EuroSEAS@Oxford, here we come!

In this special blog post, Natali Pearson outlines PoP’s (double!) panel for the EuroSEAS conference to be held next week at the University of Oxford. If you happen to be in the area, come and hear us talk about ritual and ritualisation in Southeast Asia! Stay tuned in the weeks to come for our post-conference debrief, and keep checking out our Twitter and Facebook page for updates about the many interesting panels at EuroSEAS this year.

Although we PoP members all share a general interest in Southeast Asian history/ies, we approach our research from very different perspectives – Nien as a performance studies specialist, Michael as an archaeologist, Natali as a museum and heritage studies scholar and Jarrah as a textual historian. Despite our shared passion for the study of the past, it is surprisingly difficult to find a common thread that unites us all. Perhaps this is what keeps our debates and discussions so vibrant.


Left to right: Jarrah Sastrawan, Michael Leadbetter, Natali Pearson and Cheng Nien Yuan

It was, therefore, quite a revelation to find a theme that united our research so neatly: the concept of ritual in the Southeast Asian context, on which we were invited to speak as part of a special lecture series organised by The Asian Arts Society of Australia (TAASA) this May. Other presenters in this series have included Emeritus Professor Peter Worsley (The depiction of ritual in Balinese painting of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), Dr Marnie Feneley (The Diamond Vajra – thoughts on a 12th century Khmer sculpture), and Dr Siobhan Campbell (Keeping Up with the Jeros: Made Wijaya and Balinese Ritual).

It was a privilege for us, as postgraduate students, to be invited to join these more established scholars in this forum, as well as a great opportunity for us to showcase our work to a different audience from the usual university crowd.


Michael Leadbetter in conversation with Indonesia specialist Toni Pollard at the TAASA lecture series, 1 May 2017. Photo: Sandy Watson


Left to right: India expert Dr Jim Masselos, PoP members Natali Pearson and Cheng Nien Yuan, and Southeast Asian historian Dr Milton Osborne, at the TAASA lecture series, 1 May 2017. Photo: Sandy Watson


Josefa Green, editor of TAASA Review (far left) and Dr Jackie Menzies, TAASA President and Emeritus Curator of Asian Art, Art Gallery of NSW (far right). Photo: Sandy Watson


PoP with TAASA President Jackie Menzies, 1 May 2017. Photo: PoP

The process of preparing for and delivering our four mini TAASA lectures prompted us to revisit and re-interrogate our research as it related to ritual. In fact, so inspired were we by TAASA’s ‘Ritual in Southeast Asia’ theme that we decided to submit a panel proposal for the forthcoming (16-18 August 2017) European Association for Southeast Asian Studies (EuroSEAS) conference at the University of Oxford. This conference, now in its ninth iteration, attracts hundreds of specialists on Southeast Asia from all over the world.

Building on our TAASA presentations, our EuroSEAS proposal sought to bring together a wide diversity of perspectives to consider and critique ritual and the past in Southeast Asia.

We wanted to consider ritual broadly – as heritage, practice, performance, tradition, religion and spiritual practice. We also wanted to think about ritual in innovative ways – ritual as a subject of historical enquiry, ritual as a set of economic relationships, ritual landscapes and spaces, ritual connecting past and present, and ritual as heritage production.

Our proposal was accepted and was also expanded to a double panel, which meant that we had room for an additional four scholars. Thus it is that we find ourselves gathering in Oxford next week, with the generous support of the University of Sydney’s Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC), to deliver a double panel on ritual in Southeast Asia. Professor Michele Ford from SSEAC is convening the panels, and Emeritus Professor Peter Worsley will act as our discussant.

PoP’s panels are scheduled for the first session of the first day of the EuroSEAS conference – panel one kicks off the discussion at 9am, followed by panel two at 11am. For more information, check out our speakers and abstracts below. We hope to see you there! And just a heads-up – PoP will be speaking at next year’s Asian Studies Association of Australia conference (3-5 July 2018) at the University of Sydney. Don’t miss it.


Panel One – 9am, Wednesday 16 August

  1. Lene PEDERSEN (Central Washington University)

Re-Envisioning the Theatre State: Land, Ritual and Polity in Bali 

In 1980 Clifford Geertz proposed a provocative theory of the precolonial Balinese state as a “theatre state,” one in which power derived from a form of feudalism based not on land relations, but on ritual. Geertz’s thesis has been much criticized; Tambiah called it a “peculiarly disconnected” situation, and contemporary scholars often dismiss it altogether. Alternative analyses of the indigenous polity have been offered, but they typically end in an impasse of debate, where the dominant views—ritual spectacle and relationships versus emphasis on land connections and active governance—continue to be posed as contradictions. Yet these disconnects between symbolic and material sources of power coincide poorly with the results of my research, which indicate that they inter-relate.

Based on systematic mapping into a Geographic Information System (GIS) combined with extensive ethnographic interview data in a former Balinese princedom, now a bureaucratic district within the Indonesian nation, this presentation revisits the issue of land in relation to what Geertz described as a “theatre state.” It centers on the role of precolonial feudal land categories, still present in the landscape, and their relationship to ritual and power in the polity, to bring new evidence to bear on the longstanding debates surrounding materialist and symbolic forms of power, as well as contemporary questions regarding the role of traditional structures within the modern nation state. Although we will never be able to construct a complete picture of the role of land in the theatre state, re-membering these identities, re-calling them in order to map them, helps us to re-imagine the polity.

I suggest that the “theatre state” emerges from a nexus of the material and the symbolic, between the land and its produce and the relationships and rituals that this instantiates and generates. I also suggest that it does so from rituals at every level, not just the large post-mortuary rituals that most emphasize status and drew Geertz’s attention. To explore new ways of thinking about the theatre state, based on ritual at multiple scales, we used GIS generated kernel density estimates to visualize the realm in terms of ritual density. Re-envisioning the theatre state may in turn help us better understand the contemporary situation, for much as places like early Bali did not conform to western ideas of territorially-based or unified state power, they now often confound expectations of progress toward modernization and democratization when they do not neatly leave behind “irrational” practices and “feudal” relationships.

  1. Wayan Jarrah SASTRAWAN (University of Sydney)

Rituals of Dynastic Power in Ancient Java

From the early thirteenth to the late fifteenth century, much of Java and the Indonesian archipelago was dominated by a royal dynasty called Girindra (‘Lords of the Mountain’). From their power base in East Java, the Girindra kings and queens were great patrons of literature and art, leaving as their most impressive legacy a vast network of ancestral temples throughout their realm. In this paper I describe rituals by which dynastic leaders were deified and enshrined in these temples, in order that they could continue to safeguard their descendants’ power over the country. I argue that the spatial distribution of the ancestral temples forms a topogeny, where the geography of East Java can be mapped out in terms of a ritual network. Drawing on literary, epigraphical and archaeological sources, I show how the ritual project of the Girindra dynasty was intertwined with their reshaping of the political and economic landscape of East Java. The success and longevity of the Girindra dynasty had a profound cultural impact on the later Islamic kingdoms in the region, and plays a major role in Indonesian nationalism to the present day.

  1. Michael LEADBETTER (University of Sydney)

Beyond the Faces in the Jungle: the social and environmental cost of ritual

It has been claimed that humans are ‘the ritual animal’. Rituals are not inert expressions or reflections of humanity, ritual connects and interact with a variety of social elements. Rituals are a powerful force that constructs the human world. The consequences of ritual as a charged process extends beyond a brief and fleeting encounter that may take place during a spiritual act. Rituals have agency which act upon human society. Rituals have their own impacts independent of human intent. Rituals have significant ecological, social, and economic effects. They may compliment and serve the interests of a society, but may also run counter to humanities interests.

The ritual and temple landscapes of Southeast Asia, such as Angkor are some of the most recognisable archaeological and architectural sites on the planet. My research is informed by the archaeology and material anthropology of ritual landscapes in Southeast Asia. We know a lot about the meaning of these temples, but very little is known about the lives of the people who built and lived in these ritual landscapes. When we visit these great monuments, our focus is often on royals, deities and demons. How did the people who created and lived within these ritual landscapes live? What role did ritual systems and the changing ecology play in their lives and the continued and living history of these sacred places?

  1. Kelly SILVA (Universidade de Brasília)

Managing resources, people and rituals. Economic pedagogy as governance tactic in Timor-Leste

This paper addresses current attempts to manage people, resources and ritual practices by governance agencies in Timor-Leste. Based on the analysis of the tara bandu carried out in Ermera in 2012 and official propaganda, interviews and other documents produced in between 2012 and 2015, I argue how certain rationale about the disposal of material resources, oriented by the gift regime in ritual contexts  has come to be a matter of government concern. It gives origin to an economic pedagogy which intends to turn into commodities resources managed primarily as gifts. In addition, such economic pedagogy intents: i. to decrease the material and symbolic investments people make in rituals and alliance prestations; ii.  To make  people believe that only live persons have agency in the world. Ultimately, inscribed in such a pedagogy is the project to monopolise the sources of government, prestige and social reproduction via the state, its institutions and projects. One also proposes to consider such economic pedagogy as purification endeavor.

