Simon Marcus Gower
One of the first things to catch the eye when approaching the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum in Palembang are the twin semicircular stone staircases that lead up to the entrance. They are attractive and unusual but can trip you up, since they are both quite steep and twisting. Care is needed when climbing them.
Once these attractive yet somewhat challenging staircases have been negotiated, it is time to take off your shoes. In the entranceway to the museum, there is a small huddle of people who are welcoming but quick to point out that they would like you to remove your footwear both to keep the inside clean and to protect the fine timber floors that lie within.
Among the small group of welcoming people will usually be a person who wishes to act as a guide. On this visit, there was an elderly gentleman in a bright South Sumatra T-shirt who was keen to show the way and proud to offer guidance in English, although it had to be said that his English was difficult to catch and Indonesian would have been far more comfortable.
Nonetheless, the guide was enthusiastic about imparting his knowledge to visitors. There was an evident pride in the museum, and this pride is not misplaced as the museum does attempt, in its unique way, to represent and uphold the culture and history of Palembang and South Sumatra.
The building that contains this museum is in many respects a part of that history and culture. It was constructed in the 1820s by the Dutch colonial rulers as an official center for their activities in Palembang. But the choice of the site was both deliberate and symbolic.
The site had been the location of the palace of the then Sultan of Palembang, Mahmud Badaruddin Jayo Wikramo. He resisted and fought the Dutch but was eventually overcome by them in 1821 and was subsequently sent into exile. The Dutch, rather vindictively, then tore down his palace and erected this building instead.
During World War II, the Japanese took over the building and used it as a military headquarters. After the war, the Indonesian Army did the same. Eventually it became a local government office before finally being converted into a museum.
That’s arguably its best function to date. The museum has its place in society and it fulfills a role of both preserving heritage and culture and educating people about the town and its region.
The museum organizes its collection in quite an interesting way. The “life cycle,” as it exists in South Sumatra, is prominently considered and thus there are exhibits that take the visitor through the typical life cycle of a person living in Palembang or South Sumatra.
There is an exhibit looking at birth in this region. This includes a quaint little baby’s bed that is a miniature four-poster bed. Another exhibit looks at the ritual and ceremony involved in the circumcision of young boys. Marriage, too, is extensively considered as the gifts required to set up a marriage are presented and the amazing costumes and furnishings of the marriage ceremony are also represented here.
Throughout these exhibits there is a significant representation of the famous songket textile from these parts. This amazing fabric is shown off to good effect; its typically deep maroon color and rich golden embroidery is something of a cultural splendor of these parts, and throughout this museum it adds a very attractive element.
The remarkably skilled process of making this cloth is also explicitly represented by the presence of the wooden weaving machines that are used to create it. These quite rudimentary machines look so simple it is almost hard to believe that such exquisite materials are made on them. The skills and patience that the workers must have is considerable.
Elsewhere in the museum, the tools of impatience and intolerance are represented. In a section considering the colonial rule of the Dutch, a collection of small cannons is displayed. These cannons are mounted on small wheels, almost giving them the look of toys, but there is no doubting the ruthlessness and violence that has been historically wrought on Palembang and its surroundings.
The Sultan after whom this museum is named was removed from power by the Dutch, and as the colonials laid siege to the town many people must have died a violent death. Some of their weapons are also on display here, but they are only traditional knives and these blades would have been no match for the guns and cannons of the Dutch.
The museum’s buildings are impressive and thus a better legacy of the Dutch time here, but outside the museum are some pieces that reflect the fact that this area has a history that significantly predates the arrival of the Dutch. Standing in specially erected shelters are four stone statues.
Two of these statues represent the god Ganesha, but one of these has suffered badly over the centuries. So, too, has a now-headless lion statue. One of the Ganesha statues is impressive, as is the statue of the Buddha.
The statue of the Buddha stands alone and seems rather lonely. It, too, has suffered damage over the centuries, but it does apparently date from the sixth or seventh century. This statue illustrates the long history that is to be found here and the museum itself interestingly and uniquely represents the often fine culture and heritage of Palembang and the surrounding region of South Sumatra.