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Malaysian Borneo's Muzium Sarawak: A Colonial Legacy in Postcolonial Context

Laurie Beth

Malaysian Borneo's Muzium Sarawak: A Colonial Legacy in Postcolonial. Context

In 1963, the state of Sarawak, located in northwest Borneo, joined the newly independent Federation of Malaysia. For independent Federation of Malaysia. For about 100 years prior, Sarawak was governed by members of the Brooke dynasty, British adventurers who acquired control over the region from the control over the region from the sultan of Brunei and functioned locally as white sultans. Muzium Sarawak, first established in 1891 by "White Rajah" Charles Brooke, publicly displays a colonial accumulation of tribal artifacts. Built within a natural history paradigm, the museum's representations of indigenous cultures, flora and fauna of Sarawak and Borneo are internationally renown. In 1963, as the cultural storehouse of a new postcolonial state, Muzium Sarawak came under the auspices of various Malaysian government ministries. Although it maintained its world-class reputation and colonial legacy, Muzium Sarawak also become a member of a provincial museum system run by the Muslim government from Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia's government-sponsored cultural organizations stress the nation of unity in diversity. Ethnographic displays in Muzium Negara (the National Museum) provide of formula for Malaysia's provincial museums as examples from local culture fit into universal themes of marriage, Islam, and royalty. The prevailing display is a dais, or raised platform with two throne-like chairs that support male and female mannequins dressed in traditional kain songket or a sarong of woven silk with gold thread. The dais features prominently in all displays of Muslim wedding and sultanates. The dais arrangement is also used to display the cultures of Malaysia's other designated major groups: the Hindus, the Chinese, and the Orang Asli and Orang Ulu aboriginal groups.

Muzium Sarawak is the only Malaysian museum that has not revised its exhibition plan to conform to the national classificatory scheme. It has a new addition where it exhibits fine art, but the ethnographic displays in Muzium Sarawak's original 19th century Normandy-style building are filled exclusively with artifacts and photographs of the local Orang Ulu tribes. No dais is in sight.

Nonetheless, the overarching theme of unity in diversity prevails at Muzium Sarawak. Where Islam forms the cultural centerpiece of most Malaysian exhibits, in Sarawak, it is tribal culture at the center. Ethnographic exhibitions are arranged by type, where all objects of a nature-musical instruments, woodcarving, tools for tattooing, fishing implements - are grouped together, irrespective of their tribal origins. Muzium Sarawak's current mission, to "unify...the various ethnic groups in one harmony, to face current and future economic and political challenges and developments," aggressively stresses the need to blur local differences and prioritize universal themes.

For Sarawak to give up its colonial past could mean subjecting itself to greater cultural by the Islamic state. Muzium Sarawak, a vestige of colonialism, is not part of the national Museum of Malaysia's political discourse. While Muzium Negara and provincial museums fill their galleries with real and replicated examples of their galleries with real and replicated examples of local Islamic history, Muzium Sarawak assiduously holds on to the nation's tribal past assembled by its white rajahs. The majority populations in Malaysian Borneo are aboriginal, not Muslim. To assert control over its cultural heritage, Muzium Sarawak must highlight its aboriginal collections above all else, especially since the museum is an established center for international research on indigenous Borneo life and host to millions of tourists.

In 1993, Muzium Sarawak established a Cultural Heritage Ordinance that replaced the outdated Antiquities Ordinance of 1958. This new ordinance focuses on preservation and the promotion of arts and handicrafts, along with the effective control over antiquities leaving the state. With this Ordinance, Muzium Sarawak takes on a larger regulatory role and an expanded power base. A new set of relationships has emerged between the museum, indigenous culture, local and national governments, and international tourists. Although Islam and the government interests of Kuala Lumpur are not necessarily present inside Muzium Sarawak's walls, the museum has integrated nationalist and global strategies into an increasingly complex cultural matrix.

In this article, I examine how Muzium Sarawak, a renowned a colonial museum, also functions as a postcolonial institution in relation to the rest of Malaysia and a regulating agency for global tourism. I describe the following four Sarawak establishments and events that I observed as a 1995 Fulbright scholar in Malaysia: the Muzium Sarawak's and its archives, the Governor of Sarawak's Birthday Party, a visit to an Iban longhouse, and the Sarawak Cultural Village. I show how tribal representation to the international community, national celebrations, and documentation via the museum are motivated by colonialism, and the global marketplace.

