Here's Everything I Learned From a Visit to a Museum Celebrating Suharto's Legacy
All photos by Umar Wicaksono


This story is over 5 years old.

20 Years of Reformasi

Here's Everything I Learned From a Visit to a Museum Celebrating Suharto's Legacy

Twenty years after his fall, I went to a museum built by his family to see how they want us all to remember Indonesia's former dictator.

There's one thing you need to remember before you enter the Suharto Museum—it's not really all that interested in the facts.

The Suharto Museum, funded by his late brother Probosutedjo, opened its doors in 2013 in a quiet neighborhood about 10 kilometers from downtown Yogyakarta. The whole neighborhood is too quiet, really—especially when you consider the museum's environs in comparison with the historical magnitude of Indonesia's now-deceased dictator, a military strongman who ruled the country for 32 years until his fall from power amid widespread popular protests 20 years ago.


The museum complex consisted of an exhibition building, a multi-purpose pendopo, (a pavilion-like structure that's a fundamental element in Javanese architecture), and a house where his extended family stays when they visit the city. But what I came across that day, instead of a member of his family, was a three-meter-tall statue of Suharto himself.

The museum is free for all visitors. All you have to do is fill in the guest book and greet the guard. One of them, a man named Bibit, told me that the museum gets about 600 visitors every day. Most of them are students on class field trips, but sometimes they get older people too.

"They said they like coming here," Bibit told me. "To learn history."

Bibit seemed really pleased that I had shown up that day. He even offered me a drink and pointed out all the best spots for photos, including a wall that contained one of Gen. Suharto's most-famous quotes: "Always be patient. Always pray. Always be wise."

Inside the exhibition building, Suharto's story is divided into five sections that cover his policies and programs, the 30 September coup attempt, and his legacy. In all of them, Suharto is portrayed as a hero, a man who saved Indonesia from the grip of the Dutch colonialists before protecting the nation from other threats. It was almost as if Suharto was some kind of messiah. The man could just do no wrong.

Here's everything else I learned from the museum:


Suharto was a narcissist.

I saw hundreds, literally hundreds, of photos of historical scenes inside the exhibition and in almost all of them, Suharto stood dead center. There he was at the center of a military operation against Dutch colonial soldiers in March of 1949. There he was again during the seizure of West Papua, and again as he collected the bodies of the generals murdered by communist forces from the "crocodile pit," of the 30 Sept. coup attempt. I mean I get it, pics or it didn't happen, right?

What was even more remarkable was the fact that in most of them he was smiling. Suharto was able to force a smile even in the most-stressful times. I mean, he's called "The Smiling General" for a reason, right? There's nothing a smile can't fix, I imagined him saying.

There was one collection of images that made me giggle. There was a plaque that said the relationship between Suharto and founding father Sukarno was like that of "father and son." Below the plaque were ten photos of the two men standing next to each other laughing about who knows what. There's zero context about where the photos were taken, or what was happening at the time. But the whole thing is also really weird, because Suharto was, by most accounts, instrumental in overthrowing Sukarno's regime. And then later, when Sukarno was under house arrest, Suharto forbade anyone from visiting Sukarno's sickbed as he laid there dying, according to historical texts.


So this collection of images about their "father-son relationship," is the equivalent two random acquaintances posting a picture and tagging each other to pretend that their real-life BFFs.

Whoever wrote all the plaques tried really hard to sound deep, but failed miserably.

The writer used so much flowery language that I felt like I was reading a novel, not my own country's history. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members blamed for the murder of Indonesia's top military officials were described as "extremely cruel and barbaric. Their cruelty is inhumane… No one is as violent as them in this world.” I mean, that's just a bit too much exaggeration for me to stomach. It was entertaining, though. It was also fun to spot the typos.

Its use of multimedia storytelling techniques was actually pretty impressive.

The exterior of the museum is classic Javanese architecture, but that vibe disappears once you enter the exhibition building through its automatic doors. The first hall is filled a circular photo installation of Suharto that makes you feel like you're inside a spaceship. There's not a lot of color in the building either—everything is grey and metallic. It's cold and eerie. But I have to admit, the way the curators used technology to tell Suharto's story was pretty impressive. There are plenty of pictures inside, but there are also interactive installations where you can browse documents or video recordings from their digital catalog. The videos are accompanied with dramatic sound effects that totally made me feel I was watching the latest Avengers film, not a propaganda clip about how great the New Order era was.

Some things are clearly missing.

Don't expect to see Suharto's personal belongings, things like letters or briefcases—just go to the exhibition on the literary giant Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Jakarta if that's the kind of stuff you're into. Besides photos and plaques, the only interesting part of the museum are the five digital versions of Supersemar—the document Sukarno supposedly signed that says Suharto could do whatever was "necessary" to handle the chaos of 1965. The authenticity of this document has never been proved, so just like everything in the museum, you have to take it with a grain of salt.

In conclusion, if you haven't read anything about the New Order or Suharto before, then you will walk away from this museum believing that Indonesia was way better under his rule. The museum conveniently—and unsurprisingly—leaves out the darker aspects of his time in power, including the 1965 massacre that left an estimated half-million dead, the exile of intellectuals to Buru Island, the missing student activists, the petrus killings, or even the protests demanding his resignation.

So what's the biggest lesson I learned about Suharto after visiting his museum? I learned that, when you're talking about Suharto, history is a malleable thing, which is probably a pretty apt thing to learn from a museum about the New Order regime, when you think about it.