The ongoing exhibition ‘Sunken Treasure: The Underwater Secret’ displays artefacts from eleven shipwrecks from around the waters of Malaysia. It ends on 31 October; do drop by the exhibition at Muzium Negara.
On display are a number of blue-and-white pieces from a collection of 24,000 recovered from The Diana. This ship belonged to an agency house based in Calcutta (Kolkata) owned by John Palmer. She was licensed to the East India Company and was used to make the trade run between India and China. Having delivered cotton and opium to China, she was on the journey back laden with ceramics, silk and tea when she hit some rocks and sank off the coast of Melaka. She was found on 21 December 1993, 178 years after sinking.
The Royal Nanhai, dating circa 1460, was discovered off the coast of Kuantan in 1995. Salvage of this 28-metre Southeast Asian vessel was completed in May 1998 yielding 21,000 pieces of ceramics. While most of the ceramics were from the Si Satchanalai kilns in Thailand, four Chinese and two Vietnamese blue-and-white pieces were found concealed below the floorboards.
The Desaru was a Chinese vessel dated to 1845 that sank off the coast of Johor, near Desaru. It was a narrow ship, 30 metres in length and 7 metres wide, made of pine and cedar. Salvage recovered Chinese ceramics with a large number of blue-and-white spoons.
A pharmacy may seem an unusual place to look for petrified fossils but palaeontologists in China used to frequent these shops to get leads on possible sites for archaeological digs. This is because farmers coming across ‘dragon’ bones would sell them to medicine shops where they were pounded into a remedy for a wide range of ailments. The palaeontologists recognised that these dragon bones were in actuality fossils of extinct animals. Peking man was discovered through such a lead.
In 1923, Otto Zdansky, an Austrian palaeontologist, unearthed a rich hoard of fossils at Chou Kou Tien (now Zhoukoudian), which is located around 50 kilometres southwest of Peking (now Beijing). The hoard consisted of at least twenty species of animals, majority of which are extinct. This impressive find was made momentous by two small teeth – a molar and a premolar. The teeth were those of a hominid (primitive man) said to have lived around 500,000 years ago (Chinese scientists later revised this to 700,000). The moniker ‘Peking man’ was coined. The importance of Peking man prompted the establishment of a formal programme to continue the exploration at Chou Kou Tien. The programme was led by the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Further excavations led to more hominid finds. In 1929, Pei Wen Chung found the first complete skull. By 1937, the collection of bones had grown to represent 40 separate individuals – men, women, and children. These individuals were all part of a single population group. Finding an array of bones which represents a single population is very rare and this further illustrates the importance of Chou Kou Tien. Peking man is not so much an individual but rather an epithet used to represent this population. Although initially given a separate genus, Sinanthropus pekinensis, Peking man is now accepted within the genus Homo with the species name Homo erectus Pekinensis.
Excavations had to be halted in 1937 because of growing tensions between the Chinese and Japanese. The PUMC had so far escaped raids by the Japanese as the institution was American; Japan was not at war with America. However, there was a growing sense of danger and in 1941 this became so pronounced that the Chinese appealed to the Director of PUMC to send Peking man to the US for safekeeping. This, the Director was reluctant to do as the understanding between PUMC and the Rockefeller Foundation was that all finds from Chou Kou Tien would remain in China. However, in August 1941, the Chinese managed to persuade the American ambassador to ship out the fossils.
Due to some unknown delay, the fossils were only prepared for shipment in mid-November 1941. They were wrapped in cotton and packed in small boxes. These boxes were then placed in two wooden boxes, similar to the footlockers used by the U.S. Marines for their personal effects. The footlockers were sent to the U.S. Marines barracks in Peking as the marines were entrusted with taking them safely out of China. The marines, though, were not aware of the contents of the footlockers or of their importance.
The marines were to rendezvous with the SS President Harrison, which had been commissioned to transport them to Manila and which was due in the port of Chingwangtao (now Qinhuangdao) on 8 December. But time had run out. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the two countries were now at war. American property and personnel were no longer inviolate. The SS President Harrison, captured by the Japanese near the mouth of the Yangstze River, never made it to Chingwangtao. The footlockers are believed to have reached Camp Holcomb, a U.S. military base in Chingwangtao. However, this camp was taken over by the Japanese on the morning of 8 December. The Peking man fossils disappeared, never to be seen again.
