Remembering the Bali bombings, and musing on shifts in the cultural meaning of an object

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Powerhouse Museum Collection, object 2002/55/3. Gift of Ms Gwendoline Beryl John, 2002.

Ten years ago, on 12 October 2002, a small group of men murdered 202 people, including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians, and injured many others. It was our 9/11. Through horrific images and eye-witness accounts, we observed terror and pain, heroism and heartbreak. Today we remember and honour the victims of these acts of terrorism. This post is a reflection on how those incidents changed our perceptions of Bali, and on how they shifted the cultural meaning of a museum object made in Bali.  The object represents an idealised view of that island as a tropical paradise and its people as gentle and welcoming, willing to share their place and culture with visitors. It is a traditional fertility symbol, a delicate figure of rice goddess Dewi Sri made of (biodegradable) palm leaf and paper, designed to be placed in a rice field to ensure a good yield of that staple crop.

The figure reminds us that Bali is dependent on rice as much as on tourism, the more usual lens through which we view the island. We see it as a cheap holiday destination for families and groups of mates, a place where foreigners are welcome to eat and drink, swim and socialise, sightsee and shop, while Balinese happily serve them as bar staff, housekeepers, drivers, sex workers and shopkeepers. Although tourism slumped after the 2002 bombings, and again after another series of bombings in October 2005, it is thriving again. Of course, we know that the terrorists were not Balinese and that they have been dealt with by the Indonesian justice system.

Foreigners still see Bali as a pleasant holiday destination, but memories of the terrorist attacks have added a layer of sadness and wariness to the perception. Perhaps some visitors are more likely to respect their hard-working hosts and be sensitive to their relative poverty. However, exploitation by foreigners is still rife, and some of it is highly unpleasant.

The donor of the goddess figure purchased it in 1973 for use in making educational audio-visuals. In light of the horrific events in Bali 29 years later, the figure now represents the relative innocence of that earlier era, when the Indonesian government promoted cultural tourism and tried to limit the degree of contact between locals and visitors, the era when terrorism only happened far away from the famed rice terraces of Bali.

This new cultural meaning does not negate the original significance of the object, which was acquired by the Museum a few months before the bombings, as a symbol of Balinese art, craft, religion and culture. Thus it is an interesting case study of how the significance of a museum object, even one designed to last only a short time, can change as our experiences and understandings of the world evolve. In future its meaning could morph again as this object (because it is in a museum collection, where it is preserved, studied and interpreted) serves to remind future generations of what happened in Bali on 12 October 2002.