Monas – National Monument, Jakarta
More bizarre than truly dark, but quite an unmissable sight when in Indonesia
's capital city Jakarta
. The main part is the tall national monument itself with its platform at the top affording views into the city smog. But the real gem for the so-inclined dark tourist lies underneath it in the form of the underground National History Museum and its magnificently biased and mind-bogglingly weird exhibition.
More background info:
The National Monument, or Monumen Nasional, hence Monas for short, is Jakarta
's principal landmark. It towers over the grey concrete urban sprawl of the city like a syringe trying to pierce the smog layer above. The main tower is a full 132 metres high (434 feet). It is covered in Italian marble and crowned with a huge gilded flame, covered in real gold, so it looks like an oversized torch. But there are also other connotations associated with its shape:
Planned as a statement of nationalism under Indonesia
's first president Sukarno in the early 1960s, but only completed in 1975, it is informally and somewhat disrespectfully known as “Sukarno's last erection”. He actually died in 1970, i.e. before the monument's completion, but the main tower structure was already standing when he was dethroned by Suharto from 1965 onwards, so I suppose the epithet could just about apply …
Apparently there is a lot of symbolism involved in the design of the monument, and even the phallic associations with the tower's shape are not purely coincidental. It is supposed to represent Linga, a Hindu masculinity symbol (always upright, of course).
The sexism continues with the goblet-shaped first platform at the bottom of the main tower allegedly signifying a rice mortar (making the tower the pestle) and at the same time the Hindu symbol of Yoni, for female sexual organs and the womb. Mmmmmh … mortar, pestle, pounding … let's not pursue this any further.
What matters more in our context in any case is not the monument itself and whatever dodgy symbolism it may involve, but the extra double function of the site as a shrine to the constitution and as a history museum – or more precisely: the history of the Indonesian struggle for independence. The Hall of Independence is located inside the goblet part at the bottom of the monument (inside the womb, that is? … but wouldn't that mean: not yet born … maybe I should stop looking for logic.), while the National History Museum is underneath the whole base of the structure in a large cavernous underground space.
Representing the history of Indonesia
is not an easy task for anybody, and given the era in which the museum came into being, i.e. the early years of Suharto's New Order regime, it would actually be surprising to find a well-balanced, accurately factual coverage of modern Indonesian history. And indeed it is in large parts the exact opposite – see below!
What there is to see:
The monument as such is certainly impressive by size alone (as long as you ignore the connotations, in which case the size and shape are rather disturbing). It stands out so much, literally, especially because it is set inside Merdeka Park and hence relatively far from all the high-rises and skyscrapers of downtown Jakarta
Whether the design appeals is probably a matter of taste. Opinions are likely to vary. I must say that I found it one of those examples of 1960s designs that are so ugly that they are fascinating and thus kind of appealing after all, if in a slightly crazy way …
It gets even crazier when you get past the entrance (after some queuing in the midday heat in my case, when I went on 1 August 2014) and reach the tunnel connecting the entrance to the museum. Why the entrance to this tunnel is set some 200 yards away from the actual monument I don't know. Maybe it's to enhance the dramatic effect of proceeding there? In a very North-Korean
kind of sense it even does do that, partly because it feels so forced and superfluous (cf. Kim mausoleum
). Anyway, the tunnel is partly marble-clad and partly covered with metal panels, including the ceiling (from which air-con units provide welcome cooling). It was quite crowded when I was there, which made the whole affair only even weirder … and a bit unnerving: you certainly don't want any sort of panic breaking out with so many people crammed into such a narrow corridor with no escape option either side.
At the other end of the tunnel you emerge back out into the open at the base of the monument. Surrounding this are concrete walls sculpted in peculiar large-scale reliefs. Some look more like fantasy comic material, but allegedly they are supposed to represent episodes from Indonesian history. Just what exactly they are representing, however, is often pretty much impossible to say. There are mythical figures mixed with representations of modernity such as mining work, trains, workers, satellite dishes and so on, and there is even a toy-like part of a jumbo jet jutting out from the wall in one place. Weird.
