Of three collections the new Southeast Asian Museum (SAM) will display next year, 60 Indonesian glass paintings were donated by Italian Dr Rosalia Sciortino and her Indonesian husband, O'ong Mariono.
Sciortino is the director of the Canada International Development Research Centre for East and Southeast Asia. Arriving in Viet Nam for the museum's opening on Saturday, she speaks to Culture Vulture.
In your opinion, how significant is the new museum?
This is the museum that talks about Southeast Asia, so it's a very good opportunity for people of the region to learn about their neighbours.
Often, people from Viet Nam don't know about Thailand, people from Singapore don't know about Viet Nam, etc. It's very important to learn more about each other's cultures and similarities, as well as differences.
We talk a lot about economic integration, ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] economic integration. But we cannot forget that integration is also cultural and social, and this museum is about culture.
Could you say something about the collection of glass paintings?
My husband is Indonesian [a pencak silat master]. I've been working many years in Southeast Asia. So we bought a lot cultural items.
We started to collect glass paintings in Indonesia more than 20 years ago. Wherever we went, we would be looking for glass paintings, once a popular art. Many of these paintings are 50, 60, and 70 years old, but not all are in good condition because they were painted with vegetable paints, and at that time there were no artificial colours.
So we have a collection of more than 300 pieces. And we donated 60 of these glass paintings from various parts of Indonesia with different motifs to the museum. You will see in this exhibition [the on-going Southeast Asian Culture: Diversity and Unification on SAM's first floor] three of these. The paintings usually feature religious motifs, Indonesian epics of Ramayana and Mahabarata, life in villages, and different stories. They are life-like, so they are very attractive.
We very much love glass paintings and we actually planned to do some writing about them. But my husband died eight months ago, so now the plan is to write a book about glass paintings, which I hope will finally be ready next year.
Why did you choose to donate the art works to SAM?
I was working as the director of the Rockefeller Foundation, so we already had worked with the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology (VME) on several projects. Then we read in a local newspaper that the VME wanted to start the Southeast Asian Museum, which we were very interested in. We believed in regional cultural collaborations, and in sharing cultural respect for each other.
We trusted the museum to take care of the paintings. Yes, it was a risk because you never know, but you have to take a jump. So we took the jump to donate the paintings.
Even though it took longer than expected – two years, four years, but finally it happened.
And I'm glad that it was a good decision, because now I see a very beautiful museum and our paintings will be displayed in beautiful places, so many people will see them.
If we keep them in our home, we can only put them all on the floor. Here, they can be open. What we like is the guarantee by the museum that they will take good care of the glass paintings. There is a special room for the permanent exhibits that they will not be rotating, or put in storage and then taken out, as we normally see in museums.
What is the significance of the donation?
My husband is dead now, so this collection has become very important for me because it is the symbol of our passion together for arts and culture.
There is one more reason why I'm glad to give the paintings to the museum. Ideally, we wanted to donate to an Indonesian museum, but we did not find a good museum. In addition, this is the Southeast Asian Museum, it's important to have an Indonesian room inside. — VNS