Communities rally to save Penang House of Music from closure


The Penang House of Music, established in November 2016, is a repository of local music memorabilia, rare documents, books, vinyl, instruments, and interactive exhibits, dating back to pre-war Malaya. Photo: The Star/Filepic

In the face of an impending threat to the Penang House of Music, the academic and music communities have joined forces to launch a public petition aimed at saving the music history museum and resource centre, from the brink of closure.

The George Town-based institution, established in November 2016, is a repository of music memorabilia, rare documents, books, vinyl, instruments, and interactive exhibits, dating back to pre-war Malaya.

On Feb 13, the Penang House of Music (PHoM) took to social media to break the news of its impending closure due to financial challenges, which could happen in a matter of weeks.

"It’s been a wonderful seven-and-a-half years and we are proud of this labour of love, but alas, just passion alone isn’t enough sometimes, and the lack of financial and institutional support has made it a little too difficult to continue,” read the PHoM statement.

A week has passed since the announcement, but there have been no concrete decisions made by the various stakeholders and politicians who have weighed in on the development.

The academic community, recognising the invaluable role such museums and repositories play in preserving and disseminating musical history, has taken a passionate stand alongside musicians, educators, and music enthusiasts to rally support.

Launched recently, the petition – Save Penang House of Music on Change.org – serves as a collective plea, resonating with the shared sentiment that the closure of this museum would represent a significant loss for both academia and the broader community.

The academic community, recognising the educational impact of Penang House of Music, highlights its role as a unique experiential learning space, especially for the younger generation. Photo: PHoMThe academic community, recognising the educational impact of Penang House of Music, highlights its role as a unique experiential learning space, especially for the younger generation. Photo: PHoM

“PHoM has always been a beacon of hope and inspiration for enthusiasts of music and the performing arts across the world. PHoM educated local, regional and global visitors about the diverse tangible and intangible heritage of art found in Penang and Malaysia. It is currently one of very few organisations in the country that have been actively collecting and archiving music artefacts from Malaysia and the surrounding region. Thus, it has provided music researchers like myself (and my colleagues) an invaluable resource for research on the rich cultural past of the nation and the South-East Asian region,” says Dr Adil Johan, senior lecturer, the Department of Music, Faculty of Creative Arts, Universiti Malaya.

The academic community highlights PHoM’s role as a unique experiential learning space. Music educators argue that the museum also serves as an extension of the classroom, offering students a tangible connection to the theoretical aspects of their studies.

"In Malaysia, few institutional archiving repositories have the level of engagement with the public that PHoM has had in its relatively short seven years, through its use of audio-visual and interactive exhibits. Its digital archive is also a treasure trove for academics and researchers alike, that is community-based rather than the top-down structures one finds in most public institutions. It is also serves as a community centre or meeting point for local musicians, old and new, to reunite or bridge the gaps between generations, unlike any other places across the country," says Azmyl Yunor, senior lecturer and programme leader, Department of Film & Performing Arts, School of Arts, Sunway University.

A demonstration of potehi, or glove puppet theatre, catches the attention of visitors during a tour of the Penang House of Music in George Town. Photo: The Star/Jeremy TanA demonstration of potehi, or glove puppet theatre, catches the attention of visitors during a tour of the Penang House of Music in George Town. Photo: The Star/Jeremy Tan

PHoM’s impact has gone beyond the music community. Even cultural activists and musical therapists share common ground here, emphasising the importance of preserving the cultural legacy embedded within the museum's exhibits, which tell stories of the connections and memories within the community.

“PHoM should not be closed. It has provided a venue for those interested in the traditional arts to rehearse, perform and document their works. Ombak Potehi (traditional glove puppetry), for instance, has been able to collaborate with the traditional Potehi masters to document the stories that are no longer performed. More importantly, the documentation is archived and is accessible to the performers and to the public,” says Dr Tan Sooi Beng, Professor of Ethnomusicology, School of the Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

As signatures pour in, support has also come from the international community.

“The PHoM is a cultural gem, documenting the musical and cultural heritage of the area. Importantly, the archives at PHoM serve as an educational tool for musicians, scholars, academics, and therapists and others who want to use the music of Penang in authentic and culturally sensitive ways,” says Lori Fogus Gooding, Associate Professor in Music Therapy, Florida State University and former President, American Music Therapy Association (2020-2023). Gooding visited PHoM last year.

“Exploring the PHoM and its online resources has helped me, as a foreigner, glimpse the rich musical and cultural life of Penang. It helped me better understand the numerous influences on music and culture in Penang and the contributions the arts have had on life on the island. It would truly be a loss for Penang and all of Malaysia if the PHoM did not continue, so I urge you to come together in support for the archives and its mission of instilling awareness and pride for the talent and beauty of Malaysian music and musicians,” she adds.

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