by Louise Macul
“His Highness the Rajah intends on a future day to establish a museum, for which a suitable building will be constructed at Kuching by the Government.” Sarawak Gazette 28 March 1878
This place being Sarawak, it took thirty-five years for the museum to be officially opened in a new building on 4 August 1891. The original Queen Anne style building is now believed to have been a copy of a children’s hospital in Adelaide. Further extensions brought it to its present day form in 1911. This building, and its entire collection, complete with Victorian cabinets and specimens preserved with methods of that same era, belongs in a museum itself. Many visitors have commented that it is a museum of a museum. Thus lies its charm and thus it has drawn me into its world from the darkest recesses of Borneo. The Rajah was encouraged to establish a museum by the evolutionary theorist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who did research here from 1854 to1856. The first collection of ethnographic specimens was purchased from H. Brooke Low, a Sarawak Government Servant and author of The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo. Some of that original collection is still on display on the first floor.
“The objectives of the museum were then as now, to be an all-round museum and not to over-specialize; to try and be interested in everything; and to collect everything – plants, snakes, butterflies, as well as arrange them in a way that even illiterate people from the ulu can enjoy them….” T. Harrison 1959.
Sometimes a museum appeals to us because it offers an exploration of something we have never seen before. Sometimes we walk into a museum because it reminds us of something. For me the appeal was both: a new world, the island of Borneo, and a pleasant memory. For me, walking into the Sarawak Museum reminded me of the very first museum I ever walked into as a child – the Abbe Museum of Bar Harbor, Maine (U.S.A.) An early 20th century museum with old wooden cases filled with the personal archeological collections from Mount Desert Island and 10, 000 years of cultural history of the Wabanaki Nation of costal Maine, complete with a teepee! I remember peering into the corners of the dusty exhibits with wonder at the how, when, and who of times gone by. Wondering to myself “How did this stuff get here?” And so it is with the Sarawak Museum; I wonder how things got there as I look at the old specimens of things endangered (culturally and naturally). One of my favourite collections is of the seashells of Mary Saul, the wife of a British officer posted in Sarawak and Sabah some fifty years ago. I have so many favourites from boat coffins to beads to baskets in the galleries that contain the 47,000-year-old cultural heritage of a vibrant present-day people. I now walk beneath the heads of an authentic replica of a longhouse built by Ibans just as I did as a little girl trying to crawl into a teepee built by the Penobscot.
For me, the appeal is in the totality of this museum and not just the objects displayed. To me, the museum as a whole is greater than the sum of its collections. The Sarawak Museum is the only single repository for Borneo collections: zoological, botanical, ethnological, and archeological in the entire world. “All Things Borneo” should be its tag line. Today it is comprised of 12 museums in and outside of Kuching showcasing collections of Dayak material culture including textiles, Malay Islamic heritage, Chinese history and culture, archaeology, local contemporary art, and local historical material.
There is a place in our world and communities for all the bells and whistles of modern museums replete with interactive exhibits that can take us back hundreds, or thousands of years in time with a push of a button and the donning of a headset. There is also a place for historical museums that display to us people’s interests, research, and a desire for preservation and education from many generations ago. All museums start with people and their collections; the museums within each of us to share with others.
Photo credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarawak_State_Museum