The Colonial Museum-Muzium Sarawak

Muzium Sarawak, since is founding, has continuously built a rich collection of aboriginal artifacts including pottery, textiles, woodcarving, tools, and weaving from the tribes of North Borneo. Displays in the original building's exhibition halls resemble those of other state museums; they are arranged by specimen or type, a district colonial mode of knowledge and classification. As in the rest of Malaysia, folklore and crafts are common denominators for all of Sarawak's ethnic groups who are believed to share more or less same type of food, clothing, rituals, games, music, and family structure.

Muzium Sarawak honors its European legacy by privately commemorating its British founders in its archives containing information on the Brooke dynasty, as well as ethnographic material on the local cultures. Portrait painting of Brooke family members adorn the archive wall. According to adjunct curator Heidi Munan, local Sarawakans are proud not only their collection, but of how they have preserved their colonial museum as its own Sarawak legacy. Former Muzium Director Dr. Peter Kedit affirms this, claiming that the history of Sarawak is cumulative and includes aboriginal culture, Islam, and British colonialism.

The Sarawak government and its museum want to establish their own standards and system for exhibiting culture. This does not mean erasing their colonial past nor ignoring their Muslim and multiracial present. Indeed, under the new Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance, the government specifically calls for the preservation of building constructed during "the rule of the White Rajahs [Brooke family] in the late 19th and early 20th century...[for] many of these building display elegant English and Roman architectural influence which are unique in Borneo." These colonial buildings include Kuching's Madrasah Melayu (Muslim Malay School), now an Islamic Museum that uses Muslim artifacts to establish international Islamic connections, a Chinese Buddhist temple, and an Indian mosque.

Muzium Sarawak's efforts to maintain a distinctive local identity have made the region's antiquities a political issue. The Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance of 1993 defines antiquities as traditional arts and handicrafts that are at least 100 years old, exactly the age of Muzium Sarawak. Today, Muzium Sarawak is the legal authority in control of all antiquities trade and export. It now has a department of enforcement to educate the public about all antiquities traffic. This enforcement department asserts the tribal heritage of Sarawak, expands the museum's power as an agent of cultural and social control, and preserves and affirms the colonial legacy accumulating tribal artifacts.

Governor's Birthday Party A stunning display of cumulative nationalism comprised of British, tribal, and Muslim culture in Sarawak occurs every year September 9th, the designated Birthday of the Governor. Fashioned like a British royal progress, the birthday party and Upacara Istiadat Perbarisan, or ceremonial parade, takes place in the capital Kuching's Padang Merdeka, or Independence Square. A lavish display of service to the governor and to the state, the governor's parade is not performed primarily for tourists. Rather, it is a spectacle that Sarawakans put on for themselves.

The chief minister of Sarawak and his entourage (now primarily Muslim) sit in official dress on a platform facing the square. All of the state's service employees are dressed in uniform and parade into the square to honor the governor. The governor then rides in a jeep around the square and surveys this troops. Birds are liberated from a cage, signifying independence. The troops include tribal dance groups, as well as members of the bomb squad. They parade in front of the governor's dais and salute him. Military soldiers then perform a spectacular display of silat, the Malay art of self-defense, and finally, more soldiers parachute from military helicopters into the square. Like Muzium Sarawak, the Governor's Birthday Party is a legacy from the British that the current Muslim government relishes as its own.

Iban Longhouse Visit

As Sarawak undergoes development of such resources as pepper and timber, a booming ecotourism industry is also being created. Muzium Sarawak, through the Cultural Heritage Sarawak, through the Cultural Heritage Ordinance, participates in this development by promoting living traditions through out the region as well as in its galleries. As an official visitors a Muzium Sarawak, I was taken upriver to visit an Iban tribal Longhouse, one of 16 vernacular bamboo dwelling mounted on stilts and located along the Batang Ai River in Sarawak's interior. Many guides were three museum assistants and members of the region's Iban, Melanau and Bidayu tribes.

Residual elements of colonialism extend into the state's vast interior. When we arrived at the Batang Ai longhouse, we were greeted by its children, all of whom extended their in welcome and said hello in English. They did not use their local Iban dialect or the national Malay language.

The Longhouse we visited was at once considered the most traditional of the river's tribal dwellings in terms of its construction and use and one of a few longhouses that now accommodate tourists.

