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The Malaysian National Museum

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It was a tricky assault course to get out here, having to pass through the underbelly of the Hilton Hotel of all places from KL Sentral station, only to be confronted with a series of busy highways not conducive to walking traffic. I made it in the end though to discover the very large building a mock interpretation of a longhouse, and I also realised I had been here before. It wasnt even obvious in which direction to tour the place so at random I first came across a display of many shadow puppets, used for sometimes lengthy performances of local epics. Many traditional dances were described, with video monitors showing one for example done on a contrived bamboo trampoline, where a ring of people encircled a jumper. Others performed daredevil moves dipping their feet and gyrating in between bamboo poles periodically smacked together. A real show of nimbleness and dexterity. There were presentations on traditional Malay and Indian wedding rituals, along with many traditional regional costumes too numerous and varied to describe. There was even a Portugese influenced garb from Melaka looking like a gaucho. A large tinsel covered bird turned out to be a chariot used once in the circumcision ceremony of royal princes.

Of the indiginous peoples, collectively referred to as Orang Asli, I learned that they are split into three distinct groups, the Negrito, Senoi and Proto Malay, each group consisting of six tribes. They live mainly in the interior jungle but some coastal dwellers are fisherfolk. Of Malaysia's population of 23 million, they number only around 148,000. Most notably the Jah Hut and Mah Meri tribes are renowned for their impressive wood carvings of human figures and spooky beasts. Its generally accepted that the Malay civilisation started around 3000 BC although the derivation of the word is contested. An ethnographical distribution map showed the Malays to surprisingly be scattered across 3 distinct regions, those being South East Asia, Melanesia/Polynesia and the "Melayu Diaspora", with Malay communities now living in South Africa, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Surinam and the Netherlands. Even Taiwan has people of Malay extraction of Polynesian origin.

A cultural change occured around 2000 years ago with the arrival of Indian traders, with many subsequently coming to work on the coffee, sugar and rubber plantations and settled, mainly Tamils. The peninsula came under the rule of the Indonesian Majapalut Kingdom in the 14th century and it was only with the Melaka Sultanate era that local governance became established, even being recognised by the Brits and the Dutch. It was only during this era that the Chinese community arrived, employed as farmhands, craftsmen and artisans. By the 20th century 200,000 had settled. There was also a display of royal treasures, the wearing of gold was reserved for royals and they certainly had plenty of it.

Next there was a temporary expo on local shipwrecks, with the Straits of Melaka being an important East-West gateway. Alternating monsoonal winds made it a natural waypoint for trade beginning around the 15th century. Trade from the East was mainly of spices, tin ore and rubber, destined for Portugal, Britain and Holland. The Chinese had already been plying the route since the 12th century however, exporting green glazed ceramics to India and the Middle East, and it was interesting to tie the picture together considering examples I had seen in the museums of those countries. The Ming dynasty 1368-1644 prohibited such foreign trade though and so many of the tradesmen moved to South East Asia. Blue and white porcelain began to be traded to Europe again in the 17th century and one display recounted the fate of the Diana, a British ship licenced to the East India Company. She floundered on her annual voyage from Calcutta to China in 1817, carrying a cargo of cotton and opium. She hit a reef here on the return leg and lots of excellent ceramics were recovered. Another was of the Dutch ship Nassau found at Port Dickson. She was lost in battle against the Portugese in 1606, in a Dutch attempt to take Melaka and with it the spice trade. On this occasion they failed but later succeeded in 1641 in collusion with the Sultan of Johor. Another Dutch ship the Risdam sprung a leak and was lost on her third voyage to Batavia in 1727. Artifacts recovered include tin ingots and an elephant tusk.

It transpired that the museum was undergoing a long period of renovation but beyond that, there was no information upon just exactly what displays were now unavailable. Although an extremely well presented showcase, with many video monitors to demonstrate traditional dance and crafts, I was actually left feeling disappointed I had learned so little of the countries history, whilst other topics as mentioned above seemed to be repeated between different buildings. Job done though.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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