Wayang in Museums: The Reverse Repatriation of Javanese Puppets

Matthew Cohen

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Transported to museum settings, wayang puppets from Java (Indonesia) are inevitably disembedded from performance traditions and the techniques and events animating and framing them. But this essay argues that it is possible to involve puppets in processes of “reverse repatriation,” bringing home to objects far from their sites of origin, as well as catalyzing new dialogues in sites of storage, exhibition, and performance. Puppets in the British Museum collected in Java by T. S. Raffles during the 1810s are venerated by Javanese visitors, but generally museum visitors were more taken by wayang hip hop puppets acquired in 2016 and displayed alongside Raffles’s figures in the exhibition Shadow Puppet Theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. (2016–17). The new puppets serve to challenge Orientalist preconceptions of wayang as an unchanging tradition. A wayang performance occasioned by the exhibition Die Welt des Schattentheaters: Von Asien bis Europa (The world of shadow theatre: From Asia to Europe) (2015–16) at the Linden Museum Stuttgart enabled an intergenerational dialogue about the tradition of wayang for a German Javanese diasporic family. A set of puppets collected in Java over several generations by a Chinese Indonesian family, gifted in 2006 to Simon Fraser University’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in British Columbia, has been used to explain stories of migration and multiculturalism in Canada. The private museum Rumah Wayang 2 (House of Wayang 2) in Tegal, Indonesia, is a way station for the puppets of puppeteer Enthus Susmono. Rather than safeguarding puppets, Enthus’s museum promotes his reputation as an innovator and whets appetites for his puppets’ future sale.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)361-381
Number of pages21
JournalTheatre Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 19 Sept 2017


  • wayang, puppets, Indonesia, Java, museums

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