Do you want to take pictures with Indonesians white facing as Dutch colonizers? Visit museums about banks? How about renting a brightly colored bike for a ride or watching street performers doing acrobats or miming? Perhaps you’ve come to pick up your very own charming penis key chain decoration? If this sounds like you, then consider visiting Kota Tua, Jakarta’s oldest section of Dutch settlement. Sometimes also referred to as Batavia.
This area is as rich in history as it is poor in quality of attractions. It is a place of sweating street performers in costumes attracting and sometimes badgering tourists to take pictures with them for money. The skyline presents both gleaming shingles atop fancy cafes and completely burned out rooftops with exposed attics.
Out from under the tunnel exit from the bus stop, Rio and myself headed into the Mandiri Bank (a brand) Museum. While I certainly hadn’t expected the museum experience of a lifetime, I did fall into a sense of shock as we walked through endless dusty displays in poorly ventilated rooms. What was passing for a museum felt more like a funeral home for old and outdated equipment. There were some odd treasures among the ramshackle exhibits.
A completely arbitrary glass case of ceramic statues were turned to face the wall. I asked my husband why they were turned away. “Probably because they don’t want to expose the nudity.” I looked closer and saw one of the figures with exposed breasts, and laughed. Oh Indonesia, you’re so modest. In the basement a collection of old safes spanning back from the early 1800’s stood like imposing guardians of treasures untold. The furthest end of the basement was filled with Indonesian currency. The coins and bills were a testament to the varying influence of Indonesia’s cultures, traders, and the political upheavals.
We were also greeted throughout the museum by an assortment of withered mannequins. They were posed behind barred doors or bent over IBM mainframes. They waited around corners, greeted us at the bottoms of stairs, and generally freaked me out. While my visit to the uncanny valley was disturbing, we did find a few other things to entertain us. There was a group of snake supporters (yes, you read that correctly) hosting an exhibit and conference in the back of the building. Behind the old teller counter we found a band of teenagers were performing next to a photo exhibit of modern life in Jakarta.
Right as we tried to leave, some beautiful stained glass caught my eye. We stepped upstairs to find the saving grace of the building, story tall panels of glass installed when the Dutch still owned the building.
We left Mannequin City in a slew of rain for our next stop, the “Bank Museum”. While it seems like an odd topic for a museum, and a redundant one at that, the two museums could have not been more different. It starts out explaining the importance of Jakarta and the spice trade during colonial times. The introduction of a banking system by the Dutch. The history of Indonesia’s first native-owned banks and infrastructure after gaining independance. It also paid tribute to the terrible banking crash that rocked the nation in 1997 which my husband has memories of. If there are any museums worth checking out, it is definitely this one. The descriptions are in both bahasa indonesia and english. Best of all their mannequins are not creepy.
I also became the new face for Indonesia! Actually, the face I was replacing was that of Raden Adjeng Kartini, one of Indonesia’s most kick ass feminist figures. She rebelled against the seclusion that was imposed after her age of 12 (typical of all Javanese female nobility) and marriage. Her hope was to open schools and educate all of Indonesia’s women. Her letters were published under “Letters of a Javanese Princess” which is free on Amazon Kindle. I’ve been reading her correspondences and I’m completely shamed to realize feminism isn’t some turn of the century ideology that only took place in Western countries. While women were gaining in numbers and strength to gain rights to vote, Kartini was fighting for the chance just to leave her walls to learn medicine and education. Her letters are beautifully written to boot.
By the time the museum had closed, we left the building and made our way to the open square in Batavia’s most iconic section. But we’ll save that story for next time in our next blog post Kota Tua Part II. In the next blog post we talk more about walking in the historic district and I dance with some locals on camera.