Itchy feet run deep. Why me and this project? How did I make it happen?
Itchy feet (or rootlessness?) runs deep in my family. I attribute it to emigre grandparents, seeking work or refuge in the UK in the 1930s. Looking at preceding generations though, there are exploratory types on both sides as well… Nearer to me, my dad was a biologist who spent much of his life in the tropics. Never more gleeful than when wielding a machete on some unsuspecting undergrowth, be it in Kent or Brazil. My uncle Robert, moved to Sarawak in the 60s to work on engineering projects. He met my aunt Tiang in the Kelabit Highlands in the interior of Borneo and they’ve lived between Sarawak and NZ ever since.
My uncle Robert and cousin Martin driving on Miri beach in 2014.
Over dinner in Miri in 2014, I heard about the impact of urbanisation and deforestation on Kelabit culture. Now in their 70s and 80s, Tiang’s generation are the last to have grown up in traditional longhouses in the great forests of Borneo. Thousands of years of forest knowledge could be all but lost in a generation.
Roof of an Iban longhouse in the distance, from Niah Caves, 2014.
I was rapt, listening to their stories; while my internal heritage professional nagged ‘somebody should DO something’. I’m no anthropologist or social historian, and it’s not my heritage to ‘save’ either. I do work in museums though, developing exhibitions.
Walking past this plant (left) with Robert, he says that’s what the Kelabit use for sunhats (right).
My major interests are about the relationships between culture and nature. Previously this manifested through art practice, then through exhibitions as a craft and design curator. At present, I work for the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester managing exhibition programmes and projects. I’ve reached that awkward phase where, having become expert at something, you stop doing it and start facilitating others to do it instead. Time to sense-check where I’m at and contemplate what on earth comes next.
This is quite a deft exhibit from the pilot gallery for the new museum, within the old museum site. It was a simple animated projection and soundscape, as part of an informative display on the symbolism of birds in Iban mythology.
‘What’s for you won’t go by you’ they say. But sometimes you need to be open-minded enough to recognise an opportunity with potential even if it takes you in an unexpected direction. Maybe this is a laissez-faire approach to career development, but it’s working for me so far…
I saw an internship on the Sarawak Museum Campus Project advertised on the University of Leicester’s Museum Jobs page. Although the internship wasn’t for me, I anticipated that a spare exhibition manager might be of service.
I know you can get software for photo-collage, but I find this pleasingly Hockney-esque. The new museum under construction, 2017.
So, I’m working on a project setting up a new museum, on an unprecedented scale by Borneo’s standards. Coming from another museum where reinvention is the order of the day, I realise that both museums’ projects have a lot in common. Maybe this blog will become about museums in a state of major change, amongst other things…