KUCHING: Sarawak Museum, the first in the state, was established by the Brooke family who were very passionate about museums.
Sarawak Museum Department director Tazudin Mohtar said the idea to establish a museum came from Sir James Brooke but it was expanded by his brother Charles Brooke.
“In the 18th century, there were many museums developing in Europe like the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum. James was indeed enchanted by this and brought the idea to Sarawak.
“Driven by his interest and passion, the Sarawak Museum was established in 1891,” he said.
He stated that the Brookes had their own vision for the museum and that they very were futuristic, adding that the Sarawak Museum was “second to none in the East” to them.
Moving forward with the new Borneo Cultures Museum which will be declared open today, Tazudin described the grand building itself as another icon for the City of Unity that will nurture the people’s love, interest and passion for museums.
The largest museum in Malaysia and the second largest in Southeast Asia will finally be open to the public on March 9.
Old vs new
On the differences between the old museum and new museum, Tazudin said the new museum focuses on the cultures of the various ethnic groups in Sarawak.
He stated that exhibitions housed in the five floor grand building are integrated with technology such as touch screen as well as sounds and lighting effects.
Besides that, the building also features a canteen, restaurant and gift shop similar to other museums in the world.
“Three levels are designated for permanent exhibitions and each level has its own theme. The theme of Harmony with Nature is for Level 3, this is because our local communities and their cultures are closely intertwined with nature.
“It cannot be denied that nature shapes many cultures such as the longhouses built to adapt to the environment and the Melanau who were living in coastal areas being experts in sailing, ship building and fishing.
“Despite the large number of different ethnicities with their own cultures, the people of Sarawak live harmoniously. Hence, the motto “Unity in Diversity” is often used to describe Sarawak and its people,” he explained.
On Level 4 with the theme Time Changes, Tazudin disclosed that it focuses more on the history of Sarawak including the state’s declaration of independence and the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63).
While Level 5 with the theme Objects of Desire showcases selected and heritage objects that are very close to the various ethnic groups.
“For the objects of desire, we are not only looking at the locals because we have a lot of ceramics from the Chinese community. These ceramics were brought in because it is part and parcel of their heritage.
“I can proudly say that we have the most outstanding and oldest ceramic collection, some will be on display in the new museum. I have been looking after the collection for many years, so I know how big the collection is especially our blue and white,” he said.
He pointed out that Level 2 with the theme Love Our Rivers may be the noisiest level as it is dedicated to the Children’s Gallery.
“Level 2 is for the children and it will be the noisiest level because we want to have children over. Museums are meant for families, so we are looking forward to have many families with their little ones visiting the new museum,” he said.
On the old museum, Tazudin disclosed that it will concentrate on natural history noting that the state has one of the biggest nature collections.
He said this will become a good attraction especially for the children who are interested in butterflies, beetles and so on.
“We are trying to have different themes in our museum so that the people will have a choice. If we concentrate on the same subject matter, it may not have a great pull factor.
“It is also a dream of mine to put our whale skeleton on display because this will be unique. I remember visiting a museum in Adelaide, Australia where they put the whale skeleton for the children to play in.
“This was really interesting because the children can imagine stories like Moby Dick or Prophet Yunus who was swallowed by a whale. We want our children to love what they know,” he said.
Arrangement of exhibitions
On whether the arrangement process for the exhibitions required rituals to be performed, Tazudin noted that rituals of the communities are not left behind because it is part of the local beliefs and customs.
“Although it is no longer commonly practiced, the attachment still exists and there is a need for the communities to appease their ancestors. As such, rituals have to be conducted and some are very elaborate.
“For example, we invited the Melanau community to perform a specific ritual ceremony to move the kelidieng (burial pole) from its storage location to the new museum.
“Similarly, the miring ritual was conducted for the relocation of the Iban war boat. It was very interesting how the family who was part and parcel of the expedition still remember the names of 25 warriors,” he explained.
Tazudin noted that similar practices are undertaken in other museums like in Australia where they would work closely with their communities.
Expectations and hopes
It comes as no surprise that many people have been inquiring about the opening date for the new museum.
With its launching on this historical day, Tazudin said the department is expecting a large number of visitors.
In saying this, he admitted that the department is working on ways to sustain the large number of visitors for years to come.
“We are trying to create a lot of activities beyond our way of normal thinking, so we are looking at what is happening in museums at other parts of the world. Particularly on how they sustain and attract visitors.
“We are also thinking how best the museums that we have can serve the society and community, so we have to do a lot of research. The state government has made a very big investment on museums, thus sustainability is crucial,” he explained.
He stated that the museum will collaborate and work with other museums on the sharing of collections in temporary exhibitions.
“There are a lot of Sarawak collections in other parts of the world. In the United Kingdom for instance, there are collections in the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum which were brought by the Brooke.
“However, we will need to do a bit of research to find out whether the collections were brought there on loan basis or otherwise,” he said.
He disclosed that the museum was built to meet the high standards required by international museums for loan request of items.
“When the building was built, we were thinking globally so we can work together with other museums. The requirement is very tight and tough because there are many factors that they look into.
“One of which is whether the environment is controlled and the security in place is tiptop. We will work with Singapore because they are more advanced in terms of museums.
“In fact, when we developed the museum’s storage, we referred to the Singapore Heritage Conservation Centre,” he said.
At the same time, Tazudin disclosed that the department will work closely with the State Education Department to draw school students.
“Schools are always our target because students are the people who want to know better and are filled with curiosity. My team has been conducting discussions with the State Education Department,” he said.
He is confident the new museum will be the best not only to attract people from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Brunei but even from Kalimantan with the completion of the Pan Borneo Highway project.
“We have to be ready especially once Indonesia moves its capital to the Kalimantan, so we must have our competitive advantage.
“This is why we have to build our human resource as well as our exhibition and research competency,” he added.