Panel Two – 11am, Wednesday 16 August

  1. Mark Iñigo M. TALLARA (National University of Singapore)

Chasing Miracles in Quiapo: Symbolism of Kalooban and the Religious Practices to Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno

This paper is about the popular devotion to Christ in the Philippines focusing on the religious practices to Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno or popularly known as the Black Christ Nazarene of Quiapo in Manila. Although the origin of the devotion in Quiapo is central to my arguments this paper also calls for more scholarly attention on the historical and cultural connections between the Philippines and Mexico, focusing on the legacies of the Manila Galleon highlighting the origins of popular religious practices particularly the devotion to Christ. In order to understand the religious practices in Quiapo, there is also a need to examine the symbolism that surrounds the devotee’s motivation particularly their loob (inner self) and kalooban (interior self), hence this paper focuses also on the ontological understanding of the devotee’s sarili (self). Furthermore, this study argues that: (1) the devotional practices in Quiapo have its roots in the traditional religious understanding of Filipinos; (2) they use the symbolism of loob and kalooban to account for their religious experience; and (3) as a form of panata (vow) and recognition for their utang na loob (debt of gratitude), devotees in return joining the procession to honour the Black Christ Nazarene. This analytical step is consistent with the hypothesis that a consideration to the devotion to Jesus Christ is crucial to the understanding of popular Catholicism in the Philippines.

  1. CHENG Nien Yuan (University of Sydney)

Re-tualising Brother Cane: Performance Art in Singapore

On New Years Day in Singapore, 1994, Josef Ng protested against the police entrapment of twelve men in an “anti-gay operation” in the form of a public performance entitled Brother Cane. The following backlash caused a restriction on the licensing and funding of ‘unscripted’ performance art in Singapore that would last for more than a decade. Yet, this performance remains and repeats in the years since, the shamanistic actions of Ng mythicised, ritualised re-actualised in the courtroom, in newspapers and Ph.D. dissertations, and in the body of performer Loo Zi Han when he re-enacted Brother Cane as part of the Singapore M1 Fringe Festival in 2011. Was Loo’s performance an act of faith that things have changed, or another protest? This paper explores such complex questions which arise from the re-actualisation of Ng’s (paradoxically) ‘original ritual’ about the nature of performance art in Singapore, where the state fashions art as much as the performers themselves.

  1. Gertrud HÜWELMEIER (Humboldt University, Berlin)

Trance Mediumship goes on stage – The Heritagization of Popular Religious Practices in Vietnam 

This paper explores the recent staging of trance mediumship in some of Hanoi’s theaters.  Considered superstitious by the communist government for many decades, the ritual of worshipping the Mother Goddesses gradually regained popularity in the course of the past twenty years. After the Socialist Republic of Vietnam submitted documents to the UNESCO in 2014, requesting the recognition of the Mother Goddess religion as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), theater groups started performing trance rituals on stage. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among spirit mediums and their followers in urban Hanoi, this presentation argues that the heritagization of spirit mediumship and its reenactment on stage moves from one aesthetic register to another, thereby addressing the senses and affecting bodily experiences in different ways. By focusing on the relationship between heritage studies and the anthropology of religion, the paper contributes to recent debates on mediatization, remediation and spectacularization of popular religious practices.

  1. Natali PEARSON (University of Sydney)

On the shipwreck trail: Ritual visits to underwater heritage sites 

The commodification of heritage has seen a boom in cultural tourism in recent decades. The popularity of thana, or dark, tourism attests to the increasing ritualisation of visitor experiences at sites and landscapes of loss. This trend has been exacerbated by greater mobility, as travel becomes more affordable to an increasing number of people. Heritage sites are now more visible and visited than ever before, with interventions by heritage authorities at such sites serving to ritualise and sanitise visitor behaviour and experiences at the same time as they seek to educate and engage. But what are the implications when such sites are underwater? In this paper, I will look at the challenges of submerged cultural resource management with a particular focus on human remains at underwater sites in Southeast Asia. The hidden nature of underwater graves limits access, and precludes ritual visits and heritage interventions, in the same manner as their terrestrial equivalents, prompting questions about the extent to which tourists, survivors and descendants, and local communities, can engage meaningfully with underwater heritage sites.

The ending of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye… and what it says about history-telling

PoP’s performance studies/oral history person Cheng Nien Yuan talks about the critically-acclaimed, award-winning graphic novel that-shall-not-be-named. Specifically, she looks closely at the last few impactful pages of the book. 

Friends of mine know I think about food. A lot.

When I look at the edges of my closed, worn copy of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, I think of kueh lapis. The striations of colour amongst the white speak an irresistible promise of the dazzling pages within, of the layers upon allegorical layers of storytelling and critical insight. Mmm.

Much has been said about Sonny Liew’s masterpiece, especially after it won three prestigious Eisner Awards in San Diego’s Comic-Con last Saturday – an achievement to parallel Singapore’s success at the Olympics and Paralympics last year. I’m not here to talk about the National Arts Council’s hilariously tepid response to the work (what work? Whosit? Nevermind), which at the time of writing has received 223 ‘Haha’ reactions. I’m also not writing a review (five stars, go buy). I’m revisiting my beloved copy, flipping to the epilogue, and talking about how this crucial, foundational layer alone ­– a dozen pages or so’s worth – provides us with a whole lot of food for thought about how history is produced (I won’t say written, because history is more than text), and how that’s relevant to us Singaporeans.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 8.33.29 pm.png

Dato Duck sketch. Photo of partial page (299) taken by me, artwork is Sonny Liew’s copyright.

The epilogue, titled “An Old Man Now, After All” and subtitled in Mandarin “野草莓” (‘wild strawberries’; a possible reference to Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, an allusion too complex to unpack here), simply takes us through 76-year old Chan’s morning. Chan is still drawing comics, despite having never gained the recognition he deserved. He shows us a page of the latest thing he is working on: a comic called ‘Dato Duck’ about Singaporean financial culture modelled after Carl Barks’ work. The skill shown here is worlds away from Chan’s drawing of a squiggly, misshapen Donald Duck seventy years before as a 6-year old in 1944, the earliest shown in this fictional portfolio. Much has changed since in his life and art, but not the love and passion that drove him to pick up that pencil in 1944. Today, after all” he’s been through, he is content to drink kopi-o, listen to the world outside, and make art.


Photo of page 296, artwork is Sonny Liew’s copyright

Unlike the preceding chapters, the epilogue doesn’t have a whole lot of content or critique about Singapore history per se. That said, there is an oil-on-canvas portrait of Lee Kuan Yew at 88 in Chan’s style, with a blurb about his passing and legacy. It is a Lee Kuan Yew with thin, white hair, ruddy pink cheeks, unfocused eyes and a genial smile – a stark contrast to the portrait sixty pages before of LKY in 1970 (deep in the knuckle-duster era), the shadows of his ashen, harshly-angled face steeped in blood-red. That portrait may be the only most direct reference to Singaporean history in the epilogue, but this chapter alludes to the process of making history just as much, if not more, than the rest of the book.

Most importantly, it is an allegory of the fictive process of history-telling. As Chan takes us ‘backstage’, he tells us the way comics are drawn: “using white-out”, “pasting new drawings over existing ones”, setting the drawing surface “at an angle”. Yes, he talks about the finished product (“it didn’t matter so long as the printed result looked good”), but nevertheless shows us a full page of a skeletal rough draft. Nine whole panels are dedicated to depicting Chan’s bony fingers painstakingly taking an inked brush on the sketch of the now-iconic picture of Ah Huat holding the remote control of the robot as seen on TAoCCHC’s cover. The finished outline is on the final page, and the sense of completion seemingly cemented with the red seal of Chan’s signature on the bottom right. But Liew/Chan tellingly does not erase the traces of the blue sketch beneath.


Photo of page 305, artwork is Sonny Liew’s copyright.

Putting aside the well-told fact that TAoCCHC tells an evidence-based revisionist account of Singaporean history through the life and times of a fictional comic artist, the epilogue brings the fictive process of history-making to the fore. Fictive not in the sense that it is fictional, but in the Geertzian sense that it is constructed. This means that one can and should critically examine the circumstances surrounding the construction of histories, and apprehend the possiblity of re-construction. Sonny Liew’s presentation and re-presentation of TAoCCHC is essentially performative/performance-like in this sense, drawing our attention to the framing, making and re-making that is story and history-telling.

The epilogue also shows us that history-telling comes in many different forms. Yes, on the surface TAoCCHC’s genre as a graphic novel most obviously offers to readers the incredible potential – that Sonny Liew utilises to the fullest – of national history conveyed through the art of comics. The epilogue pares that layer back with a handful of simple, no-frills pages that focus on Chan the old man ‘now’ and his everyday life, which reminds me that when all is said and doneTAoCCHC is based upon oral history interviews. The fact that they are fictional interviews adds to rather than detracts from the complexity of the work. Liew made the conscious decision, in this epilogue, to return to the personal life of this man after the grand political narratives that coloured the preceding chapters. Drinking Milo, cooling off, listening to the radio, all those routines are part of history too.


