Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Review: Sites, Bodies and Stories

Sites, Bodies and Stories: Imagining Indonesian History - Cover Image
Published: Apr 18, 2016

History and heritage in the Indonesian imagination

Ken Setiawan

Heritage formation and writing history have much in common with one another as both link the past to the present. However, they are also distinct processes. Heritage formation is key to shaping relations with local or national histories and is far from a straightforward process. It represents a dynamic field of social action, more often than not filled with controversies and influenced by shifting power relations, involving different actors at local, national and global levels. It is also an ongoing process, as over time the meaning bestowed onto objects and practices may change. Heritage formation is thus a complex process, and a volume exploring these dynamics in the Indonesian context is a welcome contribution.

As the title of the book suggests, heritage formation is explored through three themes. ‘Sites’ refers to archaeological field sites, including excavations and monuments, artefacts from or defined by sites as well as stories about sites. Based on Pierre Nora’s seminal work Les Lieux de Mémoire, sites are considered to be sites of remembrance, and are also understood as an embodiment of local and global connections. ‘Bodies’ refers to the study of measuring differences between people, using human remains in museums and research on ethnic identification as well as the representation of people in photographs and artistic expression. ‘Stories’ refers to performing arts and intangible heritage – how, through stories, people engage with society and its history and address issues of inclusion and exclusion.

The thematic approach taken in this book means that it is not limited to a particular time or geographical area and the broad definitions allow for an interdisciplinary approach. The volume brings together contributions from both scholars and practitioners and takes the reader on a journey from Nias, via Java and Bali, onwards to Flores and Alor, as well as Papua.

One of the interesting aspects of Sites, Bodies and Stories is that the individual chapters are not limited to heritage formation in Indonesia alone. Various chapters pay significant attention to the representation of Indonesia and its peoples elsewhere. For instance, Matthew Isaac Cohen discusses American films located in Java and Bali in the 1920s and 1930s. Contributions by Willem Westerkamp, on mannequins used in the Tropenmuseum, and Fenneke Sysling, on facial plaster casts from the Netherlands Indies, discuss representations of Indonesians in the Netherlands, both in the colonial era and beyond.

The chapters of Westerkamp and Sysling, in particular, draw attention to the legacy of colonialism in heritage formation beyond Indonesia’s borders. The objects they discuss – mannequins and masks, or ‘relics of the past’ – offer a means to reflect and perhaps critically examine, colonialism and its impact in both Indonesia and the Netherlands. This is an important observation, as the Netherlands continues to struggle with facing its colonial past. Dutch influence on heritage formation in Indonesia is also discussed in other chapters, such as Sadiah Boonstra’s contribution on wayang and Marieke Bloembergen and Martijn Eickhoff’s discussion of Borobudur. These chapters illustrate the dynamics of heritage formation from the colonial to the postcolonial era, at national and global levels, as well as the political dynamics at play.

While the political dimensions of heritage formation are apparent in all contributions, a number of chapters generate particular insights into the tensions between the national and local, and how these have shaped new heritage initiatives. The contributions of Tular Sudarmadi, on the incorporation of traditional music in contemporary songs in Flores, and I Ngurah Suryawan, on the Papuan music and dance group Mambesak, illustrate the power of music to emphasise local identity. In both cases, these performances can be seen as a way of claiming a distinct place in the wider national context. Similarly, Sri Margana’s chapter discusses how local historians in Banyuwangi attempt to deconstruct stigmas created by outsiders in order to claim a more positive place in history and culture. Similarly, reclaiming the local is at the core of Emilie Wellfelt’s contribution on Alor where, following decentralisation, heritage politics have focused on the recognition of traditional houses as heritage sites. The emphasis placed on the meaning and legitimacy of these sites illustrates that heritage practices are increasingly situated at the local level.

Sites, Bodies and Stories is, in many ways, a rich volume and many of its chapters build on each other beyond the three concepts at the basis of the book’s structure. However, at the same time the volume would have benefited from more explicit engagement with the theoretical concepts presented in its introduction, which states that the aim of the book is to show how heritage formation and the writing of history link to notions of citizenship. To this end the introduction discusses the notion of cultural citizenship or the reinforcement of the emancipation of politically marginalised groups by cultural strategies. This is a relevant concept in an increasingly globalised world where perceived or expected homogeneity is contrasted with, and contested by, expressions of local cultures paired with a demand for tolerance and respect for diversity.

Beyond doubt, many of the contributions discuss the emancipation of marginalised groups in different places and times. However, these chapters tend to emphasise cultural identity more than citizenship, and do not directly engage with the concept of citizenship as presented in the book’s opening chapter. At the same time, the lack of theoretical discussion about the political dynamics of heritage formation is a surprising omission in the volume. The political dynamics of heritage formation is a recurrent theme in all contributions and warrants more discussion, if not in the introduction then in a conclusion.

Nonetheless, the individual chapters in Sites, Bodies and Stories are rich in detail and illustrate the respective authors’ intimate knowledge of their research subjects. The volume is thought provoking and turns an interdisciplinary lens on the intricacies of heritage formation in and on Indonesia, thus inviting more discussion.

Susan Legene, Bambang Purwanto and Henk Schulte Nordholt (eds.) (2015). Sites, Bodies and Stories: Imagining Indonesian History. Singapore: NUS Press.

Ken Setiawan (setiawan.k@unimelb.edu.au) is a McKenzie Research Fellow at the Asia Institute, the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016{jcomments on}

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