Barong and Rangda: An Exhibit at the Spurlock Museum

The Spurlock Museum, also known as the William R. and Clarice V. Spurlock Museum, is one of the most famous ethnographic museums in Illinois. It contains numerous collections and exhibits from other different museums and campuses. In addition, this museum presents the historical objects donated by private individuals, such as Professor John Garvey.

The peculiar feature of this museum is its variety of exhibits of different nations and cultures. There are five galleries, which represent the cultures of Europe, America, Ancient Mediterranean, Egypt and Mesopotamia, Africa, East and Southeast Asia, and Oceania. These galleries underline the diversities of each culture and their changes through different periods of time.

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East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania is considered to be one of the most captivating galleries in the Spurlock Museum; it presents a lot of interesting and clear information that provides visitors with opportunities to learn more about such Balinese historical creatures like Rangda and Barong, which are two opposites, evil and good, and analyze deeper the history of Balinese people and their culture.

The Balinese culture exists more than 2 000 years. Of course, their customs develop from time to time, however, its origins, which came from Hindu religion, still play a very important role and remain unchangeable. Balinese people try to preserve their own culture from different influences of other countries, and this is why their traditions deserve respect and gain recognition in many cultures.

The Spurlock Museum presents different kinds of exhibitions that help people be closer to the customs they prefer or just want to examine. The Balinese culture is really captivating and amazing due to many reasons.

People prefer to believe in numerous things and even allow them to control their lives. In the East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania gallery, the exhibits of Barong, a mystical creature in Bali mythology, and Rangda, a widow witch, take very important places and attract lots of visitors.

When you enter the Spurlock Museum, you find yourself in a big captivating room with four resource centers, which present all the facilities of the museum and mention all the necessary information about each gallery.

This visit to the Spurlock Museum may be compared with the one of James Clifford. When Clifford describes his visit to Paradise, he tries to pay attention to each detail in the museum. “You follow the arrows into a light, open gallery with curving walls and raised display platforms, several spaces flowing into one another.” (193) The same things happen to the visitors of the Spurlock Museum and have already happened to me.

I open huge doors of the museum and enter another world, full of historical events and secrets. Gray-and-white colors considerably expand the first room. It looks like you are in a big holding alley and searching for the necessary door to enter.

You are not distracted by the variety of colors, which are inherent to different cultures and different epochs. This calm light allows to make the right choice and approach to the gallery needed. The East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania gallery is full of different objects, which present their own histories and tell more about the nation. This very gallery attracts my attention right now, and this is where I should enter in order to know more about the culture preferred.

What do we know about Asia cultures, for example the Balinese one? A lot of information is presented about the two mythological creatures, which played an important role in the Balinese culture – Rangda and Barong. “Rangda takes her name, meaning “widow” in Balinese, from a legendary Javanese-Balinese tale, the twelfth-century Calonarang.” (Spurlock Museum) This is the way of how the museum represents one of the most famous characters of the Balinese mythology.

This information is clear enough to get a clear understanding of what this mythology creature is. Rangda and Barong (the barong ket), a dragon-like exhibit, came from Bali. These two objects were donated by Professor John Garvey at the beginning of 2000s. These characters have a long history and play a considerable role in the history of Bali.

In Paradise, Clifford pays a certain attention to the history of the objects under discussion and the colors used by the historians in order to represent the chosen time: “large color photographs”, “images are in bright, living color”, and “black-and-white records”. (201) The colors of the exhibits in the Spurlock Museum and the lightning of the rooms itself deserve not less attention. Lots of people can hardly understand that it is very captivating to “read” the history of the nation by means of the colors used.

Rangda and Barong are both presented in red and golden colors. However, to my mind, the colors of Rangda and Barong symbolize quite different natures of these characters. Rangda is considered to be a symbol of evil. She is angry, she is eager to take revenge, and punish each being, which may hurt her. Her long, unkempt hair, terrible claws, and pendulous tongue evoke some kind of aversion to this character.

In her article, Margaret Coldiron (227) compares Balinese and Japanese masks and underlines that “the Balinese Rangda mask appears to be thoroughly alien and evil, but she is nonetheless regarded as a beneficent protector.”

She also mentions that Barong mask exists “in several forms.” It is necessary to emphasize that, in different regions of Bali, Barong has a face of different animals: a lion, a tiger, a dragon, and a boar. The masks of lion and dragon are the most popular ones. In Spurlock Museum, I had a possibility to admire Barong in the mask of golden dragon with huge bulging red-and-black eyes.

