely on restoration services of foreign experts, especially those from European countries,” Hauw Ming told The Jakarta Post on Thursday at his private gallery in Central Jakarta.

Asked how much foreign experts charge for their services, he said in Singapore experts usually charge SGD 150 (US$105) per hour.

“We usually use foreign restoration experts because we don’t know any qualified ones here. If I knew someone here, I wouldn’t look abroad,” said Hauw Ming, adding there were probably only 10 local experts in the country, none of whom had formal education in conservation and restoration.

Curator Jim Supangkat said he would encourage the conservation experts at the institute to extend their knowledge on the historical context of local antiquities and their creators as well as improve their skills.

“We shouldn’t stop at conservation. It’s more urgent the staff improve their restoration know-how because there are many valued items, in both private and public museums, that need work. That’s the major missing link here.”

In another effort to generate more interest in cultural conservation as a field, the institute is also offering a one-day workshop on introduction to conservation to the general public.

Groups of at least 10 people can request the workshop. “They need to pay a group fee of Rp 500,000 to pay for the materials used in the workshop,” said Enny.

Related Books
Icons of Art: The Collections of the National Museum of Indonesia by J. N. Miksic

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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