“Testimonial Objects”, is a solo exhibition by Maharani Mancanagara where she constructs stories through objects in order to present personal history that reflects how historical narratives are always in contestation to be the “official history” or else, a counter to it.
At its core, “Testimonial Object” challenges the conventional practices of museums and their potential to be dynamic vehicles for knowledge production. Maharani’s work goes beyond mere replication of stories of past achievements and glories. It serves as a catalyst for a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of history.
Objects, Collecting, and the Contestation of Their Shrouded Meanings
Written by Chabib Duta Hapsoro
At first, we may only understand that objects in museums are solely valuable. They give us a glimpse into the achievements of our ancestors, and serve us through techniques in crafting fibers, earth, metals, minerals, and so on that show the progress of civilization.
Still, that only represents a sliver of the story experienced by objects in museums. There have been changes of ownership over the decades-long journey of these historical objects before they became museum collections, which have either added entirely new meanings or obscured previous ones. In the colonial context, when dispossession, annexation, and uprooting were commonplace, the misdirection, erasure, and obliteration of meaning to objects became equally prevalent.
We can see one of the manifestations of cultural imperialism project as stated by Edward Said, that there is always the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging (1993: xiii). The change of ownership of historical objects, which can be a melting pot in the project of cultural imperialism, actually leads to simplification rather than enrichment. It is also emphasized by Said (1993: 336),
Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, White, or Black, or Western, or Oriental.
Therefore, the objects displayed in museums, with their embedded information, potentially hide many stories from our eyes. Treating museums as neutral is naive because museums are one of the arenas of contestation of various historical narratives. Historical narratives are always competing for “official history or narrative.”
Numerous studies on museums have critically discussed collecting practices, which include the acquisition and donation of objects by and to museums. The contestation of historical narratives takes place due to these two practices, which then affect the meaning of collection objects.
Historian Caroline Drieënhuizen, in her study of the acquisition of Dutch museum collections from collectors who served as elite colonial officials in the Dutch East Indies, has found that several collections implied their owners’ endeavors of empire-building and assertion of European dominance in the fields of knowledge and culture. The houses of some of these collectors in the Dutch East Indies were decorated with collections that showed this imperial spirit by mixing Indonesian and European objects that referred to “their background, their cultural belonging and, thus, their life history” as colonial officials (Drieënhuizen, 2014: 510-511). These collectibles also reflect the restorative nostalgia and continuation of cultural identity that the owners had when they returned to the metropole, where they made it easier for the owners to transition from their homes of origin and the colony, where the owners had many privileges. This experience is then passed down through generations as part of their family identity (2014: 511, 514).
Drieënhuizen (2014: 519) underlined the opinion of another historian, Frances Gouda (:237-42), that the collectors’ experience of settling in the colony, which was full of racial domination and economic inequality, was imagined as a natural and harmless relationship.
Some of the collections of former colonial officials were then donated to several museums in the Netherlands. The objects were then re-exhibited along with the perpetuation of the imperial-building narrative adopted by the donors, which then turned the identity of the donor’s family into a collective identity (Drieënhuizen, 2014: 517). Disputes from the descendants of the collectors also occurred when the museums later removed the collections due to the widespread recognition of the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia (Drieënhuizen, 2014: 517) and the awareness of decolonization discourses that made many museums in the world face ethical demands about the provenance and changes in ownership of their collections.
The work of Maharani Mancanagara or Rani (born in 1990) shows a counter to the practice of collecting objects that I have discussed earlier. Her artistic practice can also be juxtaposed with the practice and politics of collecting museum objects because she has made a distinctive effort to collect, select, narrate, curate, and present stories, tales, and objects in an attempt to convey personal history. Rani tried to make history approachable when official or mainstream historical narratives are distant from everyday life and laden with simplifications of stories, nuances, class relations, and ideological contestations.
She explored many stories that were close to her, especially the story of her late grandfather who lived during the transition of power regimes in Indonesia; Dutch colonization, Japanese occupation, Perlementer Democracy-Guided Democracy, and the New Order. The transition of power regimes became the backdrop for his grandfather’s dramatic and heartbreaking life transition from being a patriot to a political prisoner and ending up as a survivor. Through meticulous observation and beyond standard historical research, Rani’s reading of her grandfather’s archives and personal documentation resulted in a variety of artistic manifestations. They embodied the richness and nuance of a historical narrative, through the replication of archives, photographs, and objects that were then displayed in a presentation like objects and exhibitions in a museum. Rani also created several pieces of fiction from her reading of the archives and brought them to life on various platforms, such as in fable books and dioramas to build a sense of new imagination.
Rani’s work in selecting, curating, replicating, and compiling stories about the objects can be seen as an attempt to honor the objects for the stories they have gone through and bring to life those stories that were once buried. Through her efforts, Rani tried to embody what is inherent in objects that were previously distant from her, both meaning and memory as bitter as it was. The process then grew into a validation of her grandfather’s experiences that had a healing impact on herself and her family. Validation or acknowledgment of wounds and traumas is often absent in mainstream history-making. The dominance of nationalist narratives that prioritize victory or masculine heroism on the battlefield renders wounds, loss, and trauma as mere names and numbers. The nationalist narrative of mainstream history ends up being a populist tool that does not validate the wounds and traumas of the victims and their descendants.
In this presentation of Testimonial Objects, Rani problematizes the museum as a contested zone. In particular, this presentation was initiated by Rani’s interest in the ongoing issue of repatriation in Indonesia, which is currently in the process of returning Indonesian historical objects from several museums in the Netherlands. While repatriation is undoubtedly a crucial activity, focusing solely on repatriation risks reducing the contestation of history to a mere claim of ownership that solidifies nationalist and populist narratives.
In the display, a few selected objects from the collection of the National Museum of Indonesia are replicated using recycled wood. It illustrates how ownership changes continually transform and revitalize the objects’ meanings. The object acquisition process by museums is also rife with the affirmation of stories, many of which hide the terrible situations those artifacts witnessed in silence. The cabinet of curiosities induces a rigorous study to trace objects’ migration through ownerships and modifications as the essential condition of repatriation.
Rani then chose several objects from the collection of the National Museum of Indonesia—which hosts repatriated objects—and replicated them using recycled wood to highlight the dynamic of objects’ meaning through reinterpretation due to the changes in ownership. The process of acquiring and donating museum objects is also filled with validation of narratives about them that often cover up the many bitter situations that those objects witnessed in silence. Then, Rani’s work can trigger a discussion about the importance of provenance, which is one of the crucial stages in repatriation. Provenance provides extensive efforts in tracking and tracing the origins of museum collection objects: how they traveled through ownership changes and whether the change processes were ethical. Provenance can give a restorative dimension to historical narratives that nationalist and populist historical narratives fail to provide.
When we look closely, some everyday objects are juxtaposed with the collections, most of which are valuables from the Nusantara, suggesting they are equal. This equalization criticizes the nationalist historical narrative of the public museums. The feudal middle-class narratives still dominate national history and marginalize grassroots narratives. This work addresses how museums might serve as platforms for forming critical knowledge that goes beyond perpetuating historical anecdotes of triumphs.
Drieënhuizen, C. (2014). Objects, Nostalgia and the Dutch Colonial Elite in Times of Transition, ca. 1900-1970. Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde, 170(4), 504–529
Gouda, Frances (1995). Dutch culture overseas. Colonial practice in Indonesia 1900-1942. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Said, E. W. (1993). Culture and imperialism (1st Vintage Books). Vintage Books.