This week, Museum and Galleries Student Azam Caesar
ruminates on his experience working at cultural and ethnographic museum and how 3D technologies could be implemented in such museums.

Before coming to St Andrews to study for the MLitt in Museum and Gallery Studies I had gained experience volunteering as a guide at the National Museum of Indonesia, which collects and displays the historical, cultural, and ethnographic artefacts of various ethnic groups. One of the first tasks I was given in my Museum and Gallery Studies course was to write an essay about the effects of the Digital Revolution in the museum field. Through writing the essay, I learnt about the variety of ways that digital media have been implemented in the museum space, including audio guides and interactive displays.

Figure 1. A Muslim gravestone displaying early examples of Arab writing in Indonesia.

During my time at the National Museum of Indonesia, I noted the absence of such digital technology within its galleries. In a way, the National Museum still engages in the “classic” view of museums where the audience and the objects remain separate, visitors are there to simply see objects and read the accompanying text. While some objects such as Hindu-Buddhist statuaries are on open display, ‘do not touch’ signs maintain the demarcation between object and visitor. In contrast, many western museums are now trying to find ways to make the collections engaging for audiences by providing opportunities to interact with objects using touch tables, for example.

Figure 2. Largest statue in the archaeological collection of the National Museum, with the rest of the statuary collection on display in the background. Photo by Arabsalam.

Since joining the Through a Glass Darkly project I have learned more on the implementation of digital technologies such as 3D printing and modelling in the museum field. I find it to be a useful tool to allow the audience to interact with the collection in a way that would be safe for the objects. I cannot help but think on how these technologies could be used in the National Museum. Of course, there are issues concerning the resources that are needed to implement the technology. However, since the collection includes plenty of ethnographic and cultural objects, there is an alternative approach that the National Museum and other ethnographic museums may adopt. Unlike the archaeological objects that we work with in the Through a Glass Darkly project, the collection in the National Museum of Indonesia comes from many cultures that still produce these same objects. This means the museum may purchase contemporary equivalents of objects in their collection for visitors to handle, whilst maintaining the antique specimens within the glass cases. I personally own a Javanese dancer’s mask; these same masks are displayed within the cases of the National Museum. While simply displaying the front of the mask is all well and good, it doesn’t help visitors to understand the construction method and the way it is worn. Unlike other masks, Javanese dance masks are worn by biting a leather strap that hold the mask in place.

Figure 3. A Javanese dancer’s mask which I personally own, such similar masks have been acquisitioned by the National Museum and are still produced by Javanese artisans.

Purchasing contemporary cultural objects is a good solution for artefacts such as tools, furniture, and art, but it becomes much more difficult concerning objects of a sacred nature.  Consider the tau tau, wooden effigies of the departed that adorn Torajas tombs. Ever since the tourist boom to Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, several tau tau specimens have been stolen from the cliff tombs and made their way into collections of several museums. To counter this many Torajans have fenced or hidden the tau tau of their relatives. But those who have had tau tau stolen seem to have given up trying to reclaim them due to the chance of further theft and the financial cost to rededicate the tau tau.[1] Perhaps 3D technology may be able to provide a solution to this problem. By creating 3D digital models and prints, museums may still be able to display religious objects without originals being removed from their sacred spaces.  Alternatively a museum could commission a tau tau to be made by a Toraja carpenter, but would that ‘tau tau’ have the same authenticity as those that are displayed on the tombs? Would it be more appropriate for it to be called a “wooden human statue” rather than “tau tau”? These are some of the dilemmas museums face when using modern reproductions to facilitate object handling.

Figure 6. Tau Tau from the British Museum Collection. © Trustees of the British Museum.
Figure 4. Tau Taus in situ at Lembo Village, Tana Toraja. Photograph by Michael Gunther



[1] Adams, Kathleen. (1993). “Theologians, Tourists and Thieves: The Torajan Effigy of the Dead in Modernizing Indonesia. The Kyoto Journal. 22. 38-45.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s