by Josiane Reggane
On 17 February 2022, a small group of Museum Volunteers (MVs) had the privilege of a guided tour by the curator of “The Power of Gold” exhibition at Gallery 1, JMM. It was a great opportunity for everyone to experience the exhibition, learn about the artifacts on display and get insider information on the preparation for the exhibition.
This temporary thematic exhibition demonstrates the capacity of JMM to take risks and to venture beyond the historical narrative in the national museum. But taking risks also means having to meet challenges and make choices to offer the audience a pleasant and fruitful experience.
A golden theme for an exhibition
The attractive and ambitious title: “The Power of Gold” sounds like a promise. The viewer expects a journey through time and space that will lead him to better understand the true power of this mysterious and precious metal.
Gold is found all over the world from the earliest times until today. Thus, covering such a vast territory and such a long period of time in the restricted space of Gallery 1 is a real challenge. The main problem being that extensive research leads to so much knowledge that it is difficult to render it all in one exhibition.
The multitude of themes resulting from this two years extensive research can be found in the titles of a dozen panels arranged on the walls of the gallery. These are: “Gold the king of metal”, “Gold and history”, “Gold and conflict”, “Gold and social status”, “Gold and Governing status”, “Gold from cultural perspective”, “Emas dalam sosio budaya masyarakat melayu” (Gold in Malay socio-cultural society), “Gold in the socio-cultural Chinese society”, “Gold in the socio-cultural Indian society”, “Gold and transformation”, “Gold in expressions”, and “Did you know?”
Each theme covers a field of knowledge so large that it could form an exhibition on its own. So, it can be a little frustrating not to have more detail on each topic. However, the absence of detail can also be seen as an invitation for viewers to dig deeper on their own.
Another challenge in dealing with a subject from so many different angles is to articulate the narrative of the whole exhibition. These panels refer to various places and periods of history ranging from the time of the pharaohs in Egypt, the Inca and Aztec civilizations, the gold rush in California (1848-1855) and contemporary and historic Malaysia. Switching from one to the other can be a little confusing for some viewers. But again, it can also be a choice to let the audience wander around the room.
When gold is an eyeful
The exhibition stretches the entire gallery guiding the viewer through a U-shaped path to end up in the small viewing room, which reconnect to the departing point. Hence, the exhibition can be visited both ways – beginning or ending – with a short film featuring what is gold, how it is shaped and some extract of archival films about gold rush and gold mining.
The numerous artifacts are displayed in glass cases on pedestals, at eye level, all along the path. Labels affixed to each window provide information on the artifact. The labels (printed in black on transparent stickers) are sometimes difficult to read due to the small size of the characters and the light reflections. However, a QR code pasted on each window also allows access to this information (in Bahasa Melayu and English) via a mobile phone.
The floor covered with yellow carpet and the walls painted in a goldish yellow might recall gold and royalty, but the choice of a tone on tone for the walls and the floor does not allow gold artifacts to show their true brilliance. A more sober design with darker colours and few directional lights projected onto the objects would certainly have given a more dramatic effect to the exhibition. This would have avoided eye strain and enhanced the magnificence of the shine of gold.
When gold triggers creativity
The exhibition reveals an interesting collection of pieces, most of which are not exhibited in the museum but kept in a secure place with limited access. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to discover these artifacts and learn more about them.
The exhibition includes a wide variety of artifacts from various countries in the region such as a few beautiful keris from Sulawesi, a long sword from Java and a sword from Turkey. There are also some memorabilia. Beside two gold commemorative coins issued on 31 August 2013 for the National Museum’s Golden Jubilee celebration, there also stands a replica of a golden rubber tree produced in 1903, by the Malaysian Rubber Farmers Association.
Some exquisite royalty-owned artifacts are also on display, such as sets of betel, belt buckles, and a modesty belt (a heart-shaped piece of silver, partially gold-plated, used to protect the genitals of the daughters of kings and aristocracy on the coast east of Peninsular Malaysia).
A section is dedicated to regalia with a Tengkolok diRaja (Royal headdress), a Royal Tiara, a Keris and two sceptres. Not forgetting two replicas of Bunga Emas, one from Kedah and the second from Kelantan
Sir Franck Swettenham’s walking stick is on display. The head of his wooden stick is decorated with a gold-carved ‘awan larat’ design (traditional Malay motif recalling ‘meandering clouds’).
The show also features ornaments and jewellery such as hair combs, hair pins, a Melanau (an indigenous group of Sarawak) headdress, an amulet necklace, some dokoh (a necklace with three vertical pendants with a pin behind each pendant to fix the kebaya.), various earrings from different communities in the region and two theatre headdresses from Thailand. Also on display are glass holders, a kendi and a rebab (music instrument) from Bali.
Additionally, a tribute is paid to Paralympic Athletes Muhammad Ziyad Bin Zolkifli, Mohamad Ridzuan Bin Mohamad Puzi and Latif Bin Romly for their gold medals in their respective fields. And to Hashim Mustapha for the ‘Golden Shoes’ award in 1993 and 1994.
All the displayed objects are beautiful, but some attract attention because of their originality or because they are rarely displayed. This is notably the case of the examples in the following section.
The golden nuggets of the exhibition
A Zam-Zam water drink set. This silver and half gold-plated set with Jawi-engraved inscriptions and gold covers was finely crafted in 1786. The quality of the artwork demonstrates the value and significance of this water brought back by pilgrims from Umrah or Haj.
A beautiful bowl dated 1816 with a floral motif carved outside and inside the bowl, and with a Jawi inscription on the base – “Tuanku Ampuan Besar Selangor”. It was used by the royal family on special occasions such as weddings and berendui (a Malay ceremony to present a newly born baby in a swing along with various ceremonies to bless the infant and the mother).
Penyangkut Kelambu / Mosquito Net Hanger: This gold mosquito net hanger has the shape of a cassowary. It is used by the Royal family and the aristocracy as a tool to hang curtains or mosquito net on the head of the bed. It is also used as a luxurious decoration in the bedroom.
Penyangkut Kain / Cloth Hanger: the small sparrow-shaped gold item from Kelantan (circa 1800) was used as a sheet hanger after the circumcision ceremony to cover the body of the young boy while preventing any contact with the sheet.
Hiasan Tepi Bantal / Pillow Edge Decoration (Melaka, 19th century): made from gold pieces and used to decorate the edges of a round pillow, this piece is finely decorated with peacocks and Chinese flowers motifs.
It is the power of gold to transcend human imagination and lead to the creation of such refined and beautiful artifacts. But it is the power of the exhibition to share this important collection of the National Museum. To be accessible to a wider audience, the exhibition, which runs until March 18 at Gallery 1, will then travel to Melaka and other locations around the country.
P.S. Many thanks to Lam Lai Meng from Batch 33 for translating from Bahasa Malaysia to English during the tour.