The Sarawak Museum: Blazing a trail since 1886


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(Editor’s note: A link to this article was featured on our Facebook page on May 16, 2022 to celebrate International Museum Day which falls on May 17.)

Heritage Snippets from Sarawak

The Sarawak Museum circa 2021. Copyright: Friends of Sarawak Museum

By Dr Jennifer R. Morris


“On the fourth of August an unusual crowd might have been seen wending its way towards the New Museum…the number of persons present being between three and four hundred amongst whom were forty Europeans. After a short delay all entered the central lower room of the building which was tastefully decorated for the occasion with palms and ferns…and His Highness the Rajah then addressed the assembled.”

The above description was published in the Sarawak Gazette in 1891. 131 years later, in March 2022, crowds assembled in the very same area of central Kuching to witness the opening of the Borneo Cultures Museum. While these two events differed considerably in size, they both marked the start of a new era for Kuching’s culture and heritage.

The Borneo Cultures Museum has been causing a stir since its recent opening and is being hailed as a new leader among the region’s museums. For those familiar with the history of the Sarawak Museum, this seems fitting as Kuching’s museum has been a unique, trailblazing institution since its earliest days.

Anyone who has visited Kuching will immediately recognise the iconic museum building that was declared open by Charles Brooke, the second Rajah of Sarawak, in 1891. It was, however, a long time in the making, and its history contains many myths and legends.

It has been said, for example, that the famed British natural scientist Alfred Russel Wallace was responsible for founding the museum in Kuching. While this is an appealing legend, there is unfortunately little historical evidence to support it.

Wallace visited Sarawak in the mid-1850s, where he certainly discussed science with Rajah James Brooke and his nephew Charles. But it was not until 1878, two whole decades later, that Rajah Charles first suggested that Kuching should have its own museum.

Neither Rajah Charles nor the curators he hired to run the Museum ever wrote about a connection between Wallace and the Sarawak Museum, even though most of them knew Wallace personally. The legend was first recorded in the 1960s by post-war curator Tom Harrisson, so it seems to be a much later invention!

So what did inspire Charles to set up a museum in Kuching? It is far more likely that he was influenced by events taking place in neighbouring colonial cities like Singapore and in Perak.

When Charles took control of Sarawak after his uncle James’ death in 1868, he had to work hard to be recognised as a legitimate ruler. He had not been Rajah James’s first choice as successor. There was a change of plan in the years leading up to James’ death, after James clashed with his original Rajah Muda, John Brooke Johnson Brooke (Charles’s elder brother). Many people in Sarawak did not, therefore, immediately accept Charles as ruler.

In Britain, too, Charles struggled to establish his power. Much to his dismay, the British Crown did not recognise him as an independent monarch—rather than just another British subject—until 1902.

In the 1870s and 80s, then, Charles was striving to prove himself as a strong, efficient ruler worthy of a place alongside the most powerful governors of the British Empire. Part of his plan involved transforming Kuching into a city which could compete with the large colonial centres in Singapore and British Malaya.

This included an ambitious building programme, which shaped many of Kuching’s most familiar landmarks. The wooden shophouses in the Main Bazaar were rebuilt in sturdier brick; Fort Margarita, the Round and Square Towers, and the Courthouse were all constructed; and the Astana was redeveloped into the building that still stands today.

The icing on the cake of this state-of-the-art city was to be a museum. Museums were springing up in European colonies all over the world, to collect, research and organise the culture and environment of each location. The Raffles Museum in Singapore became a hub for scientists and collectors in the mid-1870s, so it seems highly likely that this provided the Rajah’s main inspiration.

In 1878, Charles announced in the Sarawak Gazette that his government officers should begin collecting artefacts for a new museum as part of their duties. This order produced disappointing results. Few of the officers made any effort to follow the instruction, and only a handful of objects arrived in Kuching—nowhere near enough to fill a museum!

Charles did not give up on his dream, however, and revived the idea eight years later, in 1886. Again, the timing suggests he was probably inspired by more museum-building activity in nearby colonies. Both Singapore and Perak were constructing brand-new museum premises at the time: the Perak Museum (founded by the British Resident of Perak, Hugh Low, who had previously served the Brooke government in Sarawak) was completed in the very same year, and the Raffles Museum building welcomed its first visitors in 1887.

