Each little byway [at the World’s Columbian Exposition] was touched by enchantment. The Midway was a never-ending source of gayety…Most enchanting of all, perhaps, of the glorified side-shows…was the Java Village, with its houses and industries straight from the South Seas, and its exquisite, tiny women, dainty as porcelain, strange as oriental gods. In their own theater a new kind of charm was revealed that was partly grotesque, a grace that was stiff with decorative gesture.
—Caroline Kirkland writing a remembrance of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Los Angeles Times, 1919 (quoted in “Javaphilia” by Henry Spiller)
From its dawn, Newcity has been a kind of world’s fair. I was on the cultural and culinary beats when the publication began, shortly after I moved back to Chicago after living in far-off alien places such as Japan and New York City. About a year before, I finished a happy two years in Indonesia where I shared a bamboo house with bats and rats in a village inside the Special Region of Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of Java. In Chicago, Newcity allowed me to plumb the city’s museums, galleries and foods with a license to go wide and go deep. I gravitated to where I could experience the faraway up close, and my stories took their place in the pages that covered Chicago’s world of wonders—outsider art, black-box theaters producing Kabuki Shakespeare, samba in basement bars, the city’s little-known neighborhood museums that imported art and performance from this or that home country. The publication is a fair that’s never stopped. And for me, press credentials in hand, it has long been a passport to a particular obsession that ties me back to Java and to the remarkable history of a Javanese village at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Though lost almost entirely from the public imagination and relegated to a footnote in Chicago’s history, the Java Village was the single most popular attraction on the fair’s Midway Plaisance. The village was a mostly authentic reproduction of the villages in then-Dutch East Indies. The “villagers” built their homes from wood and thatchery brought from the colonies. There was a small mosque and residence for the representatives of their Dutch overseers among thirty-six or more buildings set within a large compound near the giant Ferris Wheel. The village was more popular than the bellydancers, the first to appear in the United States, in the architecturally spectacular Turkish Pavilion, or the “Eskimous” braving summer heat to look authentically Arctic in their seal furs. (At one point the “Eskimous” got into a street brawl with the Turks, and made the pages of the Tribune.) More popular, too, than the donkey driving “boys” on the Streets of Cairo, who, when they weren’t on strike to keep their tip money, gave visitors rides. The donkeys also provided extra, um, raw material, which the promoters may have hoped contributed to the exotic squalor of the attraction (and which offended Egyptian visitors to the fair). It outdrew the Chinese Theater and Joss House, which featured Chinese opera and orchestra, and was decorated, according to one souvenir book, with “idols of horrid visage.” If the village truly were the most popular attraction on the Midway, more people entered its gates than rode in Mr. Ferris’ marvel. Of course, I knew of the wheel and other fair sites, such as the Japanese garden and the famous beer house, from the commonly reproduced images of the fair, but not the Java Village.
My first awareness of the Java Village resulted from a trip in 1989 to The Field Museum to cover the then-new exhibition, “Traveling the Pacific.” The exhibit—most of which is still in the Regenstein Halls of the Pacific—introduced the natural history of Oceania well. It offered a feel for the kinds of places I knew from my own island hopping; it even featured a little tropical shop that sold Spam. It had stunning objects such as the spirit-endowed canoe paddles of a kind no other museum in town could match. But much of the Field’s rare and rich collection was left out. I felt that there was too much re-creation of scenes and not enough of the genuine stuff. The exhibit designers clearly thought that visitors would be happier engaging with a story than with more artifacts. The theme-park-like elements of “Traveling the Pacific” were meant to combat the Field’s image as a storehouse of dead things: dead rocks, dead dinos and bugs, dead lions, dead birds, dead Egyptians and dead exhibit copy that deadened the minds of children and adults alike. In the late 1980s, exhibit designers had begun to wrestle with the fact that many museums were more powerful displays of the history of museums than of the world they collected from. Objects tended to be displayed like orderly treasures in cases, as if mere possession of them demonstrated museums’ power to possess them. It was a colonial mindset exhibit designers were keen on combating, too.
