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Sunday August 10, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday August 10, 2014 MYT 9:46:04 AM
by priya kulasagaran
A visitor takes a closer look at the historic manuscripts at the National Library's current exhibition.
The National Library presents an exploration of our nation’s history and cultural heritage through ancient manuscripts.
A common image associated with history is the recording of it – a dilligent scribe penning down his or her observations of the world around them for the sake of future generations.
The thought of visiting an exhbition of such records however, may not sound exciting to most.
However, the Malay Manuscripts Exhibition 2014 currently taking place at the National Library of Malaysia should not be missed by those who love history.
It is believed that there about 10,000 Malay manuscripts housed in about 151 institutions around the world.
Given our colonial past, it is expected that the University of Cambridge and the British Library in Britain have some such manuscripts, but who would have expected the Vatican City Library in Rome and the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg to be in possession of these as well?
Locally, the National Library is home of the Centre of Malay Manuscripts, with 4,663 titles in its repository.
With such a large collection in place, the library’s director general Datuk Raslin Abu Bakar says that the idea of an exhibition had been in the works for some time.
When asked to propose a project for Visit Malaysia 2014, the library finally had the opportunity to act on it.
“We currently have 4,663 titles in our collection; most are written in Jawi script in the classical Malay language,” says Raslin.
“The main purpose of doing this is to enable new generations to appreciate our cultural heritage, it’s important for them to see and read the intellectual thought and cultural life of our ancestors.
“Also, I think it’s important to point out that this heritage would be of interest to all Malaysians to understand our shared past,” he adds.
Curating an exhibition of texts is a daunting task to say the least – the words of our ancestors, no matter how much wisdom they hold, were not written to be gawked at from behind a glass case.
While objects such as artworks or artefacts are easily accessible, “reading” an exhibit in a gallery setting can be a taxing experience.
Taking these things into consideration, the curators of the Malay Manuscripts Exhibition decided on an interesting theme for the display: a sea vessel.
Visitors are greeted by the structure of a large boat, alongside audio recordings of gently crashing waves to evoke the feeling of being at sea.
According to library officers, the reason for this unusual curation choice was that they wanted to move away from the stereotypical images of how ancient Malay culture is presented – namely the textbook scenario of Malay palaces.
Here, the theme of the ship merely acts as a loose framework to “group together” the manuscripts on display.
So naturally, the first collection of manuscripts deal with knowledge of navigation, followed by records of law, weaponary and defence techniques.
This slowly eases into records of cultural life, such as literature, culinary arts, medicine, and religion.
Although those who can read the Jawi script can read excerpts of the manuscripts themselves, the succint explanatory text accompanying each exhibit is enough for others to understand the general gist of said manuscripts.
One of the main draws of the exhibit is the library’s most famous holding – the Hikayat Hang Tuah.
Written in 1865, the Hikayat Hang Tuah was listed in Unesco’s Memory of the World Register in 2001 for its literary content.
The register, which recognises significant documentary works of cultural heritage, also lists three other Malaysian artefacts; the Sejarah Melayu (or Malay Annals); the Correspondence of the late Sultan of Kedah (1882-1943); and the Batu Bersurat Terengganu (or the Inscribed Stone of Terengganu).
Large, heavily decorated, and encased in a glass tomb of its own, the Hikayat Hang Tuah is quite a sight to behold.
The most visually exquisite exhibits, however, are the religious texts.
As such religious texts and illuminations were usually written on the order of kings or leaders, more care would be taken to include decorative illustrations and dazzling patterns of coloured ink and gold .
One particular array of such texts, shows the distinct styles of decorative text from different regions of the time.
That is not to say the plainer exhibits are any less interesting.
The medical records present for instance, would be humbling to contemporary audiences, with their detailed descriptions and possible cures for ailments that plague us to this day.
Aside from important treaties or records, scattered throughout the exhibit are curious fragments of the past.
Any food-loving Malaysian would definitely be interested in the records of traditional Malay cuisine, for instance.
One manuscript which caught this writer’s eye was the “Kitab Rasi”, a text on how to calculate the suitability and “chemistry” of couples who wish to get married.
The pages on display for this manuscript show the illustration of a ship; the components of the ship are used as metaphors for what to look for in an ideal parter in marriage.
The curators should also be given credit for attempting to break up the text-heavy display with accompanying artefacts borrowed from museums; this helps visitors contextualise the information presented in the manuscripts.
Going a step further, perhaps audio or video recordings detailing the histories of the manuscripts would enhance the exhibit.
The greatest shame of the exhibition, however, is its short run of about three months.
Perhaps then, the next step for the library is to think about a permanent space with a rotating exhibition of their manuscript collection.
The Malay Manuscripts Exhibition 2014 at the National Library, No. 232, Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur will run daily till Aug 26. Opening times: 10am to 5pm. Hotline: 03-26871700 Free admission. The library is also holding an essay and 'selfie' competition for teenagers as part of the exhibition. For more information, go to: www.pnm.gov.my.
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