Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Reinvigorating the Museum of Asia Africa

In 2005, during the 50th anniversary of the Asian-African Conference, leaders from the two continents established a New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP) that was meant to “reinvigorate” the Bandung Spirit that had in the past influenced the downfall of colonialism in Asia and Africa. Nevertheless, the reinvigoration of the Bandung Spirit has proven to be difficult. 
Fingers are often pointed at our African brothers, accusing them of being incapable of sustaining this partnership. However, as one walked through the dilapidated walls of the Museum of the Asian-African Conference, one cannot but feel that maybe we in Indonesia are also to blame for this. We have failed to raise awareness of Indonesia’s relations with Asian and African countries, notwithstanding our supposed efforts to implement the NAASP.
There is a need to shift the thinking that underlie the museum’s existence. Efforts to create a shrine commemorating Indonesia’s achievements during the Asian-African Conference in 1955 may be admirable; yet, this would only go so far in making people truly understand current events and conditions. As foreign policymakers, it is essential that what is learned from the past be geared towards sustaining present policies as well as designing an agenda for future course of actions. 
In most cases, museums reflect a positivist view of the world as entirely ordered and rule-governed. Objects and information are provided in an ordered fashion for the visitors to follow “as it is”. In contrast, a constructivist view argues that learning involves people in the active construction of mental representations of the world. In other words, what we learn and understand is relative and provisional, and that history is understood within the context of today.
The Museum of the Asian-African Conference provides an admirable exhibition of Indonesia’s past diplomatic glory. However, in presenting solely this exhibition, it has become detached from Indonesia’s contemporary relations with Asian and African countries. The process of learning in the museum is static, and does not provide room for discovering how the past relates with the present, let alone the future. What good does this then do in our efforts to engage the public in supporting our foreign policy and diplomacy today?
Museums have the ability to influence people through the process of learning. By considering both the basis for our organization of exhibits and our theory of learning, we can develop a museum that can respond to the dispositions and interests of the visitors and maximize the potential for learning. In doing so, this makes the museum not only appealing for children, but also accommodating to all ages of learning. A university student trying to understand Indonesia’s foreign policy towards Africa would be able to appreciate the museum as much as an elementary school finding out for the first time where Bujumbura is located.
In its current form, the Museum of the Asian-African Conference serves as a memento to one of the most important episodes of Indonesia’s foreign policy. However, in order to maximize on its potentials, the museum should not teach only history, but also how history shapes things and events today. To become “interesting” and worthy of visits by the public, the museum needs to re-shape itself as an interactive center for learning on the Asian and African peoples. 
The museum needs to go beyond its current form as “the Museum of the Asian-African Conference”, and become “the Museum of Asia-Africa”.
First, the museum should revamp itself from being only a center for learning on the Asian-African Conference to being a museum that features Indonesia’s foreign policy towards the Asian and African continents. In doing so, the museum will become more relevant to the contemporary world and provide a larger space for public learning and public engagement with government policies.
Second, the museum should be geared towards developing greater public understanding of Indonesia’s foreign policy. It is important therefore for the museum to feature Asian and African countries in its exhibits. By learning more about these countries, the public would have a better picture of our efforts in engaging not only Asia and Africa, but also the developing world as a whole.
Third, by raising the public’s awareness on the plight of Asian and African countries, the museum should further efforts by the Department of Foreign Affairs to raise not only public interest in Indonesia’s foreign policy and diplomacy, but also public participation. In a sense, it is about time that the museum be perceived as a channel for extending Indonesia’s foreign policy and total diplomacy goals.
To develop the museum into a center for learning on Asia and Africa, particularly on Indonesia’s relations with countries in these two continents, more exhibits are needed on Asian and African cultures, history, and geography. The exhibits need to encompass materials concerning countries beyond those that participated in the 1955 Conference; the exhibits need to reflect the success of the Bandung Spirit in influencing the birth of new countries in Asia and Africa.
Children shall remain one of the most important target audience. As such, programs have to be designed to ensure children’s interest in the materials being presented in the museum. Games and questionnaires could ensure that the children travel to every part of the museum and allow them to carry out their learning process at pace and using directions they desire individually.
By getting children to learn early about their brothers and sisters from afar, the museum could very well create an impact in these children’s lives, which could be beneficial for the country in furthering efforts in people-to-people diplomacy in years to come. At the same time, games and questionnaires could also be of interest to adults, thus opening the possibility for learning at all ages.
There is also a need to continuously engage visitors even once they have departed the museum. For example, the website for the museum, could be re-designed to contain materials that would provoke the people to want to know more about the museum, its exhibits, and anything related to Asia and Africa. The website could contain information, quizzes, and other features that would lead people to want to re-visit the museum, or if not, learn more about the issues as a whole. 
Another example is to make souvenirs available that could create some form of lasting attachment between the museum and its visitors. Indeed, much of most souvenirs these days are simply made to satisfy the public’s consumerist appetite. Nonetheless, if looked from a broader perspective, souvenirs could become means of public diplomacy. It could promote the museum as an interesting place to visit and a center for Asian-African learning. It could also contain educational materials on the Asian-African Conference and related contemporary issues.
Indeed, to set such a reinvigoration of the Museum of Asia-Africa in motion would not be cheap. Funds will be required not only to renovate the building in order to accommodate new exhibits, but also to bring in new exhibits, develop interactive programs, re-design the museum’s website, and create a line of souvenir and merchandising. Resorting to government funds is the option most suitable considering that the project is an attempt to enrich the Indonesian society’s knowledge as well as for the government to further its public diplomacy goals. Yet, the Government has its limitations.
An alternative resource for funds would be the private sector. However, private control could mean that the Government would have to relinquish full control over the museum. As well, if the museum were privatized, then there is a chance that financial profits and losses would dominate its development, and not education and knowledge.
The soundest solution would be to create a foundation comprising of elements of the Government (both central and provincial), civil society (particularly among educators and the academia), and the business sector. Within such a foundation, the Central Government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs would remain at the helm of decision making related to the museum. Inputs from the provincial government, the civil society and financial contributions from businesses would complete a line up of actors that could take up such a mandate.
In 1955, Bandung became the capital of Asia and Africa. It is our responsibility to ensure that Bandung will continue as such. This will not happen if the museum only highlights past events. The museum must be able to allow its visitors to make connections between past and present. The museum must actualize its potential in creating and nurturing the public’s interest and knowledge in events and facts in Asia and Africa. The museum must maximize its capacity in conducting public diplomacy and enhancing understanding on Indonesia’s foreign policy.
Realizing this goal would require a concerted effort among all stakeholders. It would also require careful planning, and most importantly, continuity. 
Some smaller steps could be taken in anticipation of the start of such a project. One of these first steps could be by changing the hours of the museum so that it opens on Saturdays and Sundays. Museums anywhere else opens on Saturdays and Sundays. Somehow, it is just too difficult to imagine the Museum of Asia-Africa evolving into a center for learning if it was closed on the days when people are most likely to make a trip there.

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