Photo of p.305, artwork is Sonny Liew’s copyright.

I want to end by saying how much I appreciate the way Sonny Liew depicts three-dimensional movement and bodies on the two-dimensional page, and this epilogue is no exception. Behind the scenes (and in the case of performance or oral history, frontstage as well), history-telling/comic-drawing is very much embodied. The nine, three-tiered equal-sized panels that Liew utilises often throughout the book shows a slower, older Chan, each panel usually showing an incremental difference in gesture or facial expression: a turn of the neck, a sigh, a contemplative look. I have delusional fantasies about having enough skill to depict my oral history interviews in this way to ‘embody’ my transcripts for any future listeners.

Not in this lifetime. Maybe I’ll get some kueh lapis instead.

Nien Yuan is a PhD candidate at the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies in the University of Sydney. Her thesis is on ‘transgressive’ oral history as performance and performative in Singapore. She can be contacted at 

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The power of cloth: Melinda Piesse’s Batavia Tapestry

Earlier this year, PoP’s Museum and Heritage Studies scholar Natali Pearson wrote about her visit to the remote Houtman Abrolhos Islands – site of the Batavia’s wrecking on its maiden voyage to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1629. The story of the Batavia – characterised by a midnight shipwrecking, months of murder and mayhem under mutinous Under-merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz and his henchmen, and the heroic rescue of the remaining survivors – continues to fascinate both scholars and the public. Out of approximately 332 crew and passengers, only about 125 survived.

Now, Melbourne-based artist Melinda Piesse has re-visited this tragedy through the creation of a large-scale embroidered work known as the Batavia Tapestry. Having made its debut at the Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Hobart earlier this year, the Batavia Tapestry is now on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Tasman Light Gallery until 29th October 2017. Piesse will give a public talk about the project  in Sydney on 3rd August as part of the ANMM’s Member Maritime Series (bookings are essential via the ANMM website).


Melinda Piesse and her Batavia Tapestry, photographed by K. Kingston. Source: M. Piesse

It is fascinating to see Piesse’s use of cloth to narrate this story, not least because textiles played such a significant role in the story of the shipwrecked survivors. There are few trees on these islands, and the sun beats down relentlessly. In these harsh conditions, textiles provided essential shelter for the survivors. Sailcloth became a form of currency far more valuable than jewels and coins.

The bloodthirsty Cornelisz also used textiles as a way of empowering and distinguishing his small yet vicious group of followers. Those most willing to kill were gifted silk stockings and garters, gold and silver braids, and the finest lace and wool cloth of indigo and scarlet, from which they fashioned make-shift uniforms.

They were, literally, dressed to kill.


Low-lying shrubs provide little coverage on these islands. Source: N. Pearson

Piesse’s Batavia Tapestry weaves together the utilitarian and the opulent. Taking the form of a traditional sailcloth, the enormous linen canvas (3 m x 5 m) is embellished with key scenes from the Batavia story – the ship’s wrecking on Morning Reef near Beacon Island, the horrors that followed, and their miraculous rescue three months later. As she told Signals Quarterly,

I chose to depict the key events of the Batavia before and after the ship’s wrecking: the attempts of the passengers to reach shore, first settlement, the mutineers’ plots to seize control, and the first open killing of a young boy (who had made the mistake of speaking to a mutineer’s mistress). Also depicted is the departure of the ship’s officers in a longboat, and their dramatic return amidst an epic battle and race to capture the rescue ship.



Key events from the Batavia story as shown on Melinda Piesse’s Batavia Tapestry. The third image depicts survivors on a raft, including a woman holding a baby. Photographed by K. Kingston. Source: M. Piesse

Piesse used custom-dyed wool felt to match yarn from the Australian Tapestry Workshop, and a combination of ancient techniques (including appliqué, crewel and gold work embroidery) to create the detail in her artwork. The deliberately-limited colour palette – olive, gold, madder, indigo and cochineal red – is reminiscent of the famed Bayeux Tapestry, and Piesse has expressed hopes that her tapestry will be seen as a modern day version of this medieval masterpiece.


A detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, held at the Reading Museum. Source: Wikimedia commons

Piesse spent over three years researching and planning this work, and some seven years executing it. Proving that sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, Piesse was initially inspired by Hugh Edwards’ Islands of Angry Ghosts, which shows divers inspecting human remains in a shallow grave.island of angry ghosts book coverSays Piesse, ‘I couldn’t imagine a more perfect exile, or a grander philosophical challenge, for a group of desperate people struggling for survival, so far away from civilisation, to endure the harsh conditions without falling into savagery.’ Rather than reducing it to questions of ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’, Cornelisz’s actions – organising gangs of thugs, instilling fear in the population, and rewarding the murderers with high status objects – could also be seen as indicative of the complex social organisation and hierarchy that developed quickly in the hothouse atmosphere of these remote islands.

Piesse conducted extensive research on the 17th century world, particularly the Dutch East Indies Company, which had invested in the construction and voyage of the Batavia. She immersed herself in old world maps, maritime paintings and archives to learn more about the ships that undertook these long-distance voyages, as well as the people they carried: explorers, soldiers, seafarers, mercenaries.


‘Ships in a stormy sea’ by Willem van de Velde. 1671-1672. Oil on canvas. H: 132.2 cm, W: 191.9 cm. Toledo Museum of Art.

Contemporary references included the Swedish warship Vasa, replicas of both the Batavia and the Batavia’s Longboat, and the Duyfken (‘Little Dove’).


The Swedish warship Vasa. Photo: Scoobyfoo / Flickr


A replica of the Batavia was built at the Bataviawerf (Batavia Wharf) in Lelystad, the Netherlands, and was launched in 1995 under master-shipbuilder Willem Vos. Photo: ADzee via Wikimedia.


The Duyfken on her historic voyage in 2016 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s landing on the Western Australian coast. Photo: R. Polden

As a representation of a historical sail, the Batavia Tapestry shows evidence of Piesse’s extensive knowledge of ship’s rigging and rope work. It is finished like an authentic 17th century top-gallant sail edged with tarred marline and hemp rope, and is displayed upon a wooden spar constructed by master shipwright (and Piesse’s husband) Wayne Parr.


Melinda Piesse and her Batavia Tapestry, photographed by K. Kingston. Source: M. Piesse

Much of Piesse’s technical knowledge comes from her time volunteering onboard Melbourne’s tall ship Enterprize, where she became intrigued with the chief sailmaker’s use of traditional materials such as authentic flax sailcloth and hemp rope from Holland:

They’d stir these big bubbling pots of Stockholm tar, thick and black as licorice, and paint the standing rigging to repel the water. It was an amazing process and I started to experiment artistically with some of their traditional techniques.

detail of ropes

A detail from the Batavia Tapestry, showing Piesse’s fine embroidery and detailed ropework. Source: N. Pearson

As is common with many re-tellings of the Batavia story, one perspective that the Batavia Tapestry does not shed new light on is the final destination of the ship – the Dutch East Indies.

Although Piesse’s stunning creation has much to offer both artists and maritime historians, those interested in Southeast Asian pasts will be left with questions about the ship’s intended destination, and about the implications of its failed voyage. What impact did its sinking have on the Dutch colony, if any? What happened to those who did finally make it to Java? And what can this event tell us about the historical connections between the Netherlands, Australia and Indonesia?

Even as this story is told and re-told, there are many alternative perspectives still to be explored.

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Performing Heritage (or, Making Temples Great Again)

Natali Pearson, our Museum and Heritage Studies researcher, takes a look at the Obama family’s recent visit to the 9th century temples of Borobudur and Prambanan in Indonesia, and muses on the mythologising of these monuments both past and present.

Last week, former US President Barack Obama and his family visited Indonesia, where they followed a well-worn tourist trail from Bali, across Java to Yogyakarta, and finally to Jakarta. Obama has a special connection to the country – particularly Jakarta, where he lived for several years as a child, and also Yogyakarta, where his mother conducted research for her doctorate.

Post-presidency, much has been made of the fact that Obama is living his best life, and his trip to Indonesia has been no exception.

Although he made a speaking appearance at the Indonesia Diaspora Congress, the purpose of Obama’s trip to Indonesia was mostly personal. Nevertheless it was hard not to miss the symbolism of this former President’s visit to a majority Muslim country, at the same time as his successor in the White House seeks to minimise travel by Muslims to America.

From white-water rafting in Ubud to visiting the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Borobudur and Prambanan, Obama’s visit to Indonesia provided plenty of photograph-friendly moments for the former first family – and an expected boom in foreign tourism dollars.


White water rafting in Bali

obama family

Visiting the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan in Central Java

Performing independence

Obama is just one of a long line of politicians and celebrities (or, in Obama’s case, celebrity-politicians) to visit the 9th century temples of Borobudur and Prambanan.

In 1950, for example, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Borobudur with his daughter Indira Gandhi. Richard Nixon – then Vice President of the United States – was also photographed surveying the view from the temple’s massive upper terrace in 1954.


