Gamelan: Music of Java

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

21 May – 12 July 2009
Room 3
Admission free

This display focuses on the ornate great gong from a Javanese gamelan (an ensemble of musical instruments). Brought back from Java (present day Indonesia) by Sir Stamford Raffles in the early 1800s, the gong entered the British Museum’s collection in 1859. The display offers a rare chance to see this extraordinary object; it is only the second time that the gong has been on display due to its size, complexity and fragility.

Gamelan ensembles are sets of wooden and metal instruments which are used to accompany ceremonies, feasts, dance and shadow puppet performances. In Java, gamelan music has a long history as part of ritual and courtly life and is associated with beauty, refinement and prosperity. Gamelan instruments held by courts (kraton) became associated with the sacred power of the king himself and all gamelan ensembles must be treated with respect.

Gamelan music remains central to Javanese identity and is today performed at events including rock concerts and tourist shows as well as at religious occasions, such as celebrations for the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Gamelan music has become very popular around the world, influencing musicians as diverse as Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, John Cage, Philip Glass and Lou Harrison and, more recently, Björk.

The gong has recently undergone significant conservation work. The metal gongs have been re-oriented to their original and correct position and the cords securing the gongs to the frame have been replaced. Whilst undergoing a cleaning conservators discovered inscriptions within an inner section of the gong-stand that tell us that the carver of the Raffles Gamelan was most likely from east Java and was called ‘Wupa’.

It is likely that Sir Stamford Raffles (1781–1826) commissioned this unique Gamelan between 1811 and 1816 when he was Lieutenant-Governor of Java.  Raffles is best known for founding Singapore in 1819. He spent twenty years in Southeast Asia working for the East India Company. As a political administrator and a considerable linguist, historian and naturalist Raffles was a leading figure of the British Enlightenment. In 1817 he published his much acclaimed History of Java, a work still valued by scholars of Southeast Asia.

The gong is decorated with winged snakes and mystical birds. These zoomorphic (animal-like) features of the gong are unique and show European stylistic influence. This reflects Raffles’ interest in both the Javanese imagination and the natural world. He understood that the most powerful Javanese rulers and courts (kraton) held the best gamelan ensembles, so the commission was probably aimed at consolidating his own position as ruler of Java. It is lacquered in black and red and is richly embellished with gilded detail. Many gamelan ensembles were commissioned by Chinese communities living in Java. The rich gold and deep cinnabar red of the gong-stand may reflect their taste.

For further information or images please contact Katrina Whenham on +44 (0)20 7323 8583 or kwhenham@britishmuseum.org

Related public programme events

Performance

Music and dance from Java
Saturday 13 June, 18.30
BP Lecture Theatre
£5, concessions £3
More information

Films

Gamelan: film double bill
Friday 19 June, 14.30–16.20
Stevenson Lecture Theatre
Admission free, booking advised
More information

Family event

Indonesian puppet theatre
Sunday 12 July, 12.00 & 15.00
Children/adults £5, 150 places

Gallery talks

All gallery talks are at 13.15 in Room 3
Admission free, no pre-booking

Raffles and the art of the Malay letter
Tuesday 2 June
By Annabel Gallop

Raffles: the collector and the man
Friday 12 June
By Nigel Barley

Javanese dance rhythms in court and country
Saturday 20 June
By Felicia Hughes-Freeland

Raffles in the British Museum
Wednesday 1 July
By British Museum curator Anouska Komlosy

Javanese shadow theatre and music in social context
Friday 10 July
By Angela Hobart