I also wondered whether the new-style exhibit resulted from a shift in academic anthropology that aggressively rejected the obsession of earlier scholars on collecting the “material culture,” the literally tangible artifacts of cultures, and focused more on understanding relationships through observation, theory and analysis. Stuff be damned. As an avid museumgoer, and perhaps more as a traveler who yearned for objects that could keep me close, in some way, to places far off in space and time, I missed the stuff. The meaning of stuff was profound. It was, and is, made with effort, by people, for a purpose. Whole personal narratives, heck, whole histories, could be wrapped around the right objects. The exhibit designer may have regarded the story as the main stuff of the show, but to me stuff always comes with story, deep story, and is not the enemy of it. There is, in other words, a Rosetta Stone in every pot.
Surprisingly, when I tried to dig deeper into the Field’s design decisions, I found the anthropologists at the museum who worked in the region agreed with me, and were just as critical of the exhibition. They were, in fact, angry about it and had declined to work on it. In their own research, they had been working with the objects from the Pacific region and with the records on how and where they were collected by the museum’s early expeditions to Micronesia and Melanesia. The objects included many handmade string purses in many local styles that revealed where any given bag was made, which was often a different place from where it was collected. They found that the objects, when cataloged and traced, revealed a vast network of trade among tribal groups separated by great distances and long assumed to be largely disconnected. I didn’t recall any string bags in the “Traveling the Pacific” exhibition, even though the objects did show how peoples of the Pacific traveled and traded, and, through the research on them, were changing the narrative of a large section of the globe. The modern anthropologists traveled to some of the villages in the Sepik communities on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea where their forerunners had collected and brought with them old photo albums—also in the museum’s research collection—that show the grandparents and great- and great-great grandparents of the present-day inhabitants, who in turn were delighted and had stories to tell.
“One thing missing from ‘Traveling the Pacific,’” says Jaap Hoogstraten, who arrived at The Field in 2000 and is now the director of exhibitions, “is that even though it aimed to tell the story of a region, there are no stories about the individuals that used any of the objects in the exhibit.” Hoogstraten gives “Traveling the Pacific” high marks for breaking away from an old, colonially inflected mode, but feels that the narratives of individuals can be key in making bigger narratives come alive.
When I mentioned to the ornery anthropologists back then that I had lived in Yogyakarta, they pulled me into the behind-the-scenes hall where Research Collections live, and marched me over to the shelves and archival boxes that held some of the first objects the museum owned. They were from the royal workshops and village household craft makers of nineteenth-century Java. There were wooden theater masks worn by dancers when they enact chapters from classic epic stories. There were ceremonial metal objects from the court of a Javanese Sultan from Solo, a regency not far from where I lived in Yogyakarta. And more. I’d seen similar objects in Indonesia, but these were far finer. The face of one mask looked like it was fashioned from gold leaf. And, of course, the Field ensured its items were exquisitely preserved. I gasped, overcome the way treasure hunters in movies are when they meet a talisman from their dreams. These objects were transporting, carrying me back to my bamboo house, and the gangways I prowled surrounding Yogyakarta sultan’s palace, filled with artists’ workshops and dance studios. The objects recalled the friends, the music and Javanese cultural milieu I missed. My hosts smiled. They mentioned that the museum also owned a full gamelan orchestra, the collection of gongs, kettles, drums, marimba-like sets and stringed instruments that produce the circular, slow, meditative music like that my village neighbors played late into the nights. And has ever since been grooved in my ear.
Where did this all come from, I wondered? I learned that these objects were left to the then-new museum after the World’s Columbian Exposition ended. The Java Village was dispersed along with all the rest. The museum inherited a lot from the fair, including some of the Egyptian mummies that remain star attractions. The Java Village didn’t just leave goods that had been carried from the Indies, the “villagers” who came had the skills to produce many of them. They were a relatively large contingent, between 140 and 165 of them. Counts vary. And because among the villagers there were births and deaths, the numbers changed. The women produced intricate batiks in the style of the Solo court, men and women both made woven goods and musical instruments from bamboo. Some of those objects—such as batik sarongs—remain in the Field collection. Others were sold at the fair.
