Arts and Culture
Western Museum Collections of Wayang Kulit, Indonesian Shadow Theatre Puppets, reflect over a centuries history of colonial and ethnocentric behaviour in European and American Museum Practice. In fact, the debate they evoke is very particular. On the one hand, Wayang Kulit figures do not form part of any repatriation discourse. On the other hand, they represent an example of non-Western heritage which is still vividly being practised today, particularly in Java and Bali. More so, Wayang Kulit figures have an exceptional representational value in Indonesia and are rigorously cited in all imaginable art forms: fine arts, graphic design, film, theatre, dance choreography, novelists, comics, etc. For these reasons, the Western inclination to consider and thus treat Wayang Kulit figures as ‘dead’ or ‘lifeless’ museum objects, ‘frozen in time’ seems rather unethical. In general, can it be ethical to assert that having changed its owner, an item of heritage also receives a new meaning, a Western, scientifically objective, documentary meaning? Excluding an item's original significance from the decision-making process is common (ethnocentric) museum practice. Hence, Wayang Kulit figures are often classified incorrectly, identified wrongly, conserved and stored ineptly and exhibited one-sidedly. For individuals with a sincere emotional affiliation forwards these artworks, the reality of Western Wayang Kulit collections evokes concern and slight indignation.
This debate obviously goes beyond Wayang Kulit collections in particular. It wishes to create an awareness for the necessity of transcultural museum values and interdisciplinary cooperation of Western Museum Staff, especially between conservators (or restorers) and curators.