It is not easy being a Museum Director in Malaysia - culture and history are seen as sensitive subjects, always viewed through ethnic and political lenses, and national narratives are highly contested. The post-colonial transformation of Malaysia's National Museum from a general museum covering history, culture and natural history, into a more focused history museum serves as a backdrop for the study of the tensions in Malaysia's national narratives as expressed in museum displays and designs. Many of Malaysia's museums in fact contest the National Museum's overarching narrative. This contestation can be seen in differing or changing treatments of a variety of subjects: the portrayal of Malaysia's pre-Islamic past, the history and heritage of the Melaka sultanate, memories of the Japanese Occupation, national cultural policy, and cultural differences between the Federation's constituent states. This study reads selected museums and memorials in Penang, Kedah, Perak, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Sabah, Kelantan and Terengganu, as well as three memorials dedicated to national heroes (first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, long-time Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and film and recording artist P. Ramlee). The book uses textual analysis and interviews with serving and retired museum bureaucrats to understand the dynamics of changing museological approaches and the tensions that they express (and engender). Museums, History and Culture in Malaysia yields a rich historiography and a fascinating insight into the ways Malaysia attempts to reconcile different national stories and visions.
Abu Talib Ahmad is Professor of Southeast Asian History at the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).