That is what I learned on that assignment from Newcity. The article on “Traveling the Pacific” ran. I heard that it upset some of the exhibit people at the museum but I heard from the anthropologists that I talked to at the museum that they were happy. I also heard from others at universities elsewhere who had their own stories to pitch, which helped me do my bit to stoke Newcity’s ongoing world’s fair in print. So often, Newcity has always taken me as a writer—and reader—to places in Chicago that astonish me with their connection to a bigger world and deeper history than other, more hesitant, large-circulation publications in town are willing to give writers enough rope to delve into. If a subject isn’t hot enough—or is too hot—for other outlets in town, it can still be cool enough for Newcity.
The “Traveling the Pacific” exhibit has grown on me over time. In retrospect, I see a deep contradiction in my original argument about it, a contradiction that I should have awakened to when I first beheld the Indonesian artifacts in the Research Collection. They meant so much to me because I came to those objects with a story of my own. And when I describe the objects to others, I bring my story to that telling. More than that, it was the addition of the story of the 1893 villagers, added to my own village experiences, that ignited my imagination. I also now appreciate more the meticulous and beautiful dioramas, a museum art that is growing rare, and are themselves worth a visit.
In the thirty-one years since that Pacific exhibit opened, I have been collecting what artifacts I can find that tie to the Java Village on the Midway. They are photographs and prints mostly, culled from the outpouring of illustrated books sold to memorialize the fair. There is also a wax-cylinder recording of the gamelan orchestra captured at the time of the fair, perhaps even while the players and dancers were in performance (thirty-three such recordings are available through the Library of Congress). These are the oldest recordings of a gamelan orchestra in the world. I have vintage hand-colored photos that show how dance performances took place in the 1,000-seat theater on a stage with painted tropical scenery complete with palms and volcanoes. Music also accompanied puppet plays, which had casts of dozens of wooden wayang golek hand puppets and a puppeteer who had a distinct voice for each. I have not been able to learn if the stories on stage were translated or summarized. The gamelan and the stage performances were part of an effort to replicate in Chicago the shows that had been a sensation at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889. In Paris, John Singer Sargent painted a sensuous if unfinished portrait of one of the Javanese woman dancers. The 1889 expo had two gamelans and French composer Claude Debussy spent long hours listening to gamelan performances, transfixed. His music, and that of Ravel, too, incorporated the sounds of their gamelan encounters, influencing European music in a way perhaps analogous to how the importation of Japanese woodblock prints influenced the art of the Impressionists.
Strangely, the gamelan music in Chicago had no such long-lasting impact. Music, in general, was an important element of the fair. The infant Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed there. German, Irish, Viennese and Hawaiian ensembles played daily on the Midway. Scott Joplin was not allowed into the fair, but he played nearby. There was even a subgenre of novelty songs inspired by the fair, some with vaguely exotic melodies. The most famous of these is probably “The Streets of Cairo”, a hoochie-coochie tune inspired by the erotic gyrations of dancers who took on the role of “Little Egypt.” Yet despite the more-than-one-million people who attended or passed by the Java Village, American composers apparently heard little they thought worth borrowing, neither for concert halls nor beer gardens. C.W. Dalbey, who composed for John Philip Sousa’s band, which was at the fair in 1893, wrote “Twenty Minutes on the Midway,” about thirty seconds of which ever-so-slightly references the Java Village. Other than that, nada. Donald C. Meyer, a professor of music at Lake Forest College, created a musical map of the Midway, showing just what a visitor could hear walking the fair. He’s also collected the popular songs inspired by the fair. I asked him whether his trove offered any hint of the music of the Java Village. He could think of none. I could find no evidence that the music of the Java Village worked its way into American music of the day.
