Tuesday, August 20, 2019


When I had an idea to establish Sumatra Heritage Trust (BWS) in Medan, there was hardly anyone with appropriate skills available on the grass-root level. People who were familiar with the idea of cultural heritage, in this case, historical buildings, were mostly lecturers at the local universities. We need representatives from the private sector (for financial and facilities sources) and community (as volunteers for implementation of plans and programs). That was a general idea when I looked for who was in town that I could approach to set up the organization. Medan specifically and Sumatra generally are too precious to be left alone for their cultural heritage assets without local guardians.

It took me about a year to finally gather necessary numbers of the Founders of Sumatra Heritage Trust. A promising formation of 4 entrepreneurs, 2 lecturers, and 2 community representatives. 

The next homework was to educate local youngsters to be cultural heritage professionals. We recruited students and fresh graduates as volunteers and sent them to uncountable conferences, internships, and programs mostly in Indonesia, the neighboring countries and the rest of the world. Penang Heritage Society has been a good counterpart for BWS by providing internship opportunities. ICOMOS Australia and some other organizations have hosted capacity building programs as well. The farthest opportunity came from Newfoundland, Canada, for an expert exchange program. 

Some volunteers took initiatives to study formally in cultural heritage from various angles, mostly the tangible one (historical buildings or landscape). Fast forward 20 years later, in 2019, there are several masters and doctoral graduates in Medan specifically and in Sumatra generally. They did it all themselves so we couldn't take any credits for the achievements. It is only a huge difference from the 1990s when no single graduates available in the profession. 

All of them, all of us, are human capital in the cultural heritage sector. It takes a very long process to keep education, formally and informally, ongoing. 

If I look back, I think human capital is the most crucial step that needs to be maintained all the time in any period of time by any leaders of the organization.  

On 15 August 2019, all the hard work to create the human capital harvested the fruit. The new generation took over the leadership of BWS. A new Executive Director supported by a promising team with a convincing set of programs. If you ever in a position of a (co) founder, you know how it feels to have a leadership estafet. It is a huge relief when you know that a system works and sustained when the founders have left. 

These young leaders of BWS are the local heroes. Taking care of cultural heritage in Medan feels almost like a suicidal attempt when nobody is being paid, while tasks and job responsibilities are very demanding and time-consuming. If we don't believe in what we do, we will not have survived this long. 

Congratulations the new leaders of BWS! As the Beatles said, it is a long and winding road.....be strong and never give up. 

Friday, August 02, 2019


Every time I was in the middle of discussions, trainings and any other events in Indonesia, I was often reminded about the presence of X Factors in heritage conservation.

The first X Factor is a superstitious idea about old (read: historical) buildings. The superstitious idea is mostly about ghosts that are believed to occupy rooms and buildings. I never encountered any scientific references about how to deal with the superstitious ideas in heritage conservation. The issue about ghosts might be considered not scientific, that is why. 

No matter how superstitious it is, the issue exists and as a professional, I have to deal with it. I have witnessed how this superstitious state of mind has affected the decision-making process in an adaptive reuse process of historical buildings. Layers of history are demolished and polished to be completely new features to invite visitors who are otherwise will not come to the historical buildings. It hurts and sad actually to see that the layers of history have disappeared in the name of fears for ghosts. 

It hurts and sad because the whole concept of conservation went in the wrong direction. Instead of keeping heritage values, it destroys them. Yes, the buildings look new and sterile, but what is the lesson learned from them?

The comfort I could try to say to myself is that at least the building is conserved for the time being and that is already an achievement for the Indonesian situation. What we need is assisting in having the right mindset what conservation is all about. A matter of time.

The fears of ghost prevent the Indonesians to reuse historic buildings as residences as well. Most adaptive reuse ideas are a cafe, co-working space, shop, and museum. Anything that is in operation during the day and early evening. I hardly see reuse as residences while I thought most if not all historical buildings are in prime locations, that would be perfect for young professionals to go to their offices without too much burden of traffic jams.  Besides, how many cafes and museums we will make in a certain square meter?

I dream practice of the Stadsherstel model (city restoration model) in Indonesia where adaptive reuse as a means to address current and future needs. This way conservation can save a unique cityscape but also actively use for contemporary life. Residences in walking distance to work in most city centers in Indonesia are very scarce so why not create ones? It is still unthinkable for the Indonesians to live for example in the Kota Lama of Semarang of Kota Tua of Jakarta. Too many ghosts are around.

There are few adaptive reuses as hotels and guesthouses already on the way. Most guests of those accommodations are foreigners. The Indonesians prefer new buildings as accommodations.

I think until adaptive reuse and revitalization initiative can transform a dead area into a lively live and workspace, it will still be very challenging to be sustainable in the long run. Revitalization might last for a few years and then dim again before return to the same old dead quiet area. It is exactly like a life cycle of many malls in Indonesia. 

The second X-Factor is "premanism". Premanism is from the word "preman" or further back from the Dutch word "vrij man". It means literally a jobless man who consoles himself (this is not sexist but so far they are always male) as a strong powerful mafia asking contributions from innocent people. These jobless people act as mafia claiming themselves as representatives from a police department or local government to mess up with anyone trying to save historic buildings. They sell window and door frames, woods and anything valuables from the buildings. 

No, I don't mention which cities have premans. In general, it can happen anywhere in Indonesia. 

I have experienced myself how to deal with premanism in a refurbishment project of a historic site. When the project was launched, all of sudden I saw some premans around to claim that the refurbishment was their job! I was furious with this low attitude and have chased them away from the site. I think I was lucky that they went away without asking for any money and hurting me. It could be different, you never know. 

The premanism issue is again not scientific and hardly found in any conservation guides. Believe me, it happens in many cities in Indonesia or even in Asian cities. It would be useful if conservation experts exchange experiences on how to deal with this barrier. We can not leave a faith of historic buildings in the hands of a few jobless men, they are too precious for the future of society.