A pragmatic generalist adrift in a sea of expertise…
Charles Hose’ Map of Sarawak, 1891. In Urang Sarawak exhibition, Sarawak Museum.
Knowledge is relative. As Brits go, I’d have said I knew quite a lot about Borneo. Given family connections, relatives who are from here. My sister, grandmother, countless aunts, uncles and cousins have all visited. As a child, hearing my sister’s experiences here in the late 80s had a major impact on me. As did meeting my uncle Robert and aunt Tiang. This is now my sixth visit to Malaysia and Indonesia, and third to Borneo.
Since joining this project, I’ve thought about the different ways you can know a place and how cursory my knowledge of this one is. The team here have mainly grown up in and around Kuching and have both expanding knowledge of the museum collections and vernacular knowledge of their hometown and region. Then there are the academics, they are either local and have gone really deep. Or foreign, but have made Borneo and its cultures, nature or archaeology their life’s work. I am overawed by the complexity and depth of knowledge that exists. I’m excited that it is being brought together in a current museum format. And pleased to report that the more I learn the more interested I become.
It genuinely feels like an exciting time for Sarawak, things have potential to come together, but it is chaotic. With every step forward comes news of something being lost or destroyed, usually in the name of development. Experiencing the diametrically opposed needs of development and preservation here feels very different to being cross about it from Manchester. Surely it doesn’t have to be this way?
Razed ground for a village expansion scheme at Santubong. Sarawak’s population is relatively small and there’s still plenty of space. So there is little appetite for re-use and renewal here, more for new ground and spreading out. Sadly, this often takes out a chunk of relatively undisturbed forest.
There is something hindering me, as I find my way through my brief stint here. It happens to me frequently on projects at home too. I am sure it happens to most museum exhibitions people. Faced with all this expertise, I am forced to think again about what I bring. Back home it’s easier to define: I’m leading a project, holding a vision, running a budget and a timeline. Keeping disparate museum professionals, all brilliant of course, with different angles on a project, all going in the same direction. Here, I’m working on wayfinding briefs for the designers and architects. A strategy for an expanded learning programme. And coaching the team in writing museum text. All very useful. But when I look at the challenges the documentation team and academic fellows face, I want to find something more to offer too.
Perhaps I can. The scale of the task is daunting, and doubt can be crippling. Maybe it takes an outsider to remind everyone that the vision is sound but that nothing can ever be perfect. Anything that enables future care of the collection and clearly communicates the region’s heritage to visitors is a leap forward. A more empowered museum could be a source of rebuttals to the blind ‘progress’ of development. And providing better education locally about the region’s unique history, nature and cultures can only encourage people to value the riches that are still here.
Happier views of Mount Santubong, just outside Kuching. A misty and mystical mountain.
I wanted this entry to be about Borneo, Sarawak in particular, and all the reasons people should take an interest. But it gets more complex as I learn. So, all I can do is say what little I know about Borneo and why I care what happens here.