Indonesian President Soekarno welcomes Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter Indira Gandhi, to Borobudur in 1950


American Vice President Richard Nixon on Borobudur’s upper terraces, 1954

Other visitors included King Norodom Sihanouk from Cambodia, President Quirino of the Philippines, and the Prime Minister of Burma U Nu.

These were performative acts of legitimisation. Following Indonesia’s declaration of independence in 1945, the new nation had turned its attention to modernisation and the need to articulate a unifying national identity. The temples were central to this vision for the future, which was at the same time deeply enmeshed with the glories of its past. As Marieke Bloembergen and Martijn Eickhoff have observed, the temple visits were:

…significant public performances: they helped to legitimise Indonesia as a modern independent state that seriously cared for its beautiful national (and trans-Asian) Buddhist/Hindu heritage. The temples became an important tool in Indonesia’s cultural diplomacy. These monuments made “Indonesia” and its national archaeological monuments more visible on the world map.

“Discovery” and recovery

Pre-independence, European colonists had also recognised that they could use these ancient sites to make a statement about the (colonial) future.

According to William Chapman’s A Heritage of Ruins, it was not the Dutch but the British who possessed ‘the leisure, curiosity, and a special quality of romanticism to bring the ancient, decaying monuments into focus.’ During the British interregnum in Java (1811-1815), Sir Stamford Raffles initiated a program of cleaning and restoration at both Borobudur and Prambanan. When the Dutch returned to Java in 1815, they established a colonial archaeological service, and local and foreign photographers were commissioned to document and record the monuments.

RAffles - watercolour painting of Borobudur, 1815

A watercolour painting of Borobudur by Raffles, c. 1814. Source: British Museum


Schaeffer, Adolph - Borobudur, view of part of the first gallery b4 restoration, 1845

Daguerrotype of Borobudur by Adolph Schaeffer, 1845. Source: Asia-Pacific Photography



Dutch engineer Theo van Erp on Borobudur’s upper terrace, c. 1902. This photo shows some of the challenges the Dutch colonial archaeological services faced in restoring Borobudur. Van Erp was instrumental in developing ideas to protect and restore the monuments, one of which was to erect a large metal ‘umbrella’ to protect Borobudur from rain. This idea was never implemented. Source: William Chapman, A Heritage of Ruins, 2013.

Benedict Anderson has observed that sites such as Borobudur and Prambanan were successively ‘disinterred, unjungled, measured, photographed, reconstructed, fenced off, analysed and displayed’. Raffles’ restoration programs were linked to the idea that he had ‘re-discovered’ the temples, and the Dutch archaeological service had been developed with protection and preservation – from the ravages of rain, jungle, earthquake and volcanic ash – in mind.

These colonial narratives of discovery and recovery effectively negated the fact that the monuments had been part of the social and cultural landscape – notwithstanding changes in their usage – over centuries. For example, scholars remind us that a local awareness of, and respect for, Hindu and Buddhist holy places in Java was maintained by Indonesian Muslims both before and during the colonial period.

Although the Dutch sought to position themselves as ‘benign caretakers of the previously neglected ruins of great Hindu civilisations’, these restoration activities were not acts of generous colonial benevolence. As Susie Protschky says,

To unearth the secrets that might be embedded in antique temple structures was not only to reconstruct Java’s past but also to command its future, through knowledge, oversight and organisational vigour.

Restoration activities were racially segregated: the Dutch provided managerial authority and the Javanese provided the labour. Not only did this arrangement privilege the agency of Europeans over Asian pasts, it also ensured that this inequality continued into the future.

Furthermore, by deeming these Hindu-Buddhist monuments of the past to be worthy of restoration, the Dutch were better able to undermine present-day Javanese civilisation, particularly in its Islamic modes, and thus to entrench themselves more firmly in positions of authority.

Temples that tweet

Decades later these temples are still being put to strategic use. These days it is less about commanding Java’s future, and more about the economic potential inherent in the temples.

In 2014, the very first photo that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted from his trip to Indonesia showed him meditating (to the extent that you can meditate while being photographed for social media) on Borobudur’s upper terrace. Indonesians are among the world’s most enthusiastic users of social media, and the photo was nothing if not strategic: Zuckerberg was in Indonesia seeking to increase Facebook’s market share.


Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg meditating on Borobudur’s upper terraces at sunrise, 2014.

Following Obama’s visit last week, Borobudur’s official Twitter account (yes, you can tweet Borobudur, and also Prambanan) shared a photo of him with various culture and tourism officials, the temple acting as backdrop to the batik shirts and beaming smiles.

A tweet from the official Borobudur Twitter account showed Obama with local culture and tourism officials. Source: @BorobudurPark

These carefully managed – and extensively photographed – visits send messages to the viewing public about Indonesia’s ancient past and its legitimacy, now, as a world-class tourist destination. The ubiquity of social media in Indonesia has only added to the visibility of these visits on the world stage.

Since Borobudur and nearby Prambanan were recognised as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1991, domestic and foreign visitor numbers have been steadily increasing. Borobudur currently attracts around 360,000 foreign tourists per year, and officials have expressed hopes that Obama’s visit will result in these numbers rising to 400,000 by year’s end.

While UNESCO inscription boosts the profile of heritage sites, it can also be a poisoned chalice. It brings with it more formal reporting requirements and greater expectations about management and conservation, with funds directed towards World Heritage sites often coming at the expense of other heritage sites. In the cultural landscape around Borobudur, local communities have experienced the disruption of expanded tourist infrastructure. For many, this has meant a shift away from agriculture and towards tourism as a revenue source.

Setting aside the fact that his visit to Borobudur was accompanied by 650 security personnel, Obama’s visit also conveys the message that Indonesia is safe for international visitors. Despite a bombing in 1985, and recent security threats made against the temples, media photographs showed a relaxed family on holiday. A Yogyakarta-based tourism official remarked,

Obama’s visit will further strengthen the safe image of Yogyakarta as a leading tourist destination… following the visit of Obama and his family, the number of foreign tourists from Europe, the US, and Asia to Yogyakarta would increase.

prambanan waving

Obama waves to visitors at Prambanan temple on 29 June 2017

The afterlives of monuments

While their significance has changed over time, these temples have never been neutral: they have extended Dutch colonial power into the cultural realm, legitimised independent Indonesia as a nation-state with its own heritage, and, post- UNESCO inscription, allowed the temples to grow as a tourism resource. Onto these sites, individuals and groups have projected spiritual, historical, nationalistic and political imaginings – and will continue to do so.

Deborah Cherry, Professor of Art History at the University of the Arts London, believes that monuments have afterlives – they can be re-modelled, re-used, re-sited, re-made, cast aside, destroyed or abandoned to accommodate changing political and social climates. Although Obama expressed an interest in the ongoing restoration of Prambanan, it was the symbolic value of these temples, as emblems of pluralism and religious tolerance, that he dwelled on:

I saw Borobudur Temple, a Buddhist temple in a [predominantly] Muslim country, Prambanan Temple, a Hindu temple that is being preserved in a [predominantly] Muslim country, as well as a traditional shadow puppet play and the Ramayana story. Tolerance should be the spirit of Indonesia, and it is also reflected in church and mosque buildings that are located right next to each other.

He also reiterated the importance of protecting and preserving the temples because, as he told Indonesian President Joko Widodo, ‘I believe in the future of this country.’

A future that is still, it seems, embedded in the past.



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Featured image by Trey Ratcliff.











Setting the Record Crooked: Conspiracy History in Indonesia

PoP’s textual historian Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan studies the pseudo-history of the Majapahit kingdom, and what it can tell us about history-making in Indonesia today.

Indonesians love a good conspiracy. Just check out the sales table on any mainstream bookstore like Gramedia, or the display racks of used-book street stalls. You’ll find hidden truths and uncovered secrets of all kinds: the worldwide ones involving the Protocols of the Elders of  Zion, the Illuminati, and the Rothschild banking family, as well as more Indonesia-specific ones about the puppetmaster behind the 30 September 1965 intrigue, Indonesia as the true location of Atlantis, and how Borobudur was built by King Solomon. In some cases, conspiracy theories can play a major role in how Indonesians interpret and respond to unfolding crises, such as during the witch-hunts that occurred in 1998 in far-east Java.

I argue that conspiracy is a paradigm through which some Indonesians view their past; for want of a more imaginative term, we might call it conspiracy history. This is not something unique to Indonesia; see, for instance, Liam Hogan’s work on debunking the Irish slaves conspiracy history. But in Indonesia’s case, it has a lot to do with how Suharto’s dictatorship (1966 – 1998) attempted to control history, and with the post-1998 efforts to revise and rectify the historical narrative.

Conspiracy history results both from the impoverishment of critical historical skills that is a legacy of the education system under the Suharto regime, and also from a genuine desire to overturn the orthodox historical perspectives imposed by that regime. This ambiguity makes conspiracy history a valuable topic of study, because it shows us what happens when people yearn for new perspectives on the past, but don’t have the resources or skills to mount a valid historiographical challenge to the status quo.

