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Heritage

A Shared Inheritance: Gedung Arsip Nasional

Visiting Jakarta’s storied Gedung Nasional Arsip.

“This place has really good feng shui,” says Tamalia Alisjahbana as she guides me through the Gedung Arsip Nasional in central Jakarta, former home of VOC Governor General Reinier de Klerk and perhaps the city’s best maintained heritage building. She is not just referring to the 18th century property’s popularity as a wedding venue; throughout the centuries, the building has somehow survived numerous threats to its existence.

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Gedung Arsip Nasional

In 1900, there was a plan to tear it down and build shops. The Batavia Society for Arts and Sciences, which had been founded by de Klerk, stepped in to rescue it, donating the furniture that can still be seen there today. The building housed the Ministry of Mining until 1925, when the first major restoration took place. Then it held the National Archives until they were moved to Jl. Ampera in 1992. That same year, there was a rumour that the Soeharto family were planning to raze the building to the ground…to build shops. This is when Stichting Cadeau Indonesia came to its defence; a group of Dutch businessmen who, as a gift to Indonesia to mark the 50th anniversary of independence, raised the funds necessary to restore Gedung Arsip Nasional and turn it into a museum.

On November 1st, 1998, the restoration was finished. Then, on May 13th, riots broke out; the bank next door was burned to the ground and the gates of the Gedung Arsip were opened to offer shelter to the bank’s employees. The rioters followed them, bent on causing more destruction, but were chased away by about 80 workmen who were still employed at the building and didn’t want to lose their jobs. “There is always something that saves it,” smiles Tamalia, executive director of the foundation that now manages the property. It is privately managed and completely self-sufficient, receiving no funds from the government.

“Funding is not a problem. It’s been self-sustaining for the last eight years. We would like to increase the furniture collection and the map collection and people can help by donating furniture or maps. Or they can donate money for us to buy more furniture and maps, that’s also possible. And then we always look for sponsors for when we have exhibitions – for extras like that we need to look for extra money. But for actually maintaining it, it’s ok.”

Reinier de Klerk became Governor General in 1777, quite late in a distinguished career with the VOC. De Klerk wasn’t entirely pleased with the tardiness of his appointment, describing it as “serving the mustard after the meat has been eaten.” Throughout his career, he had a reputation for being incorruptible. In a sense, he had no necessity of corruption, as he was married to the very wealthy Sophia van Westpalm. Sophia’s mother, Gertruida Goosens, was the prettiest lady in Batavia in her day and was married three times to rich husbands who all predeceased her. Sophia was heiress to the accumulated fortune and thus de Klerk had the means to develop this land on Jl. Gajah Mada as his country estate.

This ‘dream home’, for which he drew up the plans himself, is today rich in fascinating artefacts, from the 17th century ebony furniture to the carved wooden Allegories over the doors, to the collection of maps dating from 1541 onwards, exhibited upstairs. The buildings on the property incorporate elements of Cape Town architecture and the secretary bird, de Klerk’s coat of arms, is a recurring motif. Tales of his 150 slaves evoke a time that shaped Jakarta’s current diversity – slaves were shipped to Batavia from across the archipelago – while offering a glimpse of the lifestyle enjoyed by the city’s erstwhile expatriate community.

Exhibitions at Gedung Arsip Nasional usually target children, with themes that have ranged from historical links between Indonesia and South Africa to the topic of the relationship between Germany and Indonesia, a relationship that extended even beyond those Germans who managed to journey here in person – for instance, Goethe was an honorary member of the Batavia Society.

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Tamalia Alisjahbana, Executive Director of Gedung Arsip Nasional.

“We send invitations to about 500 schools whenever we have an exhibition; maybe 5,000 children visit per year. We always make them very aware that the building belongs to them. When they come, I always say, ‘who does this building belong to?’ and they’ll say, ‘the Indonesian government,’ and I say, ‘no, it belongs to you. Indonesian government means the people of indonesia. Are any of you foreign citizens? No. Well then it’s your building! And we are very happy when the owners come to visit!’”

With this sense of ownership comes a sense of responsibility, according to Tamalia. “The best times are when the guides have come back to me and said, the schoolchildren passed the donation box and asked, ‘what is that for?’ And the guides explain, ‘well we don’t receive any funds from the government. So people who want to help support it give a donation.’ And then, without saying anything, they all give something. From a poor school, they all take out 50 rupiahs. From a rich school they all take out 1,000 rupiahs. But they’re not asked to, they just do it by themselves. And that’s when we know we’ve hit the target, that they feel they own it.”

The gardens remain open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day and residents of neighbouring kampungs, who have no outdoor facilities of their own, are encouraged to use them. “If you come here at 6 o’clock in the morning, you will see old people doing their exercises. At 4, children start coming and playing with their bicycles, flying kites, mothers bring their babies. And this we encourage, we want them to use the place. It belongs to them.”

For information on holding weddings or other events, making donations to the furniture or map collection, or simply visiting Gedung Arsip Nasional, call +62 21 6347744 or e-mail arnas@cbn.net.id.

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