The gamelan tunes at the Chicago fair, however, were likely not the same as those played on the gamelan in Paris. For one, the instrument is a highly local and archaic variation of the orchestra—with its own tuning—that came from huge Dutch plantations at Parakan Salak and Sinagar, in the Sundanese region of West Java, which is also where the musicians were drafted from. For another, these Sundanese players were likely unfamiliar with the repertoire of Central Java, since the musical and performance traditions of West Java’s Sundanese people are different enough from that of other parts of Java that they don’t readily mix. The gamelan is also an emblem of one of the Java Village’s biggest challenges. West Java is in many ways culturally distinct from the mainstream of Javanese culture. West Java has its own language, Sundanese, and its own cultural traditions, including music. The gamelan musicians heralded from the plantations of the Dutch sponsors of the Chicago-Java Village Syndicate which organized the Java Villages in both Chicago and Paris. The dancers in the Chicago village, however, came from the Solo court in Central Java and shared neither a language nor musical tradition with the musicians. Most of the musicians were, in effect, peasant serfs of Dutch planters, while the dancers were royal subjects of a sultan. Some dancers may even have been from the Sultan’s extended family. The shows they performed together were likely the result of necessary compromises between two groups which did not always get along. The village even had its own constables—from the plantation—perhaps to keep order and, presumably, to keep the residents from straying into the fair and city beyond. (I have found no record of anyone from the village staying behind in Chicago following the fair.)
Happily, Chicago is now one of America’s centers for gamelan music, with excellent local ensembles for both Javanese and Balinese music. The Indonesian Consulate and Cultural Center also offers lessons. The Field Museum’s gamelan may now be too fragile to play, though until recently it occasionally made it into a performance. The fact that it could have been played at all after decades of disuse was the result of a meticulous restoration in the 1970s by a team that included ethnomusicologist Sue Carter-De Vale. Carter-De Vale’s detailed chronicling of the gamelan’s history and role at the 1893 fair are the source of many of the details I have learned along the way, often indirectly at first since the results of her research made it into the folklore around the instrument from which I gleaned snippets over the last few decades from multiple tellers. On a trip to Java in the seventies, Carter-De Vale pieced together evidence on the Field’s gamelan that date its creation to the 1840s, which would mean that the orchestra in Chicago is also one of the oldest extant sets in the world.
What I have yet to find is a contemporary description of the experience in Chicago as told by one of the Java Village residents. With 129 years of hindsight, the idea of setting aside a whole boulevard for carnival displays based on so-called exotic peoples, some of whom the press routinely labeled as “savages,” is cringeworthy. An Indonesian friend who recently became aware of the 1893 compound penned a strongly indignant note about the “human zoo.” One anthropologist who studies the fair, Ira Jacknis of the University of California’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology, says that most people likely “came with their prejudices and left with those same prejudices.” Looking over the captions to the photos in the souvenir books evokes both laughter and revulsion. One photo of a young married couple featured in “The Magic City” has a typical bloviation: “Their religion is ostensibly Mohammedanism, but it is a religion of conquest rather than faith, for they generally entertain the beliefs inherited from their remote ancestors, which is polytheistic and shamanistic, of witchcraft and diabolism. Their customs are [as] peculiar as their beliefs… marriage with them is only a convenience.” And look at the enticing but mostly gag-worthy quote that opens this essay.
Not everyone was as callous. A cadre of America’s first professional anthropologists, including seminal figures Frederick Putnam and Franz Boas, who were enlisted to help with cultural and human displays, came to have reservations over how the fair surrendered its educational mission to for-profit exhibitionism on the Midway. For Boas’ part, he reflected on the spectacles on The Midway and, in retrospect, expressed repugnance. Yet the ethnic displays were also part of the cauldron in which academic anthropology in the United States was shaped, and the profusion of foreign groups enlivened scholarly and public imaginations alike. Some of America’s greatest anthropological museums are also heirs to the fair. Not just the Field Museum, but also the Hearst Museum and important collections at The Smithsonian and Harvard’s Peabody Museum (both of which had their own exhibits at the fair).
