10 things you might learn at Sarawak Arts Museum’s new exhibition
By Patricia Hului
Most people tend to think museums are only meant for tourists and students, and few locals appreciate the knowledge and information a museum can offer.
Here in Sarawak, we pride ourselves for having one of the oldest museums in Southeast Asia. It was established in 1885, making it 130 years old.
The Sarawak Arts Museum recently launched a fresh new exhibition called ‘Urang Sarawak: Pameran Tentang Kita’ and of course The Borneo Post SEEDS had to drop by.
Complete with audio-visual delivery and interactive touch screens, we could not help but be impressed by the set-up.
There were so many artifacts to appreciate and information to take in.
So here are some of the things we learned during our visit.
1. Sarawak’s very own cosmology
Before modern astronomy introduced the Big Bang theory on how the universe originated and developed, Sarawak had our very own cosmology stories.
In the early portion of the Urang Sarawak exhibition is a video showcasing three ethnic groups’ cosmology legends; Melanau, Kayan and Iban.
The short video comes with descriptive and appealing animation even to those who might have short attention spans.
2. Traditional relics hardly heard of
One of the unique relics on display is a swing with a hornbill’s head carved out of one end of the seat and its tail at the other.
Bidayuh priestesses (‘boris’) once used the swing during a healing ceremony called ‘bangun’ where they would swing back and forth while chanting.
While only ‘boris’ were allowed to sit on the swing, it was also believed to be used as a vessel to journey to the spiritual world.
Besides this swing, there were many other traditional remnants well worth going through one by one.
3. War artifacts we never thought of
Even though we talk alot about our headhunting past, it’s easy to forget how our land has been witness to bloodshed over the centuries.
The Urang Sarawak exhibition did not fail to highlight some of the significant battles through artifacts left behind by our past warriors.
For instance, did you know that Syarif Masahor wore a talismanic shirt during his resistance against the Brooke administration?
The shirt is covered in handwritten Arabic script and functioned as a charm to protect the wearer from injury caused by weapons.
4. Japanese occupation from Sarawak’s point of view
Any talk of wars or battles in Sarawak will inevitably lead to the Japanese occupation.
Jeli Abdullah was about 4 years old when he was sent to Batu Lintang camp as a prisoner of war (POW).
Through one short documentary, he shared not only his little recollection of the camp but his life story.
The Japanese occupation section also showcased what was left after the war.
One of them were paper scrolls belonging to Reverend Peter Henry Herbert Howes, a POW at Batu Lintang camp. The scrolls were documents of revisions to the Biatah Gospels.
The kind reverend also kept old treasury records that were used to wrap camp rations.
5. The anti-cession movement in the state
Most of the younger generation has never heard of ‘Circular No.9’.
It was a handbill issued by the then British government on Dec 31, 1946 to prohibit civil servants from participating in political movements.
As a result, more than 338 government servants – mostly teachers – resigned on Apr 2, 1947 in protest against the circular.
This happened during the anti-cession movement of Sarawak which lasted from July 1, 1946 until March 1950.
6. The assassination of the British governor
History has penned down Duncan Stewart as the assassinated British governor of Sarawak and mention no more of him.
For those who wonder about the man behind the governor’s post, the exhibit has a poignant reminder of Stewart’s life and the loved ones he left behind after his death through a collection of his journal and family photos.
7. Get personal with Tom Harrisson
It seems apt that the exhibit should feature Tom Harrisson, who was curator of the Sarawak Museum from June 1947 till November 1966.
One of his important works during his post as the curator was the archaeology discoveries in Niah cave.
At this exhibition, Harrison’s works are brought back into present time through his personal notebooks and his possessions.
8. Visit Niah Caves and Santubong without actually visiting them
Besides being places of natural interest for tourists visiting Sarawak, Niah cave and Santubong were two important archaeological sites in Sarawak.
Some of the relics displayed are stone tools used during Sarawak’s Stone Age, red clay which was used for the wall cave paintings during the Neolithic period and many more.
9. Documents you’ve heard of but never seen before
Every Sarawakian has heard of the Cobbold Commission but few have never seen the actual report.
The commission was set up to determine whether people Sabah and Sarawak supported the idea of the Malaysian Federation.
Interestingly, the report is also on display at the exhibition.
10. How far Sarawak has come
The final section shows Sarawak achievements so far.
There is also an interactive touch screen desk showcasing what young Sarawakians think of the state today.
Overall, going through Urang Sarawak exhibition is like walking through a time-lapse video of Sarawak, an experience that all Sarawakians must go through at least once.
The museum is working with experts from the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and America, as well as those from local universities such as Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Pulau Pinang.
This semi-permanent exhibit will be updated with new items periodically while we wait for the new museum to be completed.
The Urang Sarawak exhibition offers a teaser of what Sarawakians – not just students and tourists – can look forward to when the new museum campus, expected to be ready before 2020, is open.
The museum is open to the public for free from 9am to 4.30pm on weekdays; and 10am to 4pm on weekends and public holidays.