Collecting Experience in the 1930s

Itie van Hout

This richly illustrated book is published in a series of monographs based on collections in the National Museum in Prague, Czech Republic. The subject matter of this publication is the collection of objects from the Pacific and Indonesia, collected by Růžena Charlotta Urbanová, neé Malfaitová (1888–1978). Urbanová purchased objects while she was on a world tour which commenced in 1939 and ended, intervened by the World War II, in 1946. But this book is more; it provides the reader with plenty of stories from European travellers in the 1930s in the South Sea and the Dutch East Indies.

The authors are Fiona Kerlogue, former Curator of Asian Anthropology at the Horniman Museum in London and Dagmar Pospíšilová, Curator of the Collection Department of the National Museum – Náprstek Museum. Both curators are experienced researchers and the book clearly benefits from their knowledge, historically as well as anthropologically.

The book consists of three parts. In the first part Urbanová’s journey to the Pacific is told, followed by accounts of travelling and collecting in the Dutch East Indies and a biography of Urbanová’s collection. The second part is a catalogue of the objects collected in Indonesia; the third part is the story of the life and work of Urbanová.

In March 1939 wealthy and recently divorced Urbanová left Marseille for the South Pacific on a luxury steamship. Like other rich people she wished to make a journey round the world. At this point the authors start to portray ´journeys around the world´ through interesting accounts of European and American travellers, often artists. The first stop at Tahiti is recounted through the travelogues of writers, adventurers, and sailors.

The next chapters cover travelling and collecting stories in the Dutch East Indies. These chapters are highly informative of the daytime activities of foreigners living in the Indonesian archipelago for a shorter or longer period of time. The book informs the reader about local accommodation, transport and excursions. Already at the end of the 19th century the Dutch colonial government had established an Official Tourist Bureau and in 1903 the first ‘Guide to the Dutch East Indies’ was published. The chapter follows Urbanová’s path to different cities on Java and subsequently to other islands such as Bali, Sumatra, Nias, Sulawesi, and Borneo.

Urbanová arrived in Java in 1939. The island had by then already been a tourist resort for several decades. It is not known at what point on her tour Urbanová thought of building a collection. The authors state that her wish to collect was probably the result of coincidental encounters, influences, and opportunities. Dutch guidebooks, informative on places where to buy, for instance, wayang puppets, might have guided her in the direction of collecting. Also visits to museums, displays of local arts and crafts in hotels and pawnshops, curio shops and local artisan markets provided opportunities to purchase objects.

In December 1942 World War II stretched out into Asia. When Japanese armed forces invaded the archipelago, Dutch citizens were imprisoned in camps and although Urbanová as a Czech national first managed to avoid internment, it is known that she spent time in a Japanese camp. It is fortunate that Urbanová had already placed her possessions into storage in September 1941. In 1946 the boxes were sent by cargo ship from Surabaya to Rotterdam. In that same year Urbanová went home and expressed her ideas on the future of the collection to the Natural Cultural Commission. First she wished her collection to become accessible to the wider public and after her death it would be donated to the state. In 1948 the Náprstek Museum exhibited her collection and parts of it again in 1952 and 1954. When the communists took power in 1948 everything changed for Urbanová and in the 1950s her collection was seized by the government and taken to the Náprstek Museum, where it was announced as a state deposit in 1957. 414 objects entered the inventory of the museum.

The catalogue gives an overview of objects from Bali, Java and Sumatra. From Bali Urbanová collected woodcarvings, masks, wayang puppets, textiles and paintings. The authors give informative descriptions of production methods and the role the objects played in society. Interesting are again the observations of travellers who in the 1930s witnessed profound modifications in the manufacture methods of objects as for instance woodcarvings. Besides carving for ritual purposes the artisans turned to mass production for the tourist industry.

The larger part of the section on Java is dedicated to theatrical performances, such as puppets used in wayang plays and wayang wong and wayang topeng, dance dramas respectively with and without masks (topeng). These performances were part of the Central Javanese court culture, but by the time Urbanová came to Java these dances had spread well beyond the confines of the court. Urbanová must have been attracted to the textile traditions of Sumatra because nearly all Sumatran items are textiles from the Minangkabau Highlands in West Sumatra and the Lampung region in South Sumatra. The authors give a fine overview of weaving techniques and of the regions where the textiles were produced. Although Urbanová probably did not visit Lampung, she did acquire several ceremonial women’s skirt cloths, tapis, heavily decorated with gold thread and two special ceremonial textiles, tampan.

The last part of the book describes Urbanová’s life and work. The authors provide an extensive biography of Urbanová. A description of her family life and political activities is followed by information on her artistic ambitions as a painter and writer and her journalistic work. The book ends with an exposé of Urbanová’s evacuation by the Dutch from Java and her remigration to Czechoslovakia.

The reason for this book is the collection of ethnographic objects brought together by Urbanová. It is not clear how dedicated Urbanová was to the act of collecting; it seems she bought what came along and that she was not searching for specific objects of interest to her. Also, little is known about whether she documented the collection, but it is possible that the documentation, together with her travel writings and photographs, were lost in the war.

Although the authors state several times that they ‘know relatively little’ about various aspects of Urbanová’s life, they saw an opportunity to write an engaging book and provide a comprehensive insight into aspects of travelling and collecting in the 1930s in the Pacific and Indonesia.