The principal memorial museum dedicated to the history
of the occupation of East Timor
and the resistance and independence movement. Located bang in the centre of the capital Dili
it is easily the No. 1 dark-tourism site in the country, and also by far its most modern and comprehensive museum overall.
The museum occupies the location of what formerly was the Portuguese Court of Justice, which was destroyed in the violent events of 1999. The new building incorporates a few elements of the old structure but is mostly a brand new edifice, and a very swish one at that, certainly by Timorese standards.
The museum was first opened in 2005 and has since been further developed and improved with the current permanent exhibition opening in 2012. A newer annexe now also houses ethnographic and traditional art exhibitions.
Apart from serving as the main museum on this topic it is also a place of study and conservation. Like all countries to come out of such a post-colonial/post-occupation traumatic history, East Timor
had to struggle with the collection and preservation of memory in the form of eyewitness statements as well as evidential documents and artefacts. Against the odds, it managed to live up to this tall order remarkably well.
What there is to see: Significantly more than you would probably expect. I was certainly taken aback by how highly appointed the museum's main permanent exhibition is: up-to-date in contemporary museum design, even including multimedia elements, trilingual, and squeaky clean and sleek. I was as surprised as I was impressed basically from the minute I stepped inside.
All written texts and labels are in three languages: Portuguese in large script, with translations into Tetum and English added in smaller script. The English translations are largely fine, except for a few spelling glitches they are almost always spot-on. Only some of the video material does not come in different languages.
The exhibition is mostly organized chronologically along a timeline divided into different periods. Large text-and-photo panels are the principal interpretative element. But there are also artefacts, such as guns, radio equipment and flags as well as a barred prison door plus a mock-up of a protester climbing over the US embassy fence in Jakarta
– which was one of a series of significant public-awareness-raising campaigns in 1994, on the 3rd anniversary of the Santa Cruz
The narrative of the exhibition begins with a brief pre-history, including the colonial period, then gets much more detailed throughout, beginning with preparations for the Indonesian invasion and its roots. Australia
and the USA
, especially Kissinger and Ford, are not spared the guilty-finger-pointing they deserve in this context and obviously the Indonesians
aren't portrayed favourably either.
However, while there is a certain tone of glorification of the Timorese resistance, the exhibition is actually quite restrained in its overt condemnation of the other side. It rather tends to let the facts speak for themselves.
And rich in factual information this exhibition certainly is. Loads of documents are presented (mostly in facsimile form) and accompanying texts elaborate on the issues further and provide explanations. To get it all you have to put your studying hat on and get down to the nitty-gritty. It may well be more than most visitors can easily digest, especially when it gets to the fine details of Fretilin/Falintil organizational structures and proceedings.
But you can also go through it all in a more superficial manner and just concentrate on the specific highlights – and if you want you can buy the full catalogue that has all the exhibition’s texts in full form and reproductions of photos and documents too so you can study it all in more depth when you get home.
The exhibition moves from the various phases of the Indonesian suppression of East Timor and the resistance fight up to the referendum of 1999, the escalation into violence after that and the subsequent achievement of full independence after all. The latter is obviously celebrated with particular gusto.
In addition to all the text, occasionally there is some rather grim photo material too. An excerpt of the documentary footage of the Santa Cruz
massacre is shown on a large wall-mounted flat-screen TV as well as some footage of the 1999 violence – but nothing too graphic is visible. An additional small screen plays extra documentary material but this was in Portuguese only.
Furthermore there's an interactive touchscreen on which you can punch up yet more information and images. Following yet another screen displaying various statistics in a loop you come to a doorway that leads into a kind of add-on.
This is a mock-up of some form, like a store front with what is probably supposed to be a clandestine resistance cell underneath. You can crawl past and look through a window to see a bed, typewriter, table and ladder. Above ground there is a sort of auditorium with a projector, so I guess this space will sometimes be used for the screening of films or something like that. But nothing was on when I was there.
That finishes the main part of the museum. It is followed by the temporary exhibition space. At the time of my visit in late August 2014 there was an exhibition called “our inheritance” (apparently it was intended to coincide with the CPLP summit meeting that was going on around that time in Dili
). On display were all sorts of arts and crafts objects that largely failed to grab too much of my attention.
To get back to the main entrance you then either have to make your way all the way through the main exhibition backwards, so to speak, or cross the inner courtyard and get back in through the side door.
In the foyer there are a further few objects of interest as well as a shop that sells some rather flamboyant kinds of souvenirs. And of course you can by the museum catalogue here too. It is extremely good, in hardback and partly clad in tais, and containing well over 200 large-format pages on quality paper. Not totally unsurprisingly then it does not come cheap – 60 USD if I remember correctly. Still, there was no way I could not have grabbed this opportunity to purchase this gem.
All in all, the Museum of Timorese Resistance was clearly a highlight of my trip to this country. It is certainly by far the best museum far and wide, not just in East Timor
itself – it is also way better than anything I encountered in Indonesia
. It certainly exceeded all expectations I had. Really quite outstanding and an absolute must-see when in Dili
right in the centre of Dili
, just behind the Parliament in the university district on Rua Formosa/Avenida Cidade de Lisboa just two blocks south of the waterfront and harbour.
Access and costs:
easy to find in the centre of Dili
; not expensive.
Details: the location of the museum makes it easy to walk to from within central Dili. It is right behind the Government Palace and Parliament a block down from the main shopping street and a mere 200 yards from the western end of the waterfront promenade and the corner where the harbour compound begins.
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (info given in different sources varies a little so it’s best to check ahead or be flexible).
Admission: 1 USD (in August 2014).
Note that a very strictly enforced no photography rule applies inside the exhibition (hence no photo gallery here). You even have to hand in your camera and bag for safe-keeping at a special desk behind reception.
depends a bit on how much you already know about East Timor's history
. If you're already quite clued up on the background then ca. 45 minutes could easily suffice; but if you want to read everything and go through all the electronic resources you could spend several hours here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
just across the street from the museum entrance is the Max Stahl Audiovisual Centre – see under Dili
. So that would make for the logistically easiest combination. More thematically in line with this main museum, however, is the alternative exhibition Chega!
This is located less than a mile (1.2 km) further south, but not walkable in a straight line, so it would indeed be easy to get lost en route – so better get a taxi. I had both places included in my half-day city tour, which of course was the easiest way of combining them. The same is true for the Santa Cruz cemetery
, which is also a must-see for anybody with a serious interest in East Timorese dark history.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Dili