Accepted Paper:

Working with Wayang: Curating Indonesian Puppets at the Yale University Art Gallery  


Matthew Cohen (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paper short abstract:

Indonesian wayang puppets are generally considered as ethnographic art for display only. As museums are increasingly becoming places of performance, restrictions on use are being revised: puppets become again tools for performance; exhibition and conservation means putting them into practice.

Paper long abstract:

Puppets from Southeast Asia - and particularly the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali - are numerically the most prevalent puppets in museums internationally. With important roles to play in public culture, art and ritual, such puppets have been easy to acquire and transport since the nineteenth century. Important collections are situated in art museums, anthropology museums, puppet and theatre museums, a leather museum, museums of popular culture and world museums. Understandings and uses made of such puppets has varied according to institutional contexts and policies, in-house expertise and collaborative networks. In this paper, I propose to reflect on the developing attitudes and policies in relation to the world's largest collection of Indonesian puppets (wayang), the Dr Walter Angst and Sir Henry Angest Collection of Indonesian Puppets, acquired by the Yale University Art Gallery in 2017. Departing from standard museum procedure, puppets in this collection are being considered not as inviolate and immobile objects for display, but rather as tools available for handling by artists, researchers and students; available for loan and use in performances. I will suggest that this new attitude emerges, at least in part, from the prominent place that performance now occupies in art museums and a contemporary understanding that conserving objects means putting them into practice. These puppets as performing objects thus carry a capacity both to speak to their historical origins in Indonesia and the current-day contexts and co-texts brought to bear by actants interacting with them.

Panel P109
Curating with an Anthropological Approach