Remembering state museum pioneers

If Sarawakians are not interested in their history, why are we building a new multi-million ringgit museum?

Some 10 years ago, then Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Dr George Chan took Kuching residents to task for rarely or never visiting the Sarawak Museum even though it was in the heart of the city and free to everyone.

It was interesting when Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah announced last week that Sarawak was considering charging visitors a fee once the new museum officially opens next year.

While much of the media focus during his unofficial tour of the RM323 million new museum was on its grandeur, little was spent on remembering the people behind the making of the old Sarawak Museum.

If you go back in time, you will discover that our museum was not built with bricks and stones alone, but by a century of blood, sweat and tears from a community that believed in preserving Sarawak’s rich heritage.

Built in the style of a Normandy townhouse, it was Sir James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, who mooted the idea of a museum, given the fact that Borneo was a naturalist’s paradise.

After becoming Rajah in 1841, Brooke built the “Peninjau” cottage on Mt Serembu, about 16 miles from Kuching, and invited world renowned environmentalists to sample Sarawak’s flora and fauna.

Among the many illustrious visitors were British administrator and naturalist Sir Hugh Low and Alfred Russel Wallace, who published a paper titled ‘The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of Natural Selection’ in 1864.

Another with a deep interest in Sarawak was Italian naturalist Odoardo Beccari, the author of ‘Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo’, who was among the first Europeans to write about the Iban, Bidayuh, Malay, Melanau and Kayan.

He arrived in Kuching on June 19, 1865 and started work immediately at the forests of Bukit Siol. Within months, he built a ‘castle’ at Matang named “Vallombrosa” after a monastery in Florence.

Two years, Beccari’s wanderings took him to Batang Lupar, Undup and Pakit, boat trips from Tanjung Datu to Singai, up the Kemena river and Tubau Bintulu to Belaga and then down the Rajang River to Sibu.

From Sibu, he travelled to Kuala Igan and then went up river to Kanowit via the Entebai river before returning to Kuching through Simanggang and Samarahan.

The Earl of Cranbrook, in his introduction to Beccari’s book said, “Of all his trips in the East Indies, the time spent by Beccari in Sarawak was the most productive. In two and a half years, he collected over 4,000 botanical specimens … his zoological collections largely went to the Civic Museum of Natural History in Genoa.”

In 1878, Sir Charles Brooke asked his officers to collect specimens throughout Sarawak, with a view to building a museum in the future. As the collections began to increase, the specimens were put inside a clock tower at the government office.

In 1886, the specimens were moved to a room above an old vegetable market in Gambier Street, which acted as a temporary museum open to the public.

On Aug 4, 1891, the Sarawak Museum, which cost about one million British pounds, opened its doors.

In 1911, the museum, which was under curator JC Moulton (November 1908-Jan 22, 1915) extended a new wing that displayed local indigenous arts and crafts, and a natural history collection of fauna, including primates such as the orang utan and proboscis monkeys, and reptiles, mammals and birds.

In the same year, the museum published its first edition of the Sarawak Museum Journal (SMJ) with Moulton its inaugural editor.

Today, the SMJ is one of the oldest scientific journals of Southeast Asian, covering topics such as history, natural history and ethnology of Borneo.

Over the last 120 years, the museum had been renovated several times. It was used to exhibit and interpret collections on the natural history of Sarawak. In addition, it displayed archaeological artefacts and reconstructions of the traditional life of the indigenous peoples, and their arts and crafts.

Sarawak still boasts having the most comprehensive archaeological, natural history and ethnographic collections on Borneo.

It’s timely to remind ourselves that the new museum was built on the foundations of the pioneers of the old museum. It was pioneers from the late 1800s such as JEA Lewis, Dr George Darby Haviland, Edward Bartlett, Robert Walter Campbell Shelford, John Hewitt, John Coney Moulton, Mr Erman & KH Gillan, Dr Eric Georg Mjöberg, Gerard TM MacBryan and Edward Banks.

Then there was war veteran Tom Harrisson (June 1947-Nov 1966) who was succeeded by his cultural advisor, Saribas Iban ethnologist and historian, Benedict Sandin (Dec 1966-March 1974).

Sandin was succeeded by Lucas Chin, Dr Peter M Kedit, Sanib Said and Ipoi Datan. The Sarawak Museum is now under the charge of former archivist Suria Bujang, who has been acting director since Feb this year.

At present, the “temporary” office of the museum director is in the old Kuching Municipal building, across the Yayasan Sarawak complex which houses the museum’s archives and library.

When the new museum is completed, let us all give our undivided support to this noble project.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.