This time, rather than relying on his officers to collect objects for him, Rajah Charles purchased a ready-made museum collection. This collection of cultural objects (mostly Kayan objects from the Rejang) had been put together by Hugh Brooke Low, son of the Perak Resident and himself Resident of Sarawak’s Third Division, based at the Rejang outstation. After purchasing Low’s huge collection of more than 500 objects for the impressive sum of $1,000, the Rajah had enough material to open his new museum almost immediately.

In November 1886, a small gallery located in a room above the market buildings on Jalan Gambir was declared open. At last, Kuching had its own museum!

The Rajah did not rest, however, and soon started planning a more permanent home for his treasured collections. The museum building was to be visible on the hill above the city centre, as a landmark to impress locals and visitors to Kuching alike. The Sarawak Gazette declared that it would be “the finest building in Kuching”.

Another persistent legend states that this building was designed by the Rajah’s French valet to look like a Normandy town hall, but architectural historian John Ting has proved that this was not, in fact, the case. Ting believes that Rajah Charles was actually inspired by yet another British colonial building: the Adelaide Children’s Hospital in Australia. Photographs of the Hospital show it did indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to the Sarawak Museum.

In August 1891, Kuching’s new landmark finally opened its doors to the public. At the opening ceremony, Rajah Brooke told the crowd: “[the Museum] has cost a good deal both of trouble and of money but I consider that every Country worthy of being called a Country should have a museum, and I hope that ours will be equal, at any rate in time, to that of any other Country in the East.”

The Sarawak Museum when opened in August 1891. Copyright: University of Leiden

Over the decades that followed, the Museum certainly lived up to the Rajah’s wish. It rapidly expanded until its collections and curators had become key players in scientific networks across Southeast Asia and beyond.

Unlike most museums in British colonial territories, the Sarawak Museum did not have to fight for sparse government funding. It remained Rajah Charles’s pet project right up until his death in 1917. The Rajah personally selected the Museum’s curators and insisted they kept him informed about the day-to-day running of the institution. One curator described being scolded by the furious Rajah after he noticed some displays had been reorganised without his permission. Charles also took a keen interest in all the articles published in the Sarawak Museum Journal, which was founded in 1911.

While colonial museums usually aimed to educate European government officers in the features of a territory and its people, the Sarawak Museum had a very different goal. Rajah Charles was clear from the start that this was a place for everyone, announcing at the opening ceremony that: “I trust that all will take an interest in the institution and help to make it a success…I hope that in the future it will prove a source of recreation and instruction to many.”

From the first day the collections were open to the public in 1886, the Museum certainly attracted visitors from all walks of life. In 1899, the Rajah ordered the curator to extend the Museum’s opening hours to include Sundays and public holidays, to ensure that as many people as possible from the local community were able to visit.

Visitor numbers were recorded from 1910 onwards and show that tens of thousands of locals did visit the Museum every year. It was an extremely popular attraction on public holidays, particularly around the Kuching Regatta, when the museum grounds came alive with music and other events.

As a historian, it has been a great privilege for me to have spent several years researching the Sarawak Museum’s fascinating history. This short introduction gives just a few glimpses into how inspiring and ground-breaking the Museum has always been. I hope the Borneo Cultures Museum will keep that original dream of a first-class museum for Sarawak’s people alive for many decades to come.

Borneo Cultures Museum

[The new Borneo Cultures Museum opened its doors on 9th March 2022. The Sarawak Museum is still undergoing renovations and hopes to open in the latter part of the year. There are other Museums in Sarawak that fall under the umbrella of the Sarawak Museum Department and are accessible to all. Islamic Heritage Museum, Chinese History Museum, Textile Museum, Natural History Museum, Art Museum are all in Kuching, Sri Aman Museum in Fort Alice, Sri Aman, Petroleum Museum Miri, Niah Archaeology Museum, Baram Regional Museum in Fort Hose, Baram, and Limbang Regional Museum in the Old Fort Limbang, are all places that showcase different parts of our history, heritage and culture. Please inquire through the Sarawak Museum Departnent website (https://museum.sarawak.gov.my) and go visit them!! Happy International Museum Day!]

Dr Jennifer R. Morris is a historian and educator from the UK. She completed her PhD at the National University of Singapore, focusing on the history of the Sarawak Museum. She was a Sarawak Museum Research Fellow in 2017-18 and acted as an Academic Advisor for the Borneo Cultures Museum.

This is the first instalment for “Heritage Snippets from Sarawak” which is a fortnightly column. Stay tuned and follow us for more updates.

(Editor’s note: Additional info added on May 16, 2022 to highlight other museums under the Sarawak Museum Department as well as International Museum Day which falls on May 17.)