The Jakarta Post
The largest window on the rich, diverse cultures, religions and artifacts of Indonesia, a country with the world's largest number of Muslims, is located in the Vatican Ethnological Museum in Vatican City, virtually the global capital of Catholics.
The Indonesian collection of the Vatican Ethnological Museum consists of more than one thousand objects representing the people, cultures and religions of the vast archipelago. Many of the artifacts were brought by Catholic missionaries from Indonesia and gifts or souvenirs from Indonesian Catholics to the Pope.
As part of the Vatican Museums, perhaps the most visited historical sites in the world with more than 6 million visitors a year or more than 18,000 a day, the Ethnological Museum is home to over 8,000 rarely seen artistic cultural achievements from around the world.
The collection, which began in 1692, illuminates diverse religious beliefs and practices through works of art and includes gifts presented to the Pope from heads of state and spiritual leaders.
'Just assume a mere 10 percent of the about 18,000 tourists to the Vatican Museums daily visit the Ethnological Museum, and say just five percent of them visit the Indonesian collections. That already means almost one thousand visitors every day all the year long,' notes Budiarman Bahar, the Indonesian ambassador to the Holy See (Vatican).
Occupying 400 square meters of exhibition grounds, perhaps the largest ever space ever granted to a single country at the Vatican Ethnological Museum, the selection of artifacts presented in the Indonesian pavilion allows visitors to appreciate and learn about the rich artistic heritage of Indonesia through ancient and contemporary objects.
'This is really quite a big showcase and effective medium of communications to the whole world as regards the vast diversity of our cultures, religions and artifacts. And we don't pay any rentals for these exhibition grounds,' Bahar told The Jakarta Post during a recent visit to the Vatican Ethnological Museum.
It was indeed to the diplomacy of Bahar, who in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, succeeded in convincing the Holy See of the strategic importance for granting Indonesia such a vast exhibition grounds, even though only for one year, starting last November.
'We are now preparing special grounds for permanent ethnological exhibitions from the whole of Asia, but Indonesia will still get a lion's part the space,' Prof. Nicola Mapelli, the curator of the Ethnological Museum, told The Jakarta Post.
When the one-year lease for the 400-square meter exhibition ends later this year, Indonesian artifacts will be moved to the Asian permanent exhibition grounds though at a much smaller space than the current one.
The oldest Indonesian collection, donated by Bishop Eugene Tisserant (1884-1972) consists of 40 fine bronze statues dating from the 8th to the 14th century representing Buddhist and Hindu divinities.
From Java came the richest and most complete collection featuring a group of 30 puppets for the wayang shadow theatre and a screen with three panels .
The Islamic world is represented by a unique miniature Quran, dating from the late 19th century with characters so small it requires a magnifying glass to read. Christianity is represented by several works in Indonesian styles: particular interest is the Madonna with Child represented with local features and dress.
'But this old Quran is now on loan to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, in the United Arab Emirates from March to the end of this month,' Mapelli said.
Other indigenous Indonesian cultures are also documented by many objects that skillfully illustrate their ancient tradition: From Kalimantan there are over 300 items mostly representing everyday and ritual use; from Sumatra and the island of Nias there are 50 artifacts including the prominent ancestor statues. Many other ethnic groups are represented in the Museum. Aceh, Batak, Bugis, Makassar, Toraja and Kenyah who are the creators of fine woven fabric and beautiful shields with magical patterns .
Finally from Bali there are elegant pictorial representations on palm leaves, narrating a popular epic story and a statue of Singa, the legendary winged dragon-lion.
Bahar's role in the Holy See is rather unique because he represents Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population. He himself is a Muslim.
'In fact, since both Indonesia and Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1947 and upgraded the ties to an ambassadorial level in 1952, only two of the chiefs of the missions were Christians/Catholic and the rest were all Muslims,' he said.
The focus of his mission, Bahar added, is to show to the Vatican and the millions of visitors here that Indonesia is truly a plural society with a diverse variety of government-recognized religions yet with a fairly solid religious tolerance.