Tracing the designs behind the Sarawak Museum
By Patricia Hului
Many things happened in 1891; Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Ubervilles’ was first published, Thomas Edison filed patents for the transmission of signals electrically (radio) and Prince Nicholas (later Tsar Nicholas II) survived an assassination attempt while visiting Japan.
Here in Sarawak, 1891 was the year the Sarawak museum was officially opened under the rule of the second White Rajah, Charles Brooke.
Sarawak Gazette first reported that the museum was built in ‘Queen Anne’ style and the common perception was the architectural origins were from a French town hall in Normandy.
In ‘Old Kuching’ Alice Yen Ho cited that the design was influenced by Brooke’s interest in French culture and that his French valet was involved in the design.
So what really inspired the design behind one of Sarawak’s most iconic buildings? Was it the British Queen Anne’s style, a French town hall or a valet-turned-architect?
John Ting, who is currently the architectural historian on the Old Sarawak Museum Conservation Project shared his findings in a talk called ‘The Architectural Origins of the Sarawak Museum Old Building’ organised by Friends of Sarawak Museum (FoSM) on July 31.
To Ting, reports mentioning that the building was inspired by ‘Queen Anne’ style was slightly confusing as it was established during Queen Anne’s reign between 1702 to 1714, at least a hundred years before the old Sarawak Museum was built in the late 19th century.
“Strictly speaking, it’s supposed to be Queen Anne Revival Style as opposed to Queen Anne style,” Ting stated, explaining that the revived form of Queen Anne style was more prevalent during this era.
As for the argument that a French valet helped design it? He highlighted that Brooke was a more organised administrator compared to his uncle.
Kuching’s public buildings from the late 1870s onward were spearheaded by Sarawak Public Works Department (PWD) and it was impossible for the valet to have worked there.
“To say a French valet who did it, it is highly unlikely because of Charles’s administrative ambition and Sarawak’ colonial connections.”
The key to this mystery lay in the writing of Edward Banks, the Curator of Sarawak Museum from 1925 to 1945.
Banks wrote ‘Reminiscence of a Curator’ which was published in Sarawak Museum Journal citing that the museum design was inspired from a photo of an Adelaide girl’s school and it was believed the Rajah saw the photo in a magazine.
Ting mentioned there are some similarities between Adelaide Girl’s School and Old Sarawak Museum with two end gabled wings being connected by a stone veranda.
But there few tiny problems; Adelaide Girl’s School was a single storey and with pointed arches depicting Gothic style, contrary to our double storey museum and its Queen Anne revival style.
As he browsed through Colonial Architecture of South Australia, Ting came across a photo of Adelaide’s Children Hospital.
After looking at the similarities between the two buildings, the Melbourne-based architect believed it was the photo of Adelaide’s Children Hospital that Charles Brooke saw in a magazine and showed it to PWD for them to build.
He considered this finding a stroke of luck since the book was about 800 pages long.
“This idea of looking outward to get design ideas, it is something that we do today and it was something that was active in the late 19th century, ” Ting shared.
So imagine the white Rajah browsing through 19th century version of perhaps the Architectural Digest and saying, “Hey, that’s a nice building! I want the museum to look like that!”