Museum Volkenkunde

Steenstraat 1, Leiden



museum volkenkunde

3 January-30 June - Treasures from Storage – Indonesian Bronzes

For the first time, the National Museum of Ethnology is exhibiting a unique collection of objects that are normally kept in storage: Indonesian bronzes, more than 200 of them. At first sight, they may seem unremarkable, but the size of the collection, their age and their significance make them special.


The bronze statues offer a wealth of information on the history of Indonesia, not only about artistic developments, but also about ritual meanings, material usage, trade relations, economic developments and the colonial past. The artefacts are small statues of Hindu and Buddhist gods and ritual objects. Most were found on Java, but, unsurprisingly given that Java has always had a scarcity of metals, they do not originate there.

The images are centuries old: they were made between the 8th and 15th century, a period when Java was a centre of Hinduism and Buddhism. From the fifth century the culture of India held a strong attraction for parts of Indonesia. Local rulers started to use Sanskrit, the elite language of India, and they founded Hindu and Buddhist empires. Between the seventh and fifteenth centuries there was a flourishing culture on Java that left behind some impressive monuments, such as the Buddhist  Borobudur and the Hindu temple of Prambanan. Cultural connections and the exchange of knowledge and trade contacts have been the order of the day in this region for a very long time.

How and why this process of cultural exchange with India came about is not clear. The Indonesian bronzes from our storage may shed new light on this question. Art historical research shows that some of the images bear a strong resemblance to Indian images and they probably originated from India. There is also a mirror that must have come from China. We know from recent research on shipwrecks in the Java Sea that metal bars were imported. Technical examination of the metal of the bronzes could help to give a more complete picture of the contacts between Indonesia and the outside world.