We are making a new museum

My first thoughts as a newbie to the project, plus a bit of background and context.

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Detail from the Tree of Life mural in the old Sarawak Museum, 1960. Former curator and all round interesting guy, Tom Harrisson, commissioned a group of Kenyah artists to create this huge mural.

The mission and vision for the Sarawak Museum Campus and Heritage Trail project is:

  • To be a Global Centre of Bornean Heritage by 2030.
  • To make available a repository of significant and comprehensive heritage knowledge for present and future generations.
  • Celebrating Cultural Diversity in Harmony and Unity with Nature and History.

The campus will comprise 2 museums, a research facility, a sculpture trail and a garden of plants relating to exhibits inside. It sits at the edge of the city centre, next to the original museum site above the Padang Merdeka. Also within the campus, but not the project, is the  city’s Islamic Museum. As part of the project they aim to refurbish the bridge and underpass to ease the pedestrian route from the city.

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It’s like a giant roundabout. I’ve expended time trying to cross these roads, I appreciate the difference improved access will make to visitors’ experience.

There are three concepts bound up in this which fire my enthusiasm. The idea that diversity should be a cherished feature of regional identity, the concept that humans thrive in harmony with nature and the sheer scale and ambition of it.

What a challenge though, however generous the state funding of the project is, and it is. As in every museum I have worked in, the resources available to it since its foundation (1886) have varied. So, the team are working with patchy historic documentation. The collection is intimidating: around 200k archaeological objects, 100k natural history specimens, 100k photographs, 22k ethnographic objects and a library and archive with over 20k documents, recordings and books.

Team

The project team, Left to Right: Malissa, Miza, Aniq, Hans, Mona (at front), Bori (at back), Rahmah, Natasha (Kardashian), Rebecca and Yasmin, in classic PM style keeping calm and carrying on. Developing the museum team here is key to the project’s sustainability.

The team have academic backgrounds across history, anthropology and zoology, libraries and archives. They are being ably led by an experienced project manager and senior project leader, bringing international expertise and museum leadership. A programme of visiting fellows will deliver specific pieces of additional research. While there are a lot of experts on Borneo, within and outside the region, there are few museum professionals here beyond those already connected to the department or project team.

Finally, they have access to the resources of the existing museums and a design team of local architects with exhibition designers from Singapore.

I am evidently a sucker for oversize projects though as there is a bit of this going on in Manchester too. And why not, if you’ve got something special to offer, then recognise it and trade on it.

This is my first involvement with a new museum. I’m sure there is literature I should have read on the subject (recommendations welcome). I haven’t, and now I am here I’d perhaps question the relevance of some museology literature to this context.

It’s been just over a week, and my initial impression is that it’s a great project. The government appears to want to put money behind a positive cultural and environmental statement. And there’s a team of dedicated people working hard, who very much want it to succeed. Capital projects are always complicated though and lots of stakeholders means inevitable compromise. I can already see that is at least as much the case here as at home.

5 thoughts on “We are making a new museum

  1. The stated aim of Celebrating Cultural Diversity gets me excited too. Thank you, your contribution to making our world a better place. May you give voice to those long unheard. And may the parties never cease following a good day’s work.

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  2. I’m now working on a museum under development too and I’ve never done it either! So I’m looking forward to your musings – although clearly a new museum in Borneo is rather a different prospect to a new museum in New York (whose ambitions are rather less lofty than yours, sadly – but hey, there’s gotta be room for all sorts of museum experience I guess). Keep up the good work! Ruth x

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  3. I’ve been a Sarawak Museum fan ever since my father worked there in the 90s as an assistant curator and researcher. It’s where I spent time waiting for him to finish work after school, roaming the halls of ethnography. Imagine how excited I got when I read news of the refurbishments and new Campus. Thanks for everything you’ve done and are doing for the museum.

    On a sidenote, I must say I hate the new design of the main building.

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