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Puppets in museums, like Mr. Snuffleupagus in the exhibition “Somebody Come and Play”: 45 Years of Learning on Sesame Street (New York Library for the Performing Arts, 2014-2015), can call out to and provoke affects in viewers (Figure 1). Well-posed figures representing familiar characters, such as the gleefully jigging Fox character from Pinocchio exhibited in Masters of the Marionette: Rufus and Margo Rose (Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, 2015), retain a certain theatrical sensibility (Figure 2). Comprehending the animated qualities of puppets is difficult when confronting unfamiliar traditions, such as Indonesian wayang, but museums can nonetheless be sites for cultural appropriation. A prime example of this is Austrian puppeteer Richard Teschner, who first saw wayang golek (rod puppets) in Dutch museums and returned to Vienna to make figures in this model: today Teschner’s wayang-influenced puppets and Indonesian rod puppets he purchased in The Netherlands are exhibited in the same display cabinet in the permanent exhibition devoted to Teschner in Vienna’s Theatermuseum (Figure 3). Handling and interacting with museum wayang in recent years, the author has attempted to discover their affordances and re-theatricalize them, as illustrated in this photograph of the author animating a nineteenth-century wayang golek in the private collection of Swiss wayang expert Walter Angst, now in the Yale University Art Gallery (Figure 4, photo by Jungmin Song).


Case 1: The Raffles Collection in the British Museum

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An exhibition at the British Museum, Shadow Puppet Theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand (2016-2017, Figure 5) allowed possibilities for close examination of puppets collected by T.S. Raffles in Java in the 1810s. Southeast Asian experts, including Javanese puppeteer Ledjar Soebroto and Ananto Wicaksono, were consulted (Figure 6). They not only provided important information on the provenance of puppets and identified characters, but also gave reverence to Raffles’ historic puppets, the oldest systematic Indonesian puppet collection in Europe. Puppets, though encased in glass, were enlivened in tableaux representing scenes from key plays. Museum visitors saw the play Arjuna Wiwaha (Arjuna’s Wedding) in tableaux of Raffles’ figures, interpreted in gallery talks (Figure 7); an excerpt of a video of the same play shot in Richmond, Virginia; and a two-hour live performance of the play with gamelan players from West Java. A visitor survey showed that the puppets which attracted the most attention were a set of wayang hip hop figures commissioned from the contemporary wayang artist Catur Kuncoro. Figure 8 is a photo by Catur Kuncoro showing the puppets’ measuring, prior to being packed up and posted to the Museum. These puppets, contemporary versions of the clown figure Semar and his three sons seen in older versions elsewhere in the exhibition, demonstrated how wayang is an ever-changing art.


Case 2: Wayang in the Linden-Museum Stuttgart

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German ethnological museums built up superb collections of wayang and other puppet traditions starting in the nineteenth century. The Linden-Museum Stuttgart’s exhibition Die Welt des Schattentheaters: Von Asien bis Europa (The World of Shadow Theatre: From Asia to Europe, 2015-2016) provided a comprehensive over view of this form (Figure 9). The exhibition stressed shadow puppetry’s crossing of boundaries and included many innovative features- interactive displays, ambient shadow effects, and performances by visiting artists. A sensitively staged tableau showing the great warrior Arjuna and his wife Sumbadra in a moment of intimacy (Figure 10) inspired the author to stage two linked plays about their first meeting in collaboration with the local gamelan group Kridha Budaya Sari. This multi-generational community gamelan group was founded by a Javanese couple but included musicians from Germany and other countries (Figure 11). The co-founder Soetanja Dirdjosoesanto had been a dedicated amateur puppeteer as well as puppeteer, but he had passed in 2008, and his grandson, the youngest member of the group, had no real memories of wayang. Serving as the author’s assistant in rehearsals and performances gave him first hand exposure, and after performances in the Museum he enthusiastically demonstrated and spoke about wayang to spectators (Figure 12).

Photos in Case 2 are published with the permission of the Linden-Museum Stuttgart and Kridha Budaya Sari.


Case 3: The Chen Family Wayang Collection at Simon Fraser University

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Wayang in museums are not only remains of emplaced theatrical performance traditions but also can address histories of travel and displacement. A performance collection of 583 wayang in Simon Fraser University's Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in British Columbia, Canada records the travels of several generations of a Chinese-Indonesian family around the island of Java starting in the 1870s and their eventual migration to Canada in the 1960s. This prized family heirloom, one of the largest performance collections in existence, contains all the standard figures, such as Abiyasa (Figure 13). Many of the interpretations of figures, such as a grinning Sokasrana (Figure 14) and grimacing fish (Figure 15), are unique. As the family moved, puppets obtained by one generation in one part of Java were repainted in a subsequent generation in another regional style. Until recently, the collection was stored in the Museum in the steamer trunks that accompanied the family’s patriarch when he moved to Canada (Figure 16), and the puppets have been exhibited and interpreted to expound on multiculturalism and identity in Canada.

Photos in Case 3 are used with permission from the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Simon Fraser University, Canada.


Case 4: Rumah Wayang 2 in Tegal

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Rumah Wayang 2 (House of Wayang 2, opened 2015) is a satellite museum of Rumah Wayang and curated by Ki Enthus Susmono, who is both Java’s most popular puppeteer as well as a prominent local politician (Figure 17). The museum is located in Tegal on the grounds of Enthus’s official residence and displays many of his innovations, such as shadow puppets representing the nine semi-legendary wali, the Islamic saints credited with introducing Islam to Java (Figure 18), and puppets representing pop culture icons such as the Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters Tom and Jerry (Figure 19). In a conversation with Enthus, which took place at the same time as he was designing a new puppet (Figure 20), watching a livecast of a wayang performance, and approving development projects proposed by visiting officials, he admitted that many of the puppets in his museums were temporary wayfarers as he was intending to sell his puppets in a solo exhibition in Jakarta to finance his next election campaign. Museums such as Rumah Wayang 2 are not divorced from the life of wayang as a performance tradition, but integral to their maintenance in complex ways.