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Fire engulfs National Museum in Jakarta, damaging historical artifacts

A destructive fire engulfs Jakarta’s National Museum on Saturday (16 Sept), damaging historical treasures.

Investigations continue, prompting calls for increased protection and regulations for Indonesia’s cultural heritage.

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INDONESIA: A devastating fire broke out at the National Museum, also known as the Museum Gajah, located at Jalan Medan Merdeka Barat No. 12, Jakarta Pusat, on Saturday (16 Sept), around 8:00 PM local time.

The fire, which reportedly originated from an air conditioning unit, quickly spread to the rear of the museum, causing significant damage to part of the building.

The flames reached the museum’s A1 building, one of its three main structures, causing the collapse of a portion of the roof and walls.

Tragically, four storage rooms containing historical artefacts were consumed by the inferno. The collection stored in this building included prehistoric, ethnographic, and ceramic artefacts dating back to prehistoric, classical, and colonial times.

According to Satriadi Gunawan, the Head of the Jakarta Fire and Safety Department (Gulkarmat), the fire originated from a temporary construction site behind the museum.

“The cause was from the temporary shed that was under construction,” explained Satriadi.

“There was an AC explosion that led to the fire, which then spread to the rear side of Building A1,” he stated to the media on Saturday.

Shortly after the initial explosion at approximately 7:58 PM local time, a significant blast occurred from the direction of the construction site renovating the museum.

Subsequently, the fire rapidly spread to the A1 building along Jalan Abdul Muis. The building’s alarms rang out, but the fire had already gained substantial ground.

Marwoto, an officer from the Central Jakarta Fire and Rescue Agency (Sudin Gulkarmat), suggested that the rapid escalation of the fire could be attributed to the highly combustible materials in the construction site shed.

The front courtyard of the National Museum of Indonesia, Gambir, Central Jakarta. (Photo: KOMPAS.com)

Efforts to salvage priceless artifacts

“The shed contained construction materials, and it was being renovated on the ground floor, in the parking area. The shed was made of wood and plywood, which easily catch fire,” Marwoto explained.

To combat the blaze, Central Jakarta’s Sudin Gulkarmat mobilized additional personnel, increasing the firefighting team from 32 to 52 members and deploying 13 fire trucks. The fire was successfully extinguished two hours later, at around 10:40 PM local time.

Acting Head of the Public Service Agency for Museums and Cultural Heritage (BLU MCB) of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology (Kemendikbudristek), Ahmad Mahendra, in his statement on Sunday, reported that six rooms in the A building of the museum were affected by the fire.

Thankfully, the remaining 15 rooms in Building A and the exhibition rooms in Building B and Building C were unaffected, and the fire did not spread further.

The initial investigation indicated that some of the damaged items were replicas from the prehistoric section of the museum’s collection.

The authorities are currently assessing the extent of the damage and planning the necessary actions to secure and restore the affected artifacts.

Minister of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology, Nadiem Makarim, expressed his commitment to preserving as many historical artifacts as possible.

“Our top priority right now is to save as many historical artifacts as possible from the rooms affected by the fire,” he stated during an early morning press conference at the National Museum on Sunday (17 Sep).

Nadiem Makarim, the Minister of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology

Challenges and concerns mount as experts await entry to assess museum’s fire damage

Nadiem announced the formation of a joint team to inventory the historical items within the museum.

“We’ve established a joint team consisting of museum experts, police officers, and firefighters to assess the damage and ensure the safe retrieval of any salvageable items,” he explained.

However, due to ongoing safety concerns regarding the museum’s structural integrity after the fire, inventory and assessment activities have not yet begun.

“We cannot enter the building for inventory purposes at this time because it has not been declared safe by the firefighting authorities,” Nadiem emphasized.

As a result of the fire, the National Museum will remain temporarily closed to the public. Chief of the Central Jakarta Police Resort (Kapolres), Commissioner General (Kombes) Komarudin, stated, “Our personnel are stationed both at the front and back of the museum.

Given the valuable and historically significant items stored in Building A, we want to prevent any undesirable incidents. The museum will remain closed until the management determines it is safe to reopen.”

Komarudin added that the duration of the museum’s closure is still uncertain and will depend on the evolving situation. Enhanced security measures will be in place for the coming days.

The incident has drawn the attention of the Indonesian Museum Association (AMI).

The Chairman of AMI, Putu Supadma Rudana, urged the police to promptly determine the cause of the fire and assess the extent of the damage to the museum’s collections. While initial reports suggest an electrical short circuit in the construction shed, a comprehensive investigation is needed.

Putu highlighted the importance of enhanced protection for museums, both from the central and regional governments and proposed the establishment of insurance policies for the safety of museum buildings and their collections.

He also called for comprehensive regulations to govern museum management and development in Indonesia.

Furthermore, Putu stressed the need for capacity-building in museum management and the development of regulations to guide museum operations.

“To achieve these goals, the Indonesian Museum Association hopes that the Indonesian Parliament, in conjunction with the government, will expedite the discussion of the Museum Act,” he concluded.

A treasure trove of history and culture with a storied legacy

Quoted from the Museum Nasional web page, the National Museum, originally constructed by the Dutch East Indies government in 1862, holds a rich history and cultural heritage.

It was officially opened to the public in 1868 and earned the moniker “Museum Gajah” due to the bronze elephant (gajah) statue gifted by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) of Thailand during his visit in 1871.

In March 2021, the Ministry of Finance designated the National Museum as a central government institution under the Financial Management Pattern of Public Service Agencies (PPK-BLU) within the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology.

The museum’s collection comprises approximately 140,000 items across seven categories, including archaeology, ethnography, geography, ceramics, numismatics and heraldry, prehistory, and history.

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