With the fossils missing, what is being displayed at the ongoing exhibition at Muzium Negara? The team at PUMC had photographed the fossils, made detailed drawings, and created casts. These had been safely taken out of China. The artefacts at Muzium Negara are replicas of the Peking man fossils, recreated from the casts. Also displayed at the exhibition are replicas of skulls from Upper Cave, located southwest of the Peking man site. These are skulls of humans (Homo sapiens) that lived 30,000-10,000 years ago. They were packed together with the Peking man relics and, hence, suffered the same fate. Do visit the exhibition which ends on 16 June 2018. See how Peking man looked like. Learn to differentiate Homo erectus from modern Homo sapiens. Understand the environment in which Peking man lived and the animals with which he shared this environment. Appreciate the tools they made and how they controlled fire. Learn about other archaeological sites in China, from Palaeolithic to Neolithic. Find out the earliest known location where shoes were worn.
In retrospect, it may have been better to have left the fossils in PUMC and allow the Japanese to acquire them. The Japanese were aware of these fossils and came looking for them on the morning of 8 December. Some of the Chou Kou Tien fossils of lesser importance had been left behind and the Japanese confiscated these. After the war, the Americans found these fossils at Tokyo University and returned them to China. The Japanese would not have destroyed Peking man as they had wanted the fossils for their own research and study. If taken by the Japanese, the fossils would have been, in all likelihood, eventually recovered. Over the years, some have claimed to either know the location of the fossils or to have them in their keeping. These claims were made mostly by people seeking huge rewards. The leads were followed up but did not pan out. Among the latest claims is that Peking man is buried under an asphalt parking lot in Qinhuangdao (formerly Chingwangtao).
Primary source: Shapiro, Harry L. (1976) Peking Man: The Discovery, Disappearance and Mystery of a Priceless Scientific Treasure, Suffolk: Book Club Associates.
The Tatars were a Turkic-speaking nomadic tribe occupying northeast Mongolia and the area around Lake Baikal before being consolidated into Genghis Khan’s army in the early thirteenth century. Genghis Khan’s army united many Turkic as well as Mongol nomadic tribes and he mobilised this army to conquer a large part of Eurasia. Although his army was a fusion of two different language-speaking groups, the invaders in Europe became associated with ‘Tatar’ or ‘Tartar’. They were also identified with the Golden Horde, originally a Mongol Khanate founded by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan.
An ongoing exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum titled ‘The Tatars: Muslims in the Republic of Poland‘ explores the lives of the Tatars in Poland through photographs and drawings. The exhibition is located at the open space outside the main galleries and will run until 30 April 2017.
It is truly amazing to see how far the country has come since the days of Merdeka/ Independence, with Kuala Lumpur paving the way at the forefront of the transformation. In what is considered to be a relatively short period of just 60 years, continuous innovations and developments have changed much of this ever-lively city, yet the thriving local culture can still be found preserved in the many familiar nooks of the city in which they were first created. All these are spectacularly captured through the many vibrant photos at the exhibition, cleverly composed to compare the KL of yesteryear with the KL of today.
In some of the showcased pieces, for example the photographs along Gombak River and of Jalan Tun Perak, the open skies in the background are replaced with more prominent physical elements of architecture and expanding public amenities, while horse-drawn or man-powered modes of transportation in the foreground are replaced with modern motorized vehicles, with home-made Proton and Perodua cars (both unabashedly mentioned here with a hint of national pride) cruising alongside their imported counterparts. Other pieces, such as shots of Petaling Street, show that some of the activities there have remained and have grown, indicating that they continue to be a strong element of the community. Another beautiful aspect to note is that many historical buildings have been preserved as focal points of the city, as clearly seen in some the photographs of the present.
On the other hand, there are also pieces that bring some contrast to the above, such as the one of the Pudu Jail, captured in its previous entirety in an old sepia photograph and showcased against a current shot of its now solitary front gate, which was decidedly conserved from the demolition works making way for a new development there, resembling a still-dutiful guardsman defiantly standing at attention facing the oncoming busy traffic. The image is somewhat reminiscent of the Porta de Santiago of the A’ Famosa Fort in Melaka; perhaps, as the saying goes, just another example of history repeating itself: both gates are the only saved remnant of their respective infamously intimidating walled-structure of the past, although the major difference here being that the former was meant to keep people in whereas the latter to keep people out.