In the past few years, the Kuching-based company Asian Overland Services, Tours and Travel has worked with longhouse dwellers to build an extension into that includes two guest rooms and an adjoining bathroom. Each guest room has two raised bamboo platforms for sleeping that flank a narrow central hall. Longhouse women provide overnight guests with mattresses, sheets, mosquito nets, and towels.

Upon our late afternoon arrival, we were welcomed with a resoundingly British refreshment of tea biscuits. We then joined other activities which at that time of day meant bathing in the apartment of the longhouse chief's family and were later entertained with rice wine and tribal dances, performed especially for guests. Usually, longhouse tourists stay two or three days and participate in the daily activities of the Ibans. Because our time was limited, we paid the longhouse chief our guest fee and returned to Kuching after only one night.

The local communities along Sarawak's Batang Ai River are connected to the global marketplace and Muzium Sarawak through a complex system that represents local identity at home and abroad and includes tourism, ethnic performances, and travel. Dancers from the longhouse we visited perform for guests staying at the Batang Ai Hilton Resort, an award-winning architectural masterpiece build along the Batang Ai River's new man-made lake, and designed to resemble indigenous. During my visit to Sarawak, the dancers were preparing for a trip to Scandinavia to perform at an exhibit opening featuring crafts from Muzium Sarawak's collection. Muzium Sarawak's director, as part of this job to "rehabilitate...arts and crafts" under the Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance, went to a Practice performance at the Kuching Hilton to assess the authenticity of the dancers' costumes.

Sarawak Cultural Village

The Sarawak Cultural Village is a living history museum located just outside Kuching. Traditional houses arranged around a man-made lake represent each of Sarawak's main ethnic groups: the Chinese, Malay, and aboriginal. Costumed interpreters at each house describe local domestic life and demonstrate activities that are associated with that particular ethnic group. Local ethnic and aboriginal cultures are presented in the context of a bygone era and the interiors of some houses are artificially divided to create living history displays. A fast-talking emcee wearing a tribal-style costume covered with glitter introduces traditional dancers that perform daily on stage.

Sarawak Cultural Village is expensive and therefore accessible mainly to international visitors. Where entrance to most Malaysian museums is RMl (one Malaysian ringgit), in 1995, admission to the Cultural Village was RM20 for local adults and RM45 for foreigners and other Malaysians (half price for children). My hosts, Muzium Sarawak employees, admired Sarawak Cultural Village, explaining that for tourists who have no time to visit the interior, this is an adequate way of learning about cultural diversity and tribal life in Sarawak.

Sarawak Cultural Village is fashioned after Hawaii's Cultural Village. It exhibiting techniques, including costumed interpreters, directional signs and rest areas (although no museum shop), are concurrent with practices at Western museums and theme parks. Still, Sarawak Cultural Village is a non-Western blend, or what Appadurai an anthropologist and Breckenridge, a historian call a "gray zone" where exhibitions, commerce, and spectacle shade into one another. The display of vernacular houses suggest a visual ideology of ethnic-nationalism present in other Malaysian museums. But, a lack of curatorship and the influence of televised entertainment, readily apparent in the living culture presentations, mark the site as a contemporary local blend of museum and global media.


Muzium Sarawak is plugged into a circuit of colonialism, travel, leisure, and preservation that has its own distinctive value and history in colonial Sarawak. Its French-style museum building is now but one component an emergent cultural complex overseen by the Malaysian dominated state government.

The ceremonial parade, ethnic performing groups, and the burgeoning ecotourism industry characterize the public world of folklore and special objects in Sarawak. Some spectacles such as the Governor's Birthday party, are intended for national consumption. Others such as longhouse visits, Sarawak Cultural such as longhouse visits, Sarawak Cultural Village, and touring indigenous dances transcend Nationalism and participate in a global system of presenting local culture to local people and foreigners. Ironically, Muzium Sarawak, a dusty relic Of colonialism, carries a legacy of internationalism in its world-renowned status and serves as a modern vehicle for contemporary Sarawakans to assert the nation of an indigenous tribal heritage.


I am grateful to Kenneth George, Hue-Tam Ho Tai, and Rubie Watson for an ongoing opportunity to think about museums, nationalism, and transnationalism. My research was supported by a Fulbright U.S. Professional Exchange Award the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism in Malaysia in 1995. Dr. Kamarul Baharin bin Buyong of Muzium Negara and Dr. Peter Kedit and Tuton of Muzium Sarawak were particularly helpful.

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