TAASA Review Issues

April 1993

Vol: 2 Issue: 2
Editors: Heleanor Feltham & Christina Sumner

Cover Photo
Detail of SUZANI. Silk embroidery on cotton. Bokhara, Central Asia. c.1800. h.235cm.

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Editorial

Heleanor Feltham

The recent conference held at the Australian Museum, Museums and Indonesian Culture, was both fascinating and well-presented, contributing a great deal to the understanding of an important and spectacular exhibition and the culture and diversity of our immediate neighbours. However there was an equally fascinating subtext: that of the evolving role of museums in the late twentieth century and their changing perception, not only of what constitutes the fields of art, anthropology and technology, but where, if anywhere, the boundaries between these disciplines lie.

Dr Paul Taylor of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, introduced this theme in his analysis of the rationale for collecting Indonesian material in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Apart from the vagaries of personal obsession (a factor of wealthy dilettantism largely subsumed by the curator-as-professional attitude of the late 20th century) the major rationale of these early collections was the underpinning of the then popular theory of social evolution. Indonesian cultures, for instance, were seen as intermediary between true barbarism and Western civilization. Whether, like Elio Modigliani, you paid the locals to discard everyday wear and dress down, or, like Otis Mason, you elaborated cultural theories on the basis of basketry; the  fundamental purpose was to justify the evolutionary paradigm – and when that went out of favour in the 60s, so did the collecting!

The far newer National Museum of Indonesia has a very different agenda. At the centre of a web of some 127 provincial museums, it’s very active collection policy is paralleled by an exhibition program designed to promote a sense of unity among the diverse cultures of Indonesia – not so simple when it may well involve such diametrically opposed traditions as headhunting and Buddhism, or such apparent opposites as courtly Islamic coastal cultures and inland animist farmers. So the museum acts as a mechanism for identifying and emphasising paradigms and spectra throughout the islands. It also, interestingly, serves as a cultural resource for community groups wishing to reconstruct ceremonials and artefacts, both for a resurgent sense of local identity and to authenticate the productions of cultural tourism.

And it’s hardly surprising that tourists should demand a high degree of authenticity (those, at least, who are there for something more than the beaches and the generic local colour) when you consider the extent to which the contemporary museum not only hopes to contextualise its collections and exhibitions through displays and catalogues, but almost inevitably introduces some element of live interpretation, something of demonstration, performance, hands-on, experience. The Australian Museum’s contacts with the Indonesian community in Sydney ensured that the exhibition opening was celebrated with dances, music, welcoming rituals. During the seminar, their recently-acquired Balinese gamelan was played with great enthusiasm and increasing assurance by local community members. Worldwide, the museum visitor soon becomes the critical ‘cultural tourist’.

However it is possible for a museum to involve itself in hands-on to the point of total immersion.  The Tropical Museum of Amsterdam’s Children’s Museum has recreated a slice of traditional Balinese life complete with ancestors, and visiting gods and demons, dancing tiger, and giant royal couple. All the elements of the exhibition have been provided and authenticated by Indonesian rafts people, and the ceremonies, music and dance suitably simplified for a participating audience of Dutch children hoping to arrive at an understanding of a post-colonial culture. Children coming in groups enter as fully as possible into the reconstructed world, dressing in Balinese costume, taking part in all of the activities, assisted by Indonesian guides.

However more conventional museums can hardly allow their often valuable and fragile collections to be used, touched, smelt, experienced; and it is a time and finance –consuming activity to develop such total immersion programs, however desirable an adjunct to conventional exhibitions they may be.

A continuing blurring of the boundaries of museum collecting fields and an increased emphasis on the totality of human culturally related activities results from these four factors: the abandoning of the cultural evolution theory, an increasing interest in and emphasis on cultural diversity, the recognition of the importance of cultural tourism and therefore of the preservation of local culture, and in-house or travelling exhibitions that contextualize rather than simply present material. An exhibition such as Beyond the Java Sea could be housed as happily in an art gallery, a decorative or even performing arts museum, or a museum of ethnography. And in our own local context, all three types of museums do in fact hold Indonesian materials, from the ethnographic collection of the Australian Museum to the textiles-as-art of the National Gallery of Australia. And all institutions are concerned with the plurality of interpretation and experience rather than the mono dimension of past museum practice.

Table of contents

COMMENT – Carl Andrew, Dr John Yu, Christina Sumner, Robyn Maxwell

PROFILE: DR. JAMES HAYES – Heleanor Feltham

AN INTRODUCTION TO IZNIK CERAMICS – Christopher Thompson

12  TRADITIONAL CHINESE PERFORMING ARTISTS IN AUSTRALIA – Sally Sussman

14  DRAWING TOGETHER AUSTRALIA AND ASIA – Eileen Chanin and Dr Gene Sherman

16  CONSERVATION SCROLL MOUNTING AT THE ART GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH WALES – Rose Peel

18  BOOKS
ANATOLIAN KILIMS – Leigh Mackay
BEYOND THE JAVA SEA – Dr John Yu
MODERN ART IN THAILAND – John Clark

20  THE LONE TRAVELLER IN CHINA – Dr Steven Zador

21  IDENTITIES I Wayan Gandra of Bali – Zoë Wakelin-King

22  IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN: OBJECTS IN PUBLIC COLLECTIONS The Australian Museum’s Balinese Gamelan – Zoë Wakelin-King

23  REVIEWS AND PREVIEWS Exhibitions, Lectures, Events & Performances

28  MEMBERS DIARY – Jackie Menzies

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