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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Field collecting and museums exhibiting : the political implications of representation in museum Major, Dominique


This thesis consists of an exhibit on Indonesian shadow play figures called wayang kulit presented at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in May 1991, and a written document which discusses the processes and political issues involved in exhibiting and collecting wayang kulit in Indonesia during the summers of 1989 and 1990. Wayang kulit are flat, cut-out parchment figures, finely painted and perforated, used to cast shadows on a screen during a night-long performance also called wayang kulit. Some figures, made by well-known Indonesian artists, are also isolated from the context of the performance and appreciated in their own right for their formal qualities. Establishing criteria for selecting and exhibiting the figures and determining an appropriate terminology were the core issues addressed during the processes of field collecting and museum exhibiting. The necessity of addressing these issues arose from the realization that there are political implications, in each of these aspects, for the representation of the cultures with which museum objects are associated. The quasi-exclusive presentation, in the European and American literature on the wayang kulit, of the royal court style, has generated detrimental stereotypes concerning Indonesia. This singular portrayal has denied the existence of contemporary varieties of wayang kulit production and has contributed to projecting this art form into the past. To counterract this situation, this thesis investigates the variations in wayang as understood from the artists's point of view, which has not been adequately explored in academic research. Discussions with well-known and recognized wayang artists revealed that wayang vary according to islands, according to cities in Java, and also according to the artists' preferences, ranging from classical to experimental. This thesis provides examples of these variations and stresses, for instance, that, while rooted in an ancient heritage, wayang can also express the actuality of contemporary life; the tensions between conservative and progressive views, collective and personal identities; religious and secular values; popular and elitist concerns; humorous and serious expressions; and Indonesian and Western influences. These contrasted views aimed at showing the multiplex nature of wayang kulit and therefore of the Indonesian cultures with which it is associated. The way the objects are presented in museums also has an impact on their signification. The intention of pluralizing the contexts in which the wayang kulit are displayed was to blur such single and detrimental labelling as "craft" or "traditional art". Rather, this thesis conveys the idea that contemporary wayang kulit can be appreciated as art at the same time that they may be functional. Presenting wayang kulit as art is necessary if the continuing marginalization of Indonesian art within the larger world of contemporary art is to be avoided. On the other hand, in order to establish a bridge between Indonesian and other cultures, it is also essential to provide an understanding of the context in which wayang takes place, including the context and meaning of the performance, the rationale underlying its iconography, the values and world views wayang kulit synthesizes and the range of characters and stories it utilizes. To create a reciprocal relation, the power of the words used in evoking the lived and thought experiences of non-Western societies could not be neglected. This thesis presents a reflection on the choice of the terminology which aimed at providing a dignified status to wayang. This thesis explores, therefore, means of challenging hierarchical relations between cultures and promotes the use of images and metaphors that museum visitors can relate to as well as the members of the original culture in order to promote the ideal of cross-cultural dialogue.

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