Gaj Ahmada and the Sultanate of Majapahit

My case study is a conspiracy that is noisily making the rounds on social media at the moment: the claim that the East Javanese kingdom of Majapahit (1294 – 1486) was a Muslim sultanate and that its most famous prime minister, Gajah Mada, was a Muslim called Gaj Ahmada. According to this conspiracy, the mainstream view that Majapahit was ruled by Shaiva Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist monarchs is a lie. The conspiracy historians claim that the main textual source for this orthodox Majapahit history, the Serat Pararaton (“Book of Kings”), is actually a forgery written in 1896 by the Dutch scholar JLA Brandes.

Fakta Mengejutkan

Both the Dutch colonial government and the Indonesian national government, so the conspiracy historians say, perpetuated the falsehood that Majapahit was a Hindu-Buddhist state in which Muslims were a small minority, mostly occupied as traders and courtiers, but not in charge. Why would the governments lie about this? The conspiracy historians say these governments tried to hide the true Islamic nature of the Majapahit kingdom in order to marginalise the Islamic political movements of their own time.

Needless to say, this conspiracy history has no evidence to support it. All of the Majapahit-era inscriptions, which date from 1294 to 1486 and deal directly in religious matters, indicate that the royal court patronised both Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as a network of rural ascetics called resi, but definitely not Islam. Communities of Muslims did exist in the capital and in the large trading cities on the north coast, as demonstrated by Muslim gravestones and by the contemporary reports of visiting Chinese Muslims, but they never controlled the kingdom. The authenticity of the Serat Pararaton, which describes the Hindu and Buddhist character of the Majapahit kingdom in depth, is well-attested by the dozens of manuscript copies of the text found throughout Bali.

Majapahit as Proto-Indonesia

So why is Majapahit, a kingdom that disappeared 500 years ago, the topic of a major Internet conspiracy? The primary reason is the role of Majapahit in the development of Indonesian nationalism. The generation of politicians who led the country’s independence movements were concerned to find a historical basis for a united Indonesian nation. Faced with the diversity of languages, customs and religions in the archipelago, one of these leaders, Muhammad Yamin, turned to the premodern past to find powerful states that he could claim to be precursors of modern Indonesia. Yamin chose Majapahit, the region’s most powerful state in the 14th century, as one of these precursors.

Since then national history textbooks have emphasised, based on shaky evidence, how closely the territorial extent of the Majapahit empire matched Indonesia’s modern borders. Yasmin, and most Indonesian historians since, have claimed that unification of the archipelago was a fundamental political goal of prime minister Gajah Mada, just as it is of the Indonesian state. Gajah Mada’s mysticism and militant imperialism provided a personal role model for Suharto himself. The identification of Majapahit and Indonesia went so far that a quotation from a Majapahit-era poem called Sutasoma was picked as the national motto: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (usually translated “Unity in diversity”, but more accurately “They are separate, they are one”).

So a conspiracy about the state religion of Majapahit strikes at the question of the religious identity of the modern Indonesian state. One significant view on this issue is that the Indonesian state is not Islamic enough. Ever since the first official deliberations on the Indonesian constitution and state philosophy in 1945, a significant minority of political leaders have advocated for a greater role for Islamic principles in the nation’s public life. This religiously-oriented faction has never really prevailed in the political arena, where quasi-secular nationalism has long been the dominant force.

Since Majapahit is widely seen as a prototype for Indonesia, the revelation that Majapahit was actually an Islamic sultanate would give a boost to those who would see Indonesia take on a more Muslim character. Earlier this year, a political campaign against the recently-defeated governor of Jakarta, a Chinese Christian, made the claim that a Qur’anic verse forbids Muslims to accept a non-Muslim ruler. So if it turns out that the Muslim communities living in Majapahit were ruled not by Hindus and Buddhists but by fellow Muslims, then the 14th-century history of Majapahit can be made to support a political agenda in 21st-century Indonesia.

Revision or Conspiracy?

To push this agenda, the conspiracy historians have to attack the credibility of the mainstream historical account. Many Indonesians are already highly skeptical of the versions of history they are taught in school, because of the way the Suharto government grossly manipulated history education. This is fertile ground for conspiracy history, because the Indonesian government really did try to cover up truths about the past, and in some cases, it still does. The line between genuine revisionist history and conspiracy history becomes blurred, because the conspiracy historians imitate the language of revisionism: ‘Straightening Out the History of Majapahit’, ‘Surprising Facts! Majapahit, A Muslim Kingdom’.

Irawan_DjokoIt is difficult for general readers to distinguish between an informed alternative view and a conspiracy history. This is because of the way history is taught in schools: it is presented primarily as a set of true facts about the past, while the study of primary sources and historical method is treated as supplementary. Students are encouraged to comment on the information provided by the textbook, rather than being trained to develop their own arguments based on historical evidence.

This means public debates about history are often reduced to a conflict between different accounts, each claiming to be the most accurate version. Since their school textbooks do not familiarise them with the primary sources of Majapahit history, non-expert readers are in a quandary when those textbook interpretations come under attack. The credibility of the historian, rather than the strength of their argument, becomes the criterion for the reading public to decide who to believe. This need for credibility is why the conspiracy historians copy the rhetoric of genuine anti-mainstream revisionism, despite the fact that their works meet none of the professional standards of historical research.

From Conspiracy History to Public History

The conspiracy historians who say that Majapahit was a Muslim sultanate are wrong, but  they are not crackpots. The readers who believe and share their work are wrong, but they are not stupid. Both are products of the particular conditions for history-making in Indonesia today: skepticism towards official versions of history coupled with a reluctance to give up on the nationalist paradigm, a history education system that is still content-focussed rather than skills-focussed, and a widespread impulse to ground contemporary political issues in historical precedent.

Despite all this, I think there’s some cause for hope. Skepticism is a good basis for critical thinking in general. The Gaj Ahmada conspiracy history has not gone unchallenged, but provoked strong rebuttals from experts that are being shared widely. The online debate has put issues of historical evidence and method at the front of the public’s mind, and several large Facebook groups have hosted serious, informed discussions about Majapahit history. An optimist might imagine that as Indonesians become used to seeing conspiracy histories get publicly debunked, they will pick up the critical historical skills that their school education does not offer. The result could be a genuinely public history to displace the state-controlled national history of the past, and the groundless conspiracy histories of the present.

An American in Singapore: Devin Smith on the story of Lim Bo Seng

Devin Smith is an American musician/videographer who wrote to us asking if we would be interested in publishing his Medium piece on Lim Bo Seng, Singaporean resistance fighter and regarded war hero. While his piece was too long for this blog, PoP was interested in asking Devin about how he came across this topic, why he was spurred to write about it, and what perspective he was writing from. Here is his thoughtful and thought-provoking reply. A link to his Medium piece is in the end of the post.

My wife’s work decided to relocate her to Singapore. She asked me if I’d come with her, and I said yes. A few weeks later, all of our possessions were tucked away into a storage space in San Francisco, and we were stepping off an airplane into thick tropical humidity. This is the first time I’ve lived abroad.


I had taken only the essentials: an AT-4033a microphone, a UR242 audio interface, and a small MIDI controller. I am a professional musician. The last several years I’ve been employed primarily transcribing and arranging pop songs for easy piano, while recording my own music on the side.

Because English is an official language of Singapore, it’s an easy city for Americans to navigate — but this is also, in a sense, misleading. One only needs to visit the The Former Indian National Army Monument to realize that sharing a language is no guarantee of understanding the complexity of this region of the world.

The average American (like myself) receives very little education about Southeast Asia. Unless she specifically decides to study this region at the collegiate level, the only history she will encounter is the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos — which is often focused more on the sociopolitical effects of the war on American citizens. Our own colonial endeavors in the Phillipines warrant only brief asides in textbooks.

Cognizant of the gaps in my understanding, I spent a lot of time at the library, refueling with nasi goreng and bibimbap at nearby hawker centers. The first time I encountered the term “Fifteen Years’ War” was in Peter B. High’s “The Imperial Screen”, a thorough account of Japan’s wartime film industry. This Asia-centric framework intuitively made sense: from the Japanese perspective, the American entrance into WWII was only a continuation of ongoing imperial expansion.

These are, of course, painfully 101-level observations for historians — but I, of course, am not an historian. My writing tends towards specificity only when I am trying to communicate as precisely as possible: my default (and perhaps more accurate) expression is in the freer, nebulous flow of art. During this period, the art I was making was likewise exploratory, meandering, unformed — musical sketches, odd blips of conceptual art, fragmented language.

For me, often a complete song will just emerge when the time is right. When I wrote “I’m A Witness”, it was (among other things) an abstract digestion of several months of feeling like my grasp of this region was limited only to vignettes. When planning the accompanying video, I decided to work in the style of a fellow Singapore interloper, Ozu: stripping away camera movement and color, focusing exclusively on formalist and center-heavy framing, using low tripod positions.


Over several days of filming, dripping in sweat, covered in 45 spf and pungent sketolene, I eventually found myself on a hill overlooking MacRitchie reservoir, staring at a black granite column embossed with golden lettering. The placards were informative, but infuriatingly brief. What was the aim of Lim’s agitation in the 30s? How did he end up in India with the SOE [Special Operations Executive] after Singapore fell? Who exactly were the guerrillas?

