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Narratives of history and culture through Malaysian museums

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Coming from an art history background, the issue of exhibition, curatorial and curatorship are pertinent, especially in today’s discourse. The recent establishment of the National Gallery Singapore, for example, a colossal institution that narrates the story as well as the history of arts in the region, sets up a new standard in exhibition and curatorial of the region, although the repercussion of such art exhibition that attempts to narrate the history or, more accurately, the artistic practices of the region, has yet to be reviewed.
Although exhibition and curatorship in the region have reached new heights with the NGS establishment, there is a dire need for evaluating and assessing exhibition and curatorship practices in Malaysia. Besides the gallery construct, museums play an important role in exhibition and curatorial practices. Museums, History, and Culture in Malaysia is an important book that could serve as a stepping stone in examining exhibition and curatorial practices. At a first glance of the title, I thought it would be an interesting read especially when curatorial and museum studies has become an important field in the context of fine arts, as reference and discourse for curatorial and museum studies are lacking in Malaysia. As the author points out in his writing, “… museum studies is very much neglected in Malaysia, while the role of museums as the guardian of heritage and history is subjected to unending conflicts” (p. 2).
In Malaysia, museum and gallery visiting culture is not a mainstream culture that is well embraced by the public – a general perception is that museums are just institutions that collect and displays relics of the past, and they do not function as a reflective site in which we see ourselves in a larger societal construct. Abu Talib Ahmad’s book reiterates my concern on the wariness of the exhibition strategies forwarded by Malaysian museums.
Museums, History, and Culture in Malaysia examines Malaysian historical narratives not through documentations or historical texts, but museums and development of museums as important sites that denote or unveil Malaysia’s nationalistic agendas. The author himself explains that the aims of museums in Malaysia are focused firstly towards nation-building by becoming the custodians of the past, and secondly, it also gears towards meeting the needs of the tourism industry (p. 3); I find both objectives problematic and they need to be unpacked.
Moreover, as the book examines the exhibitions and thematic approach taken by each museum, the author positions and addresses the different ways in which each museum has contesting stories to tell with regard to the country’s pre-Islamic past, the Melaka Sultanate, the Japanese occupation period, the country’s national cultural policy, and the cultural variances between the Federation’s constituent states. The book also illustrates comparisons between story narrations of alternative histories that are arguably not always in acquiescence with the national history as portrayed by the National Museum.
Besides the Introduction and Conclusion, the book is divided into five chapters -- namely chapters focusing on the Pre-Melaka Period, Melaka History and Heritage in Museums, Museums and the Japanese Occupation, Memorials and Personalities and Provincial Museums and Culture. Based on the chapter divisions, the author analyses the way museums in Malaysia narrate history within the context of a defined nationalist agenda based on various case studies of a few selected museums and memorials in Penang, Kedah, Perak, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Sabah, Kelantan and Terengganu. Memorials under discussion include those of 3 former Prime Ministers - Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad - and of Tan Sri P. Ramlee, a film director and recording artist. The final chapter focuses on the regional museums where different narratives that are more rooted in the cultural beliefs are discussed in exhibitions and displays of marriage and rituals, music, popular pastimes and other cultural items are positioned as part of major exhibits.
The book is written based on the author’s diverse data obtained from visits to museums, interviews with current or previous museum bureaucrats, archival research and textual analysis of museum publications such as the