Soedarmadji Jean Henry Damais, Indonesian curator and historian, dies aged 78

The last director of the Jakarta History Museum was a leading advocate of the archipelago's traditional arts, crafts and designs

Soedarmadji Jean Henry Damais Photo:  © Patrick Blot, French School of Jakarta

Soedarmadji Jean Henry Damais Photo: © Patrick Blot, French School of Jakarta

Soedarmadji Jean Henry Damais, 78, died on 15 September, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

A curator, historian, author and collector, he was one of the country’s most influential advocates for the preservation, study and propagation of traditional arts, crafts and designs from the Indonesian archipelago.

Damais served as the last director of the Jakarta History Museum (1989-99), and championed the revitalisation of the area around the old colonial port in downtown Jakarta. He created a valuable cultural legacy for the Southeast Asian nation, which won independence from the Netherlands in 1949 after a bitter and bloody struggle.

“He was an important figure for Indonesia, someone who opened ten museums in just three years, between 1974 to 1977,” says the contemporary artist Syagini Ratna Wulan, who represented Indonesia at the 2019 Venice Biennale. “The institutions were created within old buildings as he believed in preserving heritage architecture, something which is currently lacking.”

In 1973, Damais co-founded the prestigious Himpunan Keramik Indonesia (the Indonesian Ceramics Society) with the politician Adam Malik, who later became the country's vice president. In 1976, Damais was a force behind the creation of Wastraprema, an organisation promoting Indonesian textile appreciation and research.

Though he often simply referred to himself as a “retired civil servant” or an “independent scholar”, he continued to be a prominent personality in the Indonesian cultural scene, actively lecturing, and writing prolifically about architecture, art and antiquities.

He assembled a renowned personal collection of terracotta objects from the Majapahit empire, which ruled on the island of Java from the 13th to 16th centuries. Although out of print, the book on his collection remains one of the primary references on the pottery of the sophisticated Majapahit civilisation.

Although Adjie Damais, as he was also known, grew up and spent most of his life in what is now Indonesia, he was educated in France, earning a degree in Malay and Polynesian at the École des langues Orientales Vivants. He was born in 1942, in what was then the Dutch East Indies, to a native mother and a French father who was a researcher for the École française d'Extrême-Orient in Jakarta and in Hanoi.