by Afidah Zuliana binti Abdul Rahim
“Social Unity through Culture, Art and History: The Museum Challenge“
This gripping theme prompted me to sign up for the first conference of its kind in Malaysia. I was excited to hear and learn from the experiences of National Museums across Asia. Luckily, Jega said he would hold up the fort for training the new volunteers so thanks to my fellow Tuesday trainers for releasing me.
Premiera Hotel was a bustling place on the morning of October 29th. Around 10MVs were dotted around the conference hall. I met some Korean representatives from ICHCAP, UNESCO whom I quickly introduced to Angela Oh, our Korean MV trainer.
The opening ceremony was grand with a spectacular cultural performance by our tourism dancers. The Deputy Minister of Tourism graced the occasion and delivered the keynote address. He acknowledged the challenges to the role of museums in promoting social unity considering the competition from other forms of entertainment available.
Subsequently, session one began. The representative from Mongolia shared a list of overseas exhibitions they had run since 1989, mainly with the Genghis Khan tagline. The most notable development he mentioned was the barcode inventory project they undertook between 2017-18, which has greatly eased storage and retrieval of their massive artefact collection.
The Japanese rep focused on the Asian Gallery at the Tokyo National Museum which houses 20% of their total collection. They connect viewers with artworks through exhibitions and related events. The goal is to provide the experience of different cultures towards a greater understanding of cultures. They hold multi-faceted events on unique themes eg. special tours by curators and Indonesian wayang kulit performance on the theme of love. Also, yoga sessions were held at the museum for better appreciation of Buddhist artefacts.
Our Penang State Museum rep shared her cross-cultural project, ‘Silang Budaya’ which redefines the museum perspectives through the interpretation of artefacts by young people. For example, students had used a tiffin box as inspiration for creating a multi-level phone accessories carrier. The project has instilled a love of history amongst polytechnic students, whose core subjects would be more technical. Museum staff supported the students to set up and curate their exhibition. She welcomed collaborations with other museums for future projects.
Next, the Philippines rep shared the experience of heritage building restoration at their National Museum. Even though there were many challenges, the restoration has brought recognition and appreciation of museums by the public through partnerships and donations. She also shared how they disseminated their national hero stories via a tour for school teachers, who could then translate their passion for the hero on to their students. So many ideas shared in just one morning!
Lunch time was networking time again. We sat with a gentleman from UiTM who has initiated the survey on Muzium Negara; and also, with some police officers who are now administering the Police Museum in KL.
Session 2 was moderated by a well-spoken Malaysian lady. In fact, we were impressed by all 3 moderators who were of retirement age. Next, China astounded us with its exponential growth of museum visitors. Customer service is at the top of their agenda. We were treated to a video on their Joint Asian Civilisation exhibition.
The Indonesian reps showed how their culturally diverse 700 ethnic groups considered themselves “different but still one”. Museums feature traditional games, batik workshops and theatre stories to engage their audience. There are dance performances every Sunday and university students play traditional musical instruments. Their outreach programme allows the blind to touch artefacts with gloves.
Social inclusion through multi-disciplinary aspects are echoed at the National Museum of Nepal. Homestays are offered to enhance their cultural experience.
The Malaysian Ministry of Tourism held a “keretapi sarong” movement, which encouraged millenials to wear their sarongs on the train to a secret destination– a nod to traditional wear in a fun environment.
The annual Sabah Craft Exotica programme has been running since 2005. It features local handicraft by Sabah’s 35 ethnic groups. The Korean rep was impressed by the bottom-up approach to culture-sharing in Sabah. With 115 sub-ethnic groups, Sabahans are eager to demonstrate their particular crafts, enabled by Craft Exotica. This programme also helps to preserve ethnic crafts.
Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, unified in diversity. Their museum connects communities in order to build a cultural identity and to preserve national cultural values. However, they face difficulties in approaching the public in terms of budget for IT since young people would connect better with ancient objects through technology. Also, their staff needs training to obtain professional skills and to overcome language barriers. They are keen to cooperate with foreign museums and to combine museum with other social and cultural activities.
In session 3, the rep from Thailand introduced us to the ancient city of U Thong, located in central Thailand. With 20 sites found along with many Dvaravati (Indian-influenced) artefacts, U Thong museum is now a cultural hub. The museum serves as a learning centre, which develops critical thinking skills, encourages innovation and instils a love for history amongst the public, especially children. They organise family activities on Sundays and integrate efforts with the local government in experiential learning. Also, their museum places importance on social media presence.
Personally, I found the final presentation by South Korea most impressive. In an increasingly multi-cultural Korea, museums have increased their role in diversity education. They have embraced these changes by offering targeted activities for immigrant workers, marriage immigrants and members of the international community. Also, to encourage mutual understanding and respect, their folk museum has culture discovery boxes for children, which can be loaned to schools, libraries and kindergartens. The National Museum of Korea has many exhibition exchanges with numerous countries around the world, bringing a myriad of cultural diversity experience to its people.
We left the conference with plenty of food for thought. There is no doubt that the ANMA executive closed-door meeting can build on the conference proceedings. Hearty congratulations to Department of Museums, Malaysia (JMM) for a successful conference!