I spent the next month working my way through all of the English language material the NLB had available. It became clear that Lim’s story was also an accessible way to form a basic narrative of Singapore’s late colonial, wartime, and decolonization periods… but honestly, my decision to spend this time with Lim had a more emotional component.

My father’s father was a sort of jack-of-all-trades, and even up to his final years in his 90s, could recite certain poems from memory. Many people of my generation consider poetry exclusive to the rarified world of “fine art”, the only verses they know are, naturally enough, the lyrics to pop songs. Shining through the dusty screen of a microfiche reader, projected in white-on-black negative; seeing that Lim had given poetry a space in his journal alongside the chaos of war and the grind of espionage, I connected deeply.

Lim’s story is well-known and celebrated in Singapore, and my telling is not historiographically challenging. I am neither presenting new evidence, nor countering the prevailing narratives. What I am doing is pulling together many specific, disparate accounts to bring Lim’s story into a fuller context.

British authors often overlook Lim’s pre-SOE activism. Singaporean authors often include very few details about the MPAJA/MCP [Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army]/[Malayan Communist Party]. Many accounts on the internet are just overviews, and assume the reader already understands the socioeconomics of colonialism which would lead the British to prioritize resource extraction over defense mobilization in Malaya. Some of the most thorough accounts are tucked away in library reserves, or in the pages of long-since defunct newspapers.

I write history the way an SOE operative writes poetry. An ordinary person might memorize the lines and couplets of a verse in hopes of gaining a deeper clarity into the emotional state the poem brings about. I strive for a thorough, detailed account, because this story connects with me in ways I can’t adequately address using the figurative, oneiric language of art.

Read his medium piece here – Lim Bo Seng: Millionaire. Activist. Romantic. SOE Operative.

Heritage, Memories & Kinship: Reflections On Qing Ming Festival

Ming Li Yong reflects on the Qing Ming Festival in Malaysia, where heritage, memories and kinship converge.

I am in my father’s hometown of Temerloh in Pahang, Malaysia, for the Qing Ming Festival (清明节), or the Tomb Sweeping Festival. During this festival, Chinese families visit their ancestors’ resting places in order to pay their respects.

“The graves told stories of geographical and familial ties, folklore and local culture, and spanned the realms of the sacred and profane.”

Its early morning and the cemetery is already bustling with activity. A long line of cars are neatly parked to the side of the narrow road running along the edge of the cemetery. The air filled with the chatter of families, spirals of smoke, and the smell of incense.  I have only visited my grandparents’ grave a few times over the past 26 years, but I remember how to get there: descend a short way over the first hill crest and turn right at a large grave of a man and his two wives.

I am looking forward to this occasion for two reasons. First, I have not visited my grandparent’s grave in recent years. Second, having recently attended two heritage tours of Singapore’s historic Bukit Brown Cemetery, I had gained a new perspective relating to Chinese cemeteries, as landscapes resplendent with heritage and histories. The graves told stories of geographical and familial ties, folklore and local culture, and spanned the realms of the sacred and profane. As a geographer interested in how society and landscapes are intertwined, I was struck by how much of a country’s multifaceted histories could be extrapolated from such a ‘landscape of death’.

At my grandparents’ grave, with much food and paper offerings laid out for the festival..jpg

At my grandparents’ grave, with much food and paper offerings laid out for the festival.

At my grandparents’ grave, I reflect on how their lives are intertwined with wider sociocultural histories and customs. I observe the Chinese idioms and paintings adorning the grave, and the rituals associated with the festival: the tidying of the graves, the laying out of sumptuous food offerings (some of which is “recycled” for our lunch later), the paying of respects with joss sticks, and the burning of paper offerings. I think about my grandparents’ ties to China when looking at the inscription of their Chinese hometown on the headstone.

Today, the histories and memories that come to mind are also more of a personal nature. The festival effects a temporal change in this landscape of death, which comes alive with ties of kinship. My extended family catches up with one another, and I also watch as up to four generations of families come together, and scenes such as a pair of elderly men slowly but steadily clearing the unkempt vegetation off a grave. The atmosphere is festive, as families gather around the graves to assist with the tasks of tidying the graves, setting out the offerings, and to chat. Ears are covered and conversations are periodically interrupted by the explosive, crackling sounds of firecrackers puncturing the air.

A ‘landscape of death_ coming alive as families gather during the Qing Ming Festival

A ‘landscape of death’ coming alive as families gather during the Qing Ming Festival. Burning paper offerings of money, clothes, or even ‘branded’ bags for the departed Setting off firecrackers on my grandparents’ grave

While the Qing Ming Festival associated with ancestor worship, its meaning to me lies more in the realm of the mundane. I recall the warm family dinners with my grandparents. As I exchange greetings with my relatives, I realise that apart from Chinese New Year, this is the only other occasion the extended family gathers. Family gatherings used to revolve around my grandparents and I am glad that through the Qing Ming Festival, my grandparents, and our memories of them, take centre-stage in bringing the family together once again.

Ming Li Yong is a Geographer at the University of Sydney,  for more on her work and research you can follow her on twitter or read more of her work here.

When it comes to disappearing ocean history, HMAS Perth is the tip of the iceberg

This Thursday, 8 June, is World Oceans Day and so critical are the issues facing our oceans – including climate change and plastic pollution – that the United Nations has convened a high-level conference on their future. While its focus is ocean conservation, another aspect of our seas has been conspicuously neglected: the vast array of human history lying underwater.

HMAS Perth memorialised at Sydney’s Garden Island Naval Chapel. Source: Natali Pearson

Millions of shipwrecks and archaeological sites lie under the ocean, including most infamously the Titanic, resting almost four kilometres below the North Atlantic. These relics are just as important as terrestrial sites such as the Egyptian pyramids or the temples of Angkor, and preserve a history of our relationship to the seas. Just like marine ecosystems, this underwater cultural heritage is threatened by climate change, pollution, development, fishing and looting.

Indeed just this week, Australian and Indonesian maritime archaeologists reported that HMAS Perth, a World War II wreck lying in the Sunda Strait and the final resting place for hundreds of men, has suffered extensive and recent damage. There is now less than half of the ship left.

Stories from the sea

Humanity’s close relationship with the ocean stretches back thousands of years. Our oceans have provided food, connected civilisations, facilitated trade, travel and conquest, and also served as a sacred place of veneration. It’s estimated that three million ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities lie on the ocean floor.

These include a 9th century shipwreck discovered off Indonesia’s Belitung island in 1998. The ship originated in the Middle East, and its cargo was dominated by commercial quantities of Chinese ceramics. It represents some of the earliest evidence of maritime trade between Southeast Asia, the Chinese Tang dynasty and the Middle Eastern Abbasid Empire.

Nor are these vestiges of the past restricted to shipwrecks. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of sunken civilisations, buried under silt and sand for centuries. In Egypt, relics of the ancient city of Alexandria include temples, palaces, and the 130-metre Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Egyptian authorities now plan to construct an underwater museum to share these discoveries with a broader audience.

Sometimes, the smallest of objects discovered underwater can reveal as much as an entire city. Lost for centuries in waters off Crete, the 2000-year old Antikythera mechanism is known as the world’s first computer for its use of gears and dials to predict eclipses and track moon phases. The same site has also yielded human bones, from which scientists hope to be able to extract genetic information for insights into ancient shipwreck victims.

The Antikythera mechanism, the world’s first computer, found in waters off Crete. Marsyas, CC BY-SA

Mother-of-pearl inlays – gathered by early breath hold divers and fashioned by artisans – found at a Mesopotamian site indicate that humans have been responding creatively to the ocean’s resources as far back as 4,500 BCE.

Underwater heritage is the legacy of these past activities, bearing witness to the development of both ancient and modern civilisations. But the significance of ocean artefacts extends beyond trade, travel and recreation. For example, the study of this heritage can show us the impact of rising sea levels on human life. Such information serves as a sobering reminder of the effects of climate change, and can also help us to develop solutions to the present environmental problems we are facing.

Ulrike Guérin from the UNESCO Secretariat of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage explains:

For 90% of human existence, sea levels have been lower than they are at present. As humans mainly lived close to the water, a large majority of humanity’s development took place on areas that are now submerged. It is only within the past decade that there has been recognition of how important the missing data on the submerged shelf is.

Underwater cultural heritage can also help to assess the impact of the ocean on human life, and assist in monitoring issues such as potential ocean pollution from oil and the threat of unexploded ammunition from WWII shipwrecks. Guérin argues that protecting and researching this heritage can lead to better conservation of coastal and marine areas, with increased economic benefits for small island developing states and least developed countries through tourism.

An ocean without history?

Like fish stocks and coral reefs, underwater cultural heritage faces destruction from climate change, marine pollution and over-development. Industrial activities like fishing are becoming a greater concern.

Commercial deep-sea fishing trawlers destroy not only fishing stocks but also well-preserved wrecks. These bottom trawl nets act like ploughs, digging up the ocean bed and tearing archaeological sites apart. In the Baltic Sea, thousands of synthetic fishing nets are lost every year. These “ghost nets” get tangled in wrecks, trapping fish and seals in the process. In Southeast Asia, historic shipwrecks in both Malaysia and Thailand face destruction from “massive trawl nets that scour every metre of the seabed”.

