Heritage Indonesia

First reports from Sumatra earthquake

Over 150 sites of cultural and historic significance have been severly damaged

london. On 30 September an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale struck the Indonesian province of West Sumatra; the next morning the earth rumbled once again as a second massive quake hit the region. Some 5,500 miles away in the South Pacific on the same day as the first Indonesian quake, a magnitude 8.3 earthquake triggered a colossal tsunami that ravaged Samoa. Despite the fact that many communication networks are still down and rural areas remain inaccessible, reports are emerging that historic buildings, museums and cultural sites are among the casualties.

West Sumatra’s capital city of Padang was the epicentre of the initial quake and bore the brunt of the destruction. The Prince Claus Fund, an Amsterdam-based cultural relief organisation, working in conjunction with the Indonesian Heritage Trust, has identified 156 sites of cultural and historic significance that have suffered damaged. Fifteen of these require immediate attention, including the city’s oldest mosque, the Masjid Raya Ganting, which is in danger of collapse because the columns in its prayer hall are so severely cracked that they undermine the structure’s integrity. Museum Adityawarman has also been hit, with the collapse of a roof over a storage room shattering glass cabinets and damaging more than 300 ceramic pieces.

Eléonore de Merode, from the Prince Claus Fund’s Cultural Emergency Response (CER) division, said: “Given the immense richness and diversity of the cultural heritage in West Sumatra and the devastating impact of the earthquake in terms of the loss of human lives and infrastructure, CER knew that the damage to cultural heritage was likely to be extremely high and conservation needs immense.” She compared the severity of this catastrophe with cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the Sichuan earthquake in China, both in 2008.

Museums and heritage sites 1,000 miles north in Vietnam were also damaged by the natural disasters. The Kom Tum Province Museum near the Laos and Cambodian border was destroyed, as was the Thua Thien Hué Province Museum located on the north central coast. Julien Anfruns, the director general of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), said that the heritage site of Hué was under 1.2 metres of water and that all of the site’s ancillary buildings were destroyed. He also said that parts of Hoi An, a Unesco world heritage site and former trading port on the southeast coast, are underwater. The exhibition hall of the Cham Museum in Danang—the world’s largest repository of Cham art—was destroyed as well.

Anfruns said there are currently no reports of significant damage to museums in Samoa or the Philippines, although information is only filtering through slowly. There was flooding around the National Museum of the Filipino People and the National Art Gallery, both in Manila, but staff were able to get rid of the water and the collections are safe.

According to Anfruns: “Given the current communication issues, we are still awaiting feedback from Cambodia and Indonesia, which is normal in these situations when priorities are obviously food and shelter.”

Both ICOM and the Prince Claus Fund said it was too early to determine the financial repercussions for the museums and heritage sites affected by these catastrophes. De Merode said she anticipates that “the costs to be so high that the support of many organisations will be necessary to rehabilitate the damaged heritage”.

These series of natural disasters highlight the need for both international communication networks and disaster relief plans for museums and cultural sites. “I cannot stress enough the importance of a worldwide network of museums so that when natural catastrophes occur we can reach out and help each other,” said Anfruns. “We believe preparation is the key”.

ICOM’s Emergency Museum Protection Programme prepares museums to safeguard their collections against natural disasters. It hosted an eight-month programme in Indonesia in 2005 and their next conference is to be held in Croatia in 2010.

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