Reminded of my national identity, in overseas museums

The Stammering Dunce
4 min readOct 1, 2023

Also published on Wordpress.

About two months before I started writing this blogpost, I visited the US with my mom and sister. Specifically, NYC and DC.

I am thirty-one and this was my second time visiting the US. The last time I was there, I was seven. My extended family and I visited Universal Studio and Disneyland in LA, Lake Tahoe and San Reno; in fact, I celebrated the 2000 new year’s eve in LA Disneyland.

Now, my preferences have changed. Unless the theme parks are unique, I am no longer interested in them. I prefer museums, especially art history ones.

While I did really enjoy my visit to Metropolitan Art Museum in NYC, I had more fun in DC.

For one, almost none of the Smithsonian museums charge entrance fees and very few of them require bookings. My hotel was also near the National Mall, where many of the museums are located; despite DC having worse walkability than NYC, I was able to spend entire days walking from one museum to another, no cars and public transit needed.

Now, about the title…

Metropolitan Art Museum have artefacts from all over the world and various time periods, including ones from Ancient India and the Muslim world. Unsurprisingly, the Freer and Sackler galleries in DC — which specialise in Asian arts — also have similar collections (yes, I know who the Sacklers are).

I am a Muslim from Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Between Islamic and Ancient Indian artefacts, many would assume I would have emotional attachments to the former.

Nope.

While I definitely can appreciate the beauty, I don’t have any sense of nostalgia for them. For me, they are just as alien as the Greek and Roman artefacts. But, do you know what elicit emotions within me? The Ancient Indian ones.

It is not just the sculptures’ natural stone colour (as the paint eroded with time), it is also the (mostly) Sanskrit names and Hindu and Buddhist imagery which evoke familiarity for me.

I have yet to get tired of explaining this: even though Indonesia is indeed a Muslim-majority country with Middle Eastern cultural influences and which Arab-Indonesian population is bigger than the Indian-Indonesian one, our national symbols are of Hindu and Buddhist origins. Not only the establishment embraces them, many of us do take pride in our ancestral Hindu and Buddhist roots.

Many of us also believe we can be Muslims without becoming Arabs. In fact, I don’t think there are that many Arab-Indonesians who can speak Arabic.

I already had this realisation long before I visited those museums. But, I didn’t expect to experience it for a second time… and I certainly didn’t expect to occur while I was abroad.

This realisation also exposes a knowledge gap of mine. Before I elaborate, let me go on a tangent first.

As expected, art history museums categorise their exhibitions geographically and temporally (not to be confused with temporarily) and the Asian art galleries in DC are no exceptions. But, these ones in particular also have a few exhibitions summarising the entire continent.

Well, tried to summarise. Let’s face it: it is a continent of more than forty countries and territories, some of which are very culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse and a handful of them are transcontinental. You simply cannot summarise it, you can only create blanket statements.

In one of the exhibitions, there was also an interactive screen discussing symbolism in Asian cultures. I was a bit annoyed that it claimed peacock was culturally important throughout the Muslim world; I thought it was just another stereotyping of Muslims, as peacock was not symbolically important in my country.

A Smithsonian employee was tasked to ask visitors about their opinions of the exhibitions. When he approached me, I told him what I just wrote above.

About two months later, I told my experiences to a Facebook friend of mine, a Canadian who lived in Indonesia throughout the 70’s and 80’s and probably left before I was born. After I told her about the peacock thing, she rebuked me, saying I was wrong.

She showed me quite a few examples of peacock motif on batik. I google searched them by myself….. and I found even more examples of them….. in various styles.

I am embarrassed and confused. Embarrassed because this is one of the times when foreigners actually know about my country probably more than I do. Confused because I don’t know why peacock was not one of the animals I associate with Indonesian identity.

Growing up, when I think of quintessentially Indonesian animals, ones which remind me of our national identity, I think of tigers, elephants, rhinos, komodos, birds-of-paradise, anoas, barking deers, orang utans, cassowaries, cockatoos, sun bears and arowanas. Not once I thought about the cocky peacocks.

I wonder: would it make any difference if I grew up attending good schools, surrounded by traditional artists and artisans or even simply grew up in a place where peacock motif on batik is common? Or would I remain ignorant? Even though I am at fault for not learning enough, I also refuse to let my surroundings off the hook.

But, one thing for certain: even though peacock isn’t the most popular animal symbol in my Muslim-majority home country, it is certainly more symbolically significant than I thought.

And the fact some foreigners already knew about this… is humiliating.

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