Just as fishing stocks are targeted by illegal poachers, so too is underwater heritage threatened by illegal salvaging and looting. The recent unauthorized disturbance of three near-pristine Japanese shipwrecks in Malaysian waters has destroyed the thriving marine ecosystems that such wrecks support. The damage caused to these underwater museums has had a devastating impact on local diving companies and small-scale fishermen. In Indonesia, these illicit activities appear to be becoming increasingly sophisticated and audacious, including the most recent damage to HMAS Perth.

A thriving marine ecosystem in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Shipwrecks can provide a support for these ecosystems. Source: Graham Willis

Heritage in the margins

Despite its importance, underwater cultural heritage remains a relatively new concept, and tends to be overshadowed by other legal and policy priorities. At this week’s UN oceans conference in New York, plenary meetings are focusing on reducing marine pollution, protecting marine and coastal ecosystems, and addressing ocean acidification. Underwater cultural heritage, meanwhile, was discussed in a side event held in the margins.

The bell of HMAS Perth is returned to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, c. 1974. Source: Bob Morrison

The 2001 underwater heritage convention establishes basic principles for protecting these sites, but faces a number of challenges. Only 56 nations have signed or ratified the convention, and big maritime nations such as the US, China, and the UK have not. Australia has not ratified, but introduced new underwater cultural heritage legislation in November 2016 that brings this step closer. The heritage convention also faces the problem of perceived competition with the Law of the Sea, which sets the rules for how the oceans are shared and governed.

And what of HMAS Perth? In a strange twist of history, in the 1970s the Australian Embassy in Jakarta became aware that the bell of the ship had turned up in an Indonesian salvage yard. The embassy successfully negotiated the bell’s exchange, and it is now held in the Australian War Memorial: a small piece of history saved through cultural diplomacy.

Underwater cultural heritage is an essential part of our oceans and the way we relate to them. As important as it is to ensure a sustainable future for our oceans, it is also vital that we understand humanity’s historical relationship with them. Our future is invested in our oceans, and so is our past.



This article was first published in The Conversation. You can join the PoP! conversation on Twitter and Facebook.


Through the Looking-Glass: Indonesian Reflections on Australian History

PoP’s textual historian Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan, a student of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney, looks in the mirror of Australian Studies at the University of Indonesia.

Here at PoP, we welcome fresh and challenging perspectives on Southeast Asian pasts. But we mustn’t forget that as Australia-based researchers of Southeast Asia, we are accustomed to visiting, studying and knowing about Southeast Asian people from the high towers of a Western institution. So what happens when the scholarly gaze is turned back towards Australia? How does our own culture appear under the scrutiny of Southeast Asian researchers?

We were compelled to think about this when Dr. Wardiningsih Soerjohardjo (“Dien”) of the University of Indonesia visited Sydney last month. Dr. Dien spoke to PoP about her leadership of the Australian Studies research program at the University of Indonesia, as well as her recently-republished book on Gundagai, a small but historically-prominent township in southern New South Wales. Both the book and the program made us rethink Australia as a culture and as an object of study.

The Book

Gundagai in Mid-Nineteenth Century Australia: A Historical Examination (2013; 2017) happily reverses the Western scholarly gaze. The book provides a meticulous examination of the social history of the town in the 1850s. The disastrous flood of 1852 is Dr. Dien’s point of departure for a deep exploration of the cultural character of the Gundagai community, which at this time was ambitious, egalitarian and litigious.

Dr. Dien’s methodology fuses anthropology and cultural history. She is an unashamed fan of thick description, but she applies this ethnographic tool to a body of archival documents rather than to a living community. Her approach draws inspiration from Hildred and Clifford Geertz’s descriptions of Indonesian villages, Tony Milner’s studies of the traditional Malay worldview, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s work on fourteenth-century France. All manner of sources come within her purview, including church records, local poetry and popular songs about the town.

FullSizeRender 4

Dr. Dien’s book has little space for anecdotes about dogs and tuckerboxes, or the convict-to-riches biographies that fill many coffee-table books of rural history. Instead, its preface offers a provocative mission statement:

Westerners who have studied my country have found it helpful to delineate certain cultural values which characterize social life in Indonesia and help to explain events occurring there. In this book, which examines one small community in nineteenth-century Australia, I attempt to analyze some aspects of the culture of a European community.

How does Australian culture look, as encapsulated in a typical (though not necessarily representative) example of a nineteenth-century town? This is where Dr. Dien’s identity as a foreign researcher matters. In justifying her descriptive approach, she argues that a foreign perspective can be more aware of historical distance than a local one. She gives a subtle warning to those who might claim privileged understanding based on their insider identity in contemporary Australia: “As scholars continue to explore the social values and cultural categories of nineteenth century Australia, they may well become increasingly cautious about basing judgements about the nineteenth century on their experience of modern Australia”.

In the copious archival material that Dr. Dien examined, she detected several recurring themes:

• a class hierarchy mitigated by a democratic ethos, in which solemn agreement was a paramount value
• the considerable accessibility of the justice system to marginalised groups such as women and the poor
• a preoccupation with moral policing of public drunkenness and obscenity
• a general skepticism towards church-going religiosity

Not content to paint this portrait of Gundagai in its uniqueness, Dr. Dien’s work also offers new approaches to Australian history across the board. “This Gundagai study”, she argues, “has uncovered themes which have been given little emphasis elsewhere, and it is my hope that it will encourage local history specialists to investigate, for instance, attitudes to language or to the concept of ‘agreement’ when they examine the documentation for their own regions of colonial Australia.”

These new approaches emerge out of the investigator’s identity as an outsider, which makes Dr. Dien sensitive to certain aspects of Australian culture that might be more transparent or less noteworthy to Australians themselves. This is where the real value of cross-cultural scholarship is. It offers a strong argument against ‘home scholarship’, interpreted in the narrow sense of scholars restricting their research interests to the nations they come from.

The Program

Dr. Dien’s own work is far from the only example of Indonesian scholars’ examination of Australian history. Under her leadership, dozens of postgraduate students at the University of Indonesia have completed in-depth theses and dissertations on various topics in Australian history. Thanks to her visit, we came to know of a whole body of scholarship on Australia that is generally inaccessible to Australian historians, because it is written in Indonesian and is held by a foreign university library.

The majority of these theses are at the Indonesian S1 level (equivalent to an Australian Honours thesis), covering a gamut of topics: Australian organised labour’s support for Indonesian independence, Australian perceptions of West Papua and Timor-Leste, native title and the Mabo case, the Myall Creek massacre of 1838, the Ashmore reef border, race relations at the Lambing Flat goldfields, the Wave Hill strike , the Queensland Native Police, and many more. Topics being studied at S2 level (Masters) include a history of the White Australia policy, Australian diplomatic policy concerning the 1957–59 Permesta rebellions in Indonesia, and the ANZUS Treaty.

But a final revelation was in store when we asked Dr. Dien how she funded her students to visit Australia for field research. She explained that where funding is short, students are able to access a very significant proportion of their primary sources through the National Library of Australia’s online portal Trove.


The front page of Trove, accessed 02/06/2017.

The comprehensiveness of this digital archive and search engine, which provides immediate access to government records, newspaper scans, maps, Australian library collections, archival photographs and very much more, has had a transformative effect on scholars’ approaches to Australian history. Given the recent funding threats to this invaluable public service, Trove’s importance to Indonesian scholars of Australia, and thereby its contribution to the knowledge base of the bilateral relationship, are of urgent relevance.

PoP is most grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Dr. Dien, who has shown us some aspects of our country that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I hope that these reflections will cause us to challenge ourselves in our research, and to actively support and protect institutions like Trove, which are of such value to Australia.

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Museums, masterpieces and morals

The ongoing fallout from the criminal charges brought against disgraced Asian antiquities dealers Subhash Kapoor and Nancy Wiener has put a spotlight on the Asian collections of many of the world’s great museums, raising questions about provenance, ownership and the hunt for stolen antiquities. An exhibition of collection masterpieces at New York’s Asia Society Museum prompted Natali Pearson, PoP’s resident museum and heritage studies scholar, to reflect on these issues, and to ask whether museums are friends or foes in the quest to identify and repatriate stolen antiquities. What can, and should, we expect of museums?

In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, John D. Rockefeller 3rd established a new organisation known as Asia Society. Rockefeller’s intention was to promote mutual understanding and engagement between America and Asia, and he saw art as fundamental to this mission. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rockefeller and his wife Blanchette worked together with their advisor, also then the Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Sherman E. Lee, to assemble the now-renowned Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. The collection was assembled with the intention of ultimately giving it to an institution for public view. Following JDR3’s untimely death in 1978, part of the collection was bequeathed to Asia Society, forming the beginnings of the Asia Society Museum’s small but spectacular collection of Asian antiquities. It has subsequently been added to by a small number of gifts and acquisitions that adhere to the museum’s standards of excellence.