The main goal the Chicago-Java Village Syndicate had for the fair never panned out. Hoogstraten, whose mother is Javanese and father is Dutch, has examined the history of the Java Village in depth. He tells me that the Dutch sponsors of the village were tea growers who had recently concocted a blend of tea they hoped could take on the English products. In the turn-of-the-century U.S., where Japanese green teas were the most popular with farm families, they’d have to take on American-Japanese trading houses, too. That tea competition, and more, was keenly present at the fair, where Japanese, Chinese, Indian, British and Dutch East Indies teas were all promoted heavily, often in tea rooms designed in the styles of the countries of origin. In the Java Village, tea was served along with the performances in the tropical theater. Dutch-branded tea never took off in the United States. Nevertheless, the Java Village succeeded as a paid attraction. Following the 1893 fair, some residents of the village traveled west in the United States, perhaps on display as they went, eventually ending up at San Francisco’s Midwinter Exposition of 1894, which was likened to a smaller version of the Chicago fair. Cultural memory of it has largely vanished, with little trace of its influence in the U.S., Indonesia or The Netherlands.
Down a long hallway in my home hang sepia portraits of some of the village inhabitants. They stare sternly from their frames, though accounts of them at the fair usually describe how friendly, polite and gentle they were. Despite their grim poses, they are recognizable as people one might still meet in Java, wearing the traditional clothes that many villagers still don. When Indonesians come to my home, the portraits startle them because they are both so old and so familiar. My guests come with no knowledge of Chicago’s Java Village and the story surprises them, especially the bit about how wildly popular the attraction was. Indonesia, they tend to observe, had a bigger place in the American imagination in 1893 than it does in 2021. They grimace a bit at the idea of their kinsmen being on display at a fair. (Jakarta has long had a theme park which had stations for many of Indonesia’s ethnic groups, and which Indonesians mostly disdain.)
And still, almost inevitably comes the suggestion that it would be wonderful to recreate the village with a modern frame, to show off what the country and its people offer today. The Field Museum today has the exhibition chops to make a go of it should it muster the resources. It already made a kind of miniature attempt in the 2013 exhibition, “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair,” where it included the gamelan and a few other objects. That exhibition struck me as in some ways as heir to “Traveling the Pacific,” in that it invited visitors on a journey with both story and objects that entered the museum’s collections early in its history. But the storytelling was richer and the context of the objects far clearer. One of its recently opened permanent exhibits, “The Cyrus Tang Hall of China,” is a masterful combination of objects and story. It is the only exhibition of Chinese artifacts I have ever seen that doesn’t deaden the eyes with obscure descriptive cards that test one’s knowledge of the dynasties and the rulers in them. It’s alive with narratives of the lives of people high and low. The Field also recently reinstalled in its halls the “Racial Types” sculptures of Malvina Hoffman, which were created in the 1930s. Their original installation came so uncomfortably close to society’s now-discarded eugenics-tinged notions of race that they were removed from public view in the 1960s. What made their reinstallation desirable was the museum’s ability to go into the record of their creation and find the stories of the individuals Hoffman sculpted, and also the story of Hoffman herself, who regarded her subjects as individuals and not simply as emblems of one race or another.
Hoogstraten tells me that one of his dreams is to mount a show of the museum’s collection from the Java Village and to tell the story of the inhabitants. He is working to build a roster of them. “I want to know where exactly they all came from, whether what they did in Chicago was really what they did at home. For those from the plantation, I want to know what life for them was like there. And the same for those who came from the sultan’s court.”
Naturally, I am keen on knowing all that, too. I fantasize about taking my photo collection of the Java Village back to the places in Indonesia where the villagers came from and learning what stories have been passed down about those ancestors who made the journey to the Middle West, saw snow and turbines, ate ice cream and heard ragtime. One of the most endearing photos I have shows two Javanese girls hurrying down the Midway outside the village gates after their shows have closed. There are accounts of how the “Ethnic Types” gathered later at night at the fair’s less prim attractions, and it looks to me like that might be where the girls were heading. That’s one kind of story I’d like in a future exhibition. The participants were not “types,” or “zoo creatures.” Like everyone there, they were fairgoers. When the show with their story is up, I hope to cover it for Newcity.