The point is that unkempt hair and bulging eyes are inherent to both Rangda and Barong, however, the attitude to these creatures is rather different. Good Barong is respected by the people of Bali; this mythological creature is a symbol of humankind protector, sun glory, and white magic. Evil Rangda is Barong’s opponent; she is able to rule all evil spirits, who appear at graveyards at nights. She is one of the brightest representatives of black magic and the consequences of destructive forces.

The story of these two mysterious creatures is the story of constant fight between good and evil, between black and white, between life and death. People want to believe that they have a kind of protector, this is why they create Barong. This creature should fight against something that is materialized as well, this is why Rangda is considered to be a human in past, who joined the black side in order to revenge.

In the Spurlock Museum, Barong and Rangda signify the belief that was so inherent to any Balinese. “The people of Bali are well-know for their vibrant and complex ceremonial life and arts… Balinese ritual and everyday life are concerned with the relationship between the visible universe and an invisible realm.” (Spurlock Museum) Barong dance is probably one of the most popular ones in Bali. This is one of the ways of how Balinese act out mythology and comprehend their traditions and history.

I have read that this dance may be rather dangerous for people: it may not only lead to body injuries, but also kill people. People say that if Rangda casts too dangerous and strong spell, weak people cannot resist it, and even powerful Barong cannot help them to avoid death. To my mind, it is just one more way to lay the blame on somebody else. Balinese people cannot just believe that it is time to leave this world, and nothing can prevent it. However, they still try to present Rangda as the only creature who is guilty.

When I move from one exhibit to another in the East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania gallery of the Spurlock Museum, I try to imagine how these characters may fight with each other, hurt people, and save them. The colored figures of Barong and Rangda can easily alive in my imagination and take me away, where all those fights took place. Silence that is typical for the Spurlock Museum allows visitors to use their imagination and fancy the flow of events in accordance with their personal preferences.

“As you examine the Barong Ket, think of it not just as a dramatic and colorful aspect of cultural expression, but as a valuable point of contact with a certain way of experiencing and understanding the world.” (Spurlock Museum) This is how the museum give a hint to its visitor to comprehend and enjoy its exhibits. Barong and Rangda’s masks – this is what attract my attention most of all. Just look at these faces: they are angry and happy, mad and calm, kind and evil simultaneously.

It is necessary to spend some time in front of each of them in order to comprehend why they look this way, what makes them angry or happy, and why they are so similar and different at the same time. At first, Rangda’s angry face and long tongue make lots of people close their eyes and hope that her evil spirit never curse them. But if you look at her face closer, it is possible to see a faint note of fear and even a bit of resentment.

Her long tongue may be just a means of defence, the defence against this cruel world and its traditions that helps to survive. The image of Barong should be also examined deeper. People get used to think that dragons and lions are dangerous for people. However, these very masks were chosen for one of the most sacred images, Barong.

Barong’s mask is rather kind and attractive. He looks at this world and smiles. In order to make this world happier, it is better to smile and think about something good. Even if Barong has to fight against Rangda, he finds time to give a smile to the world and assuage his people.

Tours to museum always provide people with an opportunity to learn more about their history and traditions. When you decide to visit the Spurlock Museum, the East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania gallery in particular, you get a chance to perceive old traditions of people of Bali. Such exhibits as Rangda and Barong are one of the most famous representatives of the Balinese culture.

They represent a constant fight between good and evil. Unbelievable combination of red and gold colors attracts the attention of viewers and helps them to realize that the same color may call different reactions and represent different characters.

Calm atmosphere, proper lighting, and reliable information about each exhibit captivates the visitor and gives him/her a chance to make a wonderful trip to Bali and be a participant of their customs, at least for several minutes. Not every museum can provide people with such opportunities, and the Spurlock Museum should be proud of the facilities, it presents to its visitors.

Works Cited

Clifford, James. “Paradise.” Reading Context. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005, 193-222.

Coldiron, Margaret. “Lions, Witches, and Happy Old Men: Some Parallels between Balinese and Japanese Ritual Masks.” Asian Theatre Journal 22.2 (Fall 2005): 227.

Spurlock Museum. University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Feb, 2003. 23 April, 2009.

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