Inside the museum the weirdness continues, initially on a grand scale, but then more so in detail. The grandness comes from the sheer size of the cavernous hall. It's not particularly high, but forms a huge square ground plan with floor, walls and ceiling all clad in marble. (The amount of marble would make an official monument designer from Turkmenistan
jump for joy!)
What made it all the more bizarre was the fact that even though there were signs demanding respect – e.g. no sitting on the floor, no eating or drinking – this was blatantly ignored by hundreds of Indonesians who clearly used the museum primarily as a welcome air-conned refuge space from the sweltering heat outside, and: to have a picnic! Whole families were lounging about on the floor everywhere as if spreading out on a park lawn. I wouldn't have been too surprised had I seen people setting up a barbecue or rice-cooker. But it wasn't going that far. Still, people were clearly more interested in having a good time than in paying any kind of respect to history or independence.
Around the outer walls, as well as set into part of the central block, the actual museum exhibits consist of a series of ca. 50 dioramas behind glass which are supposed to depict important scenes in Indonesian history by means of scale models and action-man-like figurines. Fortunately they are accompanied by illuminated text panels that give a brief description, including an English translation. The level of English is often in keeping with the weirdness of the rest of the place, but you mostly get the gist OK.
The historic episodes depicted go back to pre-colonial times, cover the early competition between different colonial powers (Portugal
) and then move on to an elaborate coverage of various episodes of resistance and uprisings against colonialism, including, for instance the Aceh War of the late 19th century (cf. Banda Aceh
The immediate post-WWII sections get more interesting in that this period finally did lead to independence and in that context the name Sukarno can hardly be ignored. Given that the museum exhibition was set up in the early years of the Suharto regime, when Sukarno was deposed, put under house arrest and eventually died, you could imagine that the museum designers would have liked to edit Sukarno out of the picture altogether (like Stalin
had Trotsky blotted out in early Soviet
photos). But apparently that would have been a step too far here.
So Sukarno (still spelled the old way “Soekarno” here) and co-independence fighter and later vice president Mohammad Hatta do get due mention in the context of the proclamation of Indonesian independence, but nothing too elaborate or glorifying. The UN
recognizing Indonesia's independence gets at least as much praise. (Interestingly this is accompanied by a diorama showing the UN HQ
in New York
– even though this building wasn't constructed until a couple of years later.)
We then move into the critical phase of 1965/1966 – i.e. when the alleged 30th September movement communist
coup d'état (cf. Indonesia
and Pancasila Sakti
) was “thwarted” by Suharto. After he took over the leadership of the country he unleashed an unprecedented purge against the communists (hundreds of thousands, if not millions, were murdered – see under Indonesia
). But as you might expect, the coverage of this period is a complete whitewash. Suharto is portrayed as the great saviour of the nation and the purges are not mentioned at all. The way in which Suharto assumed power is portrayed as following the wishes of the people. So you get models of protesters demonstrating for a dissolution of the old order parliament – even in front of a model of the Monas (although that was only completed years later too).
As one would also expect, the portrayal of the annexation of and integration into Indonesia of former Dutch New Guinea (Papua) in the 1960s is similarly biased. But when it comes to East Timor
, the truth-warped outrageousness becomes almost (tragi-)comical. Here it is claimed that the East Timorese actually asked officially for the take-over of their country by Indonesia and thus, quote: “forced the government of the Republic of Indonesia to accept and legalize integration of the people and the territory of East Timor to the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia in the shortest of time” (taken verbatim from the relevant info panel). Euphemistic twisting of historical fact doesn't come much more cynical than this …
History could have “ended” here, given that the museum was first opened in the mid 1970s around the time of the invasion of East Timor. But there are also a couple of display cases that must have been amended later, as they cover e.g. a 1992 conference of the non-aligned countries. But the end of the Suharto era and the more recent developments since his dethroning do not get a mention here.
Inside the central block of the museum stairs lead up into the Hall of Independence, housed inside the goblet (or mortar) part of the Monas (see above
). You can actually make out the angled outer walls that you are now on the inside of. Again in a not altogether respectful fashion kids used the slopes in the corners as slides – and no parents made any attempt to calm them down. Nobody seems to take this place too seriously any more.
