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TWO new exhibitions on Sarawak’s history and culture have opened in the space of five days in Kuching.
The first is the Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita, a permanent exhibition which tells the story of Sarawak during the rule of the White Rajahs from 1841 to 1941. It is a collaboration between British charity the Brooke Trust and the state’s Museum Department and Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry - and what a good job they have done.
For one thing, the exhibition makes excellent use of the space at Fort Margherita following the two-year restoration of the building. It utilises all three floors of the fort, which are connected by an original wooden spiral staircase, and leads visitors on a thematic exploration of Sarawak’s history under the Brookes.
The first room on the ground floor looks at “The Allure of Borneo” and what attracted explorers and traders to this part of the world, leading up to James Brooke’s arrival in 1839. Here you can see, among others, an 18th century map of the region, artefacts from the Brunei sultanate and a replica of James Brooke’s ship, the Royalist.
Continuing on the first floor, the exhibition portrays how James Brooke became the Rajah of Sarawak and founded an independent state, followed by the building of Sarawak by his nephew and successor Charles Brooke.
On the second floor, you can discover what life was like in Sarawak during the Brooke era and get a glimpse into the lives and families of the Rajahs through various personal items and even Hollywood movie posters and tabloid headlines. Moving on, you will come to wartime occupation and liberation, the end of Brooke rule as Sarawak became a British colony, independence and Sarawak’s role in the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
What makes this exhibition stand out is the display of many artefacts and personal belongings from the Brooke family’s collection, loaned by the Brooke Trust to the gallery, as well as the effort and care taken to tell Sarawak’s story. It is well worth a visit to learn about a significant part of the state’s history, and you will also get to spend time in one of Kuching’s most recognisable historic buildings.
After the Brooke Gallery’s launch last Saturday, which happened to be the 175th anniversary of Sarawak’s founding by James Brooke, Urang Sarawak: An Exhibition About Us opened at the Sarawak Art Museum on Wednesday.
Again, I was pleasantly surprised at the depth and quality of the exhibition, which showcases the rich cultural heritage of Sarawak’s diverse ethnic communities as well as the state’s history and political development to the present day.
Key artefacts from the Sarawak Museum, some shown for the first time, are displayed to explore these themes and present a narrative of Sarawak’s history and culture.
There are some fascinating details about traditional customs and cultural practices, while archive footage of important moments such as the handover of Sarawak to the British brings history to life.
Adding to the visitor experience are a number of interactive touchscreen displays for you to learn about Sarawak’s forts, archaeological sites, state constitution and the omen birds of the Ibans.
While the state is keen to promote both these exhibitions as tourist attractions, I think we should first and foremost encourage locals to visit them. Yes, they are both worthy visitor attractions and it is not wrong to publicise them to tourists.
But these exhibitions are also about our history, our heritage, our culture and our own people. If Sarawakians do not appreciate these things, who will? As Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem said when opening Urang Sarawak, “Through this exhibition, we will recognise ourselves and appreciate ourselves and our ancestry.”
For such exhibitions to be sustainable as attractions, we have to be interested in seeing them ourselves. We cannot rely on tourists to keep them going. Furthermore, our interest should extend to greater awareness and appreciation of our history and cultural heritage, leading to stronger and better conservation efforts.
So if you are in Kuching, whether you are just passing through and especially if you are a local, I urge you strongly to go and see the Brooke Gallery and Urang Sarawak exhibitions. It will be well worth your time and you might even learn something about Sarawak you never knew before.