Fifty objects from the collection are currently on display at the Masterpieces from the Asia Society Museum Collection (until 7 January 2018) exhibition in New York. The masterpieces featured in this exhibition include ceramics, metalwork and stone carvings from Southeast, East and South Asia. The Rockefeller’s collecting strategy was motivated not by region or medium, but by how exceptional the pieces were. Be it a Chinese porcelain or a Khmer sculpture, the object had to be the most accomplished and refined of its type available at the time. Rockefeller’s rationale for collecting in this manner was that he believed exposure to examples of the most sophisticated Asian art and culture would lead to a better understanding of Asia and enable people to interact in a more informed way when conducting business and politics. As a result, the collection represents ‘the artistic pinnacles of the cultures that produced them.’

For me, the most important aspect of this exhibition is not the objects themselves – magnificent as they are – but the questions it poses to the audience about the collection and display of cultural heritage, and the role of museums in transmitting knowledge about the acquisition and provenance of these objects. As the international community witnesses the looting and destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East, such questions are now more important than ever.

Visitors are welcomed to the Masterpieces exhibition by four Buddha heads placed in the entrance gallery, one of which is pictured below.


Head of Buddha. Indonesia, Central Java. 9th century. Asia Society, New York. 1979 [Photo: N. Pearson]

The prevalence of these disembodied heads (and of headless statues) in museum collections remind visitors that these objects have often not survived intact over long periods of time, and that, whatever the circumstances of their dismemberment, they have been removed from their place of origin and have experienced further dislocation from their original context in the process.

There is a reason we often see such features – not only heads, but also hands and feet – dislocated from the original sculpture: whether removed with permission or stolen, these objects are more expedient to remove and transport than an entire statue. Heads of such sculptures in particular, with their curving lips and curled hair, often feature some of the most refined representations of artistic achievement. Hands and fingers arranged in a mudra (a religiously symbolic gesture), or the profound meaning attributed to the Buddha’s feet and footprint, make an equally strong claim for significance.

Inside the main gallery, the Masterpieces exhibition is divided into three parts. The first section, ‘For Sustenance in This World and the Next’, features works from China, Korea and Japan. These are objects used for holding food and drinks in domestic, imperial and ritual settings. The second section, ‘Regarding Gods and Kings’, includes a number of Southeast Asian objects, in particular a number of elegant (and headless) Khmer statues.


Female Figure. Angkor period (802–1431), early 11th century. Cambodia. Sandstone (Baphuon style). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.65 [Photo: N. Pearson]

The final section, ‘Transmission of Buddhism’, features various beings from the different streams of Buddhism, exemplifying ‘the complexity of the representation of Buddhist deities among these traditions across Asia.’ One of the most stunning objects in this section, indeed in the whole exhibition, is a fully intact 8th century bronze cast image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the future Buddha) from Thailand’s Buriram province. Every detail is impeccably rendered, from the smudge of his navel to the precise placing of each of his four arms.


Bodhisattva Maitreya. 8th century. Thailand, Buriram Province, Prasat Hin Khao Plai Bat II. Copper alloy with inlays of silver and black stone. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.63 [Photo: N. Pearson]

Exiting the main gallery and re-emerging again in the foyer among the four Buddha heads, two large wall panels become apparent. Such wall panels, usually dense with text, are one method that museums use to communicate with their audiences. What is left out, such as the issue of provenance (where it is from and how it came to be in the museum’s collection), is just as telling as what is included, particularly with the smaller textual information displays used for specific objects.

Rather than presenting a wall of educative text, these two panels offer both a photo and a list of questions. The photo is from the 19th century, and shows ancient Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara excavated by the British during their rule in India. The sculptures are assembled as if for sale, ready to be plucked out by the discerning buyer. Many sculptures or sculptural fragments like those shown in the photo are now on display in museums throughout the world – including as part of the Asia Society Museum Collection.

As museum visitors, we have become accustomed to seeing objects created for temples, personal devotion, and specific decorative purposes removed from their original time and place and installed in galleries. In this environment their aesthetic qualities take precedence and sometimes the original context or function is forgotten.


Wall panel, Masterpieces from the Asia Society Museum Collection, Asia Society Museum New York. [Photo: N. Pearson]

Visitors to this exhibition are encouraged to engage more closely with the objects and the exhibition, and to reflect on the issues that collections of antiquities present to us – such as provenance, ownership, stewardship and restitution – as modern consumers of heritage.

Should museums worldwide collect and exhibit original artworks from other countries?

During times of political strife, if works of art are under threat of destruction in their home countries, should museums in other countries play a role as a safe haven for them?

Who bears the responsibility for the world’s cultural heritage and why does it matter?

Such questions can be understood within the broader context of international efforts to safeguard cultural heritage, particularly in light of the destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

At the same time, a number of websites and organisations aimed at safeguarding cultural heritage – such as Chasing Aphrodite, Trafficking Culture and the Antiquities Coalition – have been increasing their calls for museums and galleries to be more transparent in their dealings, by sharing information about past and current collecting policies and the provenance of items in their collections. In Australia, the establishment of the Asian Art Provenance Project at the National Gallery is one example of the efforts that museums are making to keep pace with international and community expectations.

Greater transparency of museum collections is critical in a world where cultural heritage is threatened by looting, destruction and illicit trafficking. But in the push for greater scrutiny, many museums, including Asia Society, have found themselves cast as villains rather than allies in the effort to protect and preserve cultural heritage.

Asia Society’s efforts to communicate information about its collection have been proactive, and in fact pre-date the recent publicity about art theft and antiquities looting. For years, the entire permanent collection has been made available through publications and the Asia Society’s website, including, most recently, an online collection site that includes 3D imaging. When then Museum Director Vishakha Desai (1990-2004) received proof of the presence of a stolen 11th century sculpture from Rajasthan in the Rockefeller Collection, the sculpture was returned to India.

In 2016, Nancy Wiener was arrested and charged with conspiracy, accused of using her prestigious antiquities gallery to buy, smuggle, launder and sell millions of dollars worth of illegally-acquired Asian antiquities through leading auction houses. Chasing Aphrodite (‘The hunt for looted antiquities in the World’s Museums’) listed Asia Society as one of numerous cultural institutions that had possibly acquired objects from Nancy Wiener.

But the inclusion of Asia Society on this list was incorrect: Asia Society has never purchased, or acquired in any other way, objects from Nancy Wiener.

When Dr Adriana Proser, Asia Society’s John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art, considers objects for possible acquisition, she and her colleagues undertake a review of provenance documentation as part of their due diligence. Asia Society’s acquisitions policy is in line with the ethical standards taken by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, and the Collections Committee does not consider acquisition of objects without proper documentation.

Asia Society has also established the Asia Arts and Museum Network, Transfuze, one of the central themes of which is the preservation of culture. In 2015, Asia Society held the Arts & Museum Summit in Hong Kong, which focused on issues of cultural heritage preservation and protection in Asia. Asia Society Museum has subsequently published Assuring our Cultural Legacy in the 21st Century, an edited collection of essays that consider the key ethical and practical questions facing preservation and cultural heritage. Asia Society also holds regular public seminars about topical issues such as ethical collecting practices.

For centuries, museums have safeguarded much of the world’s cultural heritage, acting as keepers and protectors of unique, fragile and significant objects. Over time, their role has evolved from 17th and 18th century notions of ‘cabinets of curiosities’, in which cultural heritage was something to be acquired and questions of ownership were very much secondary, to a far more inclusive approach that embraces education, access and research, and rejects the complicity of (often colonial) collecting practices.

As this evolution continues, museums are being asked to forge new ground in how they manage, present and even justify their collections to an increasingly concerned public. It is no longer enough for a museum to argue that the collection is a historical legacy, or to claim that the museum, as a modern-day keeper of the collection, is not morally responsible for the collecting decisions made by the institution’s forebears who operated in a different legal and ethical context.

The movement to identify and repatriate looted objects is a critical part of this evolution, and is well overdue. However, as public awareness about stolen antiquities grows, we need to ensure there is also a space for museums in this conversation, and that they are not automatically dismissed as unwilling participants in discussions about ownership and provenance of cultural heritage.  Efforts to undertake and share due diligence of collections should be recognised, and the repatriation of stolen antiquities should be welcomed, particularly when a museum has been proactive in doing so.

Nor are museums the only ones with a role to play. It is critical that we also consider the role that we, the general public, have, in terms of our expectations, understandings and assumptions of how heritage is, and should be, managed.

We should expect, for example, information to be publicly available about provenance, whether it is in publications, online or via object labels in the gallery.

We should also expect museums to return objects that are known to have been illegally acquired.

More broadly, we should reflect on the questions posed in Asia Society’s Masterpieces exhibition. Should museums worldwide collect and exhibit objects that originate from other cultures and countries? If objects are under threat of destruction in their home countries, should museums in other countries play a role as a safe haven for them? Who determines when it is safe enough to return them?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, except for the last one. Who bears responsibility for the world’s cultural heritage? We all do.


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Disclosure: Natali interned for Asia Society Museum in 2013 and continues to work as a consultant to the biennial Asia Society Arts & Museum Summit.