Although seriousness is clearly intended, solemnity even. In the centre of the hall is a an almost Kaaba-like dark-marble block whose outer walls glorify the Indonesian constitution in various ways, partly in the form of quotes in gold lettering, a heavy golden Garuda bird with its Pancasila
coat of arms, and a gilded map of Indonesia
… still including East Timor
, by the way.
When I visited the Monas I abstained from also going to the top of the monument – the queues were long, it would have cost an extra fee, and it was getting late. So I cannot say what it would have been like and whether the views from the top would really have been worth it. I do have my doubts, to be honest, that Jakarta could really have looked any more appealing from 130m up than at ground level.
The rest of the experience, however, I can personally recommend – though maybe only to people who can derive a certain degree of entertainment value from gross misrepresentations of history and that in such amateurish ways (only the Pancasila Sakti
museum tops it in this respect … by some margin, in fact!).
A state-of-the art contemporary history museum this is not. Very, very far from it. But in that way it is almost quaint – except, of course, in a rather bitter-sweet way as the real history was so full of tragedy that in this museum is so blatantly swept under the rug. If you can handle that one-sidedness, though, it's a priceless experience of almost comical idiosyncratic weirdness.
in the very heart of the city centre of Jakarta
, in the middle of Merdeka Square.
Access and costs:
Being the main landmark of Jakarta
, in the middle of its central square, and the tallest edifice far and wide, the Monas really is pretty much unmissable. Inexpensive.
Details: Unless you are staying in one of the hotels within walking distance of Merdeka Square you will need some form of transport to get there. All taxi drivers will know the site, so it shouldn't be a problem. If coming by train, Gambir station is the closest.
The entrance to the monument and museum is NOT at the foot of the tall tower but instead some 200 yards to the north, where the access to the tunnel connecting to the monument begins – and where queues form when it is busy (which is often, and especially so at weekends).
Admission to the base of the monument and the museum was (summer 2014) 5000 IDR, the lift and access to the observation deck cost another 10,000 IDR.
Opening times: daily (except on the last Monday of each month), from 8:30 a.m. to ca. 5 p.m. (some sources say only to 3 p.m.) – since long queues are often likely it is advisable to try to be there early.
Time required: About half an hour or so for viewing the museum displays, and maybe another quarter of an hour for the rest of the Hall of Independence and the reliefs outside, plus queueing time, that is, which can take at least as long or even significantly longer at peak times (like Sundays). If you also want to get the lift to the top of the monument, factor in even longer extra queues.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Jakarta
– a somewhat similar but even more warped experience of misrepresented history can be had at the Pancasila Sakti
monument and associated museum (which is rather an unabashed shrine to anti-communism), which thus makes for the thematically most suitable combination with the Monas. But given the considerable effort of getting there (unless you have a private guide/driver) you may want to think hard whether it's worth it for you first. It absolutely is if you, like me, get a certain black-humoured kick out of such off-the-scale weirdness, but if you are expecting a proper history museum don't bother.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Monas itself is not really a dark site, at least not intentionally, and so you'll find a lot of mainstream tourism elements here: throngs of people, countless souvenir vendors, street performers, pickpockets … the works.
Most visitors' main aim is to get the lift to the top of the monument, even though it involves long queues and the views from up there will be shrouded by smog most of the time. I declined.
The Merdeka Park around the Monas is the largest green space in the city centre and as such a respite from the concrete sprawl of the rest of this clogged-up smoggy metropolis. Worth a stroll.
For the few other real tourist sights in this city see under Jakarta
- Monas 01 - impressive last erection
- Monas 02 - gilded flame at the top
- Monas 03 - large-scale reliefs
- Monas 04 - even larger-scale Istiqlal Mosque in the background
- Monas 05 - history museum under the monument
- Monas 06 - depiction of early colonial times
- Monas 07 - death-railway-construction under Japanese occupation
- Monas 08 - the depictions are not always historically accurate
- Monas 09 - how Western Papua got integrated into Indonesia
- Monas 10 - and the UN played a somewhat dubious role in it
- Monas 11 - how Indonesia had East Timor for lunch in 1975
- Monas 12 - golden relief of Indonesia - still with East Timor
- Monas 13 - golden words of the constitution