Lastly, just to mention so as not to be missed, is a wall-sized, intricately detailed, hand-drawn, pencil-sketched birds-eye-view of the streets of KL, quietly standing near the back of the exhibition. Do stop a while to “walk” through this map and discover the various social characters and cultural focal points which can be found in real life around KL.
From majestic old photographs capturing the grandeur and heritage of Malaysia’s history in black & white and hues of sepia, to the colourful and inviting snapshots portraying the unique melting pot of culture that has become the celebrated identity of Malaysia today, this temporary exhibition is definitely worth a catch while it’s here, to add a spice of flavour to the tour of the museum.
Muzium Negara has, in its collection, around 500 wayang kulit (shadow play) puppets and 200 of these are currently on display at an exhibition titled ‘Symbolism Behind the Screen’. There are also puppets on loan from Fusion Wayang Kulit that depict characters from comics and science fiction. Do take the time to visit the exhibition which runs until 28 February 2017 at Muzium Negara.
In a wayang kulit performance, the puppeteer (known as Tok Dalang) manipulates the puppets in a raised hut which has a white screen stretched across the front hiding him and the puppets from view of the audience. A lamp behind the puppets casts shadows on the screen and this is the basis of the performance.
The wayang kulit is considered a microcosm of the universe while the Tok Dalang, manipulating the puppets, is taken as symbolising God. Dalang means ‘priest’ in Sanskrit; the Tok Dalang was also trained in magic rituals and many dalang functioned as bomoh or practitioners of Malay magic. In fact, in days gone by, the Wayang Kulit was not just a performance art but was also used in spirit exorcism ceremonies. In the wayang kulit universe, the sun is represented by the lamp while banana trunks, used as a resting place for the puppets, represent the earth. Humans perceive the universe through the screen.
Perhaps the most important prop is the pohon beringin (tree of life) which represents all life in the universe. This tree, seen both at the start and end of the story, symbolises the start of the universe and the end of the world. The tree is divided into three parts: the top represents the sky and includes motifs of birds, the middle represents earth and includes animals, while the bottom represents the supernatural world.
A touch-screen kiosk at the exhibition provides substantial information on the symbolism behind the rituals conducted before, during, and after a performance. For example, a feast is held during the ‘theatre opening ceremony’ in order to ensure the performance goes well. During this time, the musical instruments are blessed so that they will succeed in attracting and holding the attention of spectators. An offering consisting of 25 items placed on a large tray is also made.
Apart from the conventional wayang kulit characters, i.e. Sita Dewi, Sri Rama, Hanuman, and Ravana, the exhibition also displays a host of other puppets including demonic and animal characters as well as the Punakawan (e.g. Semar) that provide comic relief. Wayang Kulit’s foray into science fiction started with the the production of the ‘Peperangan Bintang’ performance inspired by the Star Wars movies. Its success spurred a new line of puppets including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash. These are also on display.
The on-going exhibition at Muzium Negara, titled “Songket: The Queen of Fabrics – 1Family 1Heritage”, showcases songket pieces from around ASEAN countries. Do try to catch this very interesting exhibition before it ends on 31st December 2016.
Songket is brocade and its designs are usually inspired by nature where the weavers turn into art their impressions of the environment, as well as of the flora and fauna around them. However, the songket pieces on display also include some unique expressions such as the piece below which describes the contents of Noah’s ark.
Other interesting pieces include a shoulder cloth whose pattern is taken from the Durga stone statue at Singasari and a songket piece which combines Minangkabau and Bugis patterns.
The cotton material weaved by the Rungus community in Kudat, Sabah incorporate designs found on Dongson drums (bronze drums that originated in Northern Vietnam). To date, remains of only one Dongson drum have been unearthed in Sabah and, hence, the designs on the Rungus material provides an important means of elucidating the designs on these drum.
Apart from songket pieces (sarong, samping, selendang, and tengkolok), there are also a number of looms on display showcasing production techniques.
There is an on-going exhibition at Muzium Negara in conjunction with National Day 2016 titled One Malaysia, One Story. It showcases the history of the country from Emergency to Independence and includes the formation of the Malayan Union, formation of the Federation of Malaya, the elections of 1955, the formation of Malaysia, and the confrontation with Indonesia. A large part of the story is told via old photographs and this is the charm of the exhibition. Many of these photos are from the National Archives’ collection. Do head down to Muzium Negara – the exhibition runs until 30 September at Gallery 2, Department of Museums building.