Museums of Kuching – Part 1

Having been trying to visit every museum in the city, I’m now overcome by geekery and want to share. These are very brief, entirely personal and only semi-critical museum reviews.

Baskets hanging in the model longhouse in the Sarawak Museum.

Sarawak Museum houses the state’s original ethnographic and natural history collections. It is soon to close for redevelopment, the objects redisplayed and topics expanded into the city’s new museum. The current displays are a patchwork of good to extremely dated. While they don’t really communicate the distinguished history of the collections, or the museum itself. They do reflect the variations in resources and staffing over the last 130 odd years. The contents however are compelling and the museum has rightly remained popular since its heyday.

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Cut acrylic art works in Urang Sarawak illustrating scenes from Iban cosmology.
Gold offerings found by archaeologists at the ancient Hindu shrine of Bongkissam in Santubong. On display in Urang Sarawak.

The former art gallery building next door is itself quite beautiful and currently houses Urang Sarawak (Sarawak’s People), the pilot exhibition for the new museum. It tests various stories and interpretation approaches and is mainly successful in its design and interpretation. If it remains open once the old building closes for refurbishment, it is more than worth a visit. It is an up to date overview of Sarawak’s fascinating cultures past and present, and the rapid changes that formed the state.

Tua Pek Kong temple on a stormy evening.
Ceramics in the Chinese History Museum.

On the waterfront, opposite the spectacular Tua Pek Kong temple, is the old Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Now the Chinese History Museum. A well-kept and manageably-sized recounting of Chinese immigration to Sarawak since the 1500s. The museum is understandably targeted to the local community. It particularly celebrates an all-male cast of community leaders of the distant and recent past, not hugely meaningful to an outsider. It would have been nice to have learned a little more about family life I think. The only females featured were in fact some Malay schoolgirls included in a film about Sarawakian students learning Mandarin. Nevertheless, there were some great objects, like musical instruments and ceramics and a diaspora history that was entirely new to me.

Panjang ferryman crossing the Sungai Sarawak, Kuching.
Fort Margherita, housing the Brooke Gallery. Completed in 1880, I find it amazing that in Manchester at the same time we were flinging up massive brick warehouses. This fort, and the story of Sarawak’s Colonial past, seem to belong to an entirely different time.

Across the river is the Brooke Gallery, housed within Fort Margherita. A defensive structure built in the Brookes’ anachronistic colonial style. It is an appealing building, sensitively restored. The river crossing and walk through the Kampung to reach it was a great way to set the scene. This is the most recent of Kuching’s museums, curated by Jason Brooke the grandson of the last white Rajah, Anthony Brooke. It is a slightly one-sided view of Sarawak’s colonial history, not hugely troubled by Postcolonialism. There is a lot to see, rather more than I could handle with patience. I enjoyed the contrast between the Brookes’ recognisable, albeit privileged, life in England and their surreal role as Sarawak’s monarchy. If only more family histories were this interesting.

Up next. I ride the ragged edge of Kuching’s museum-like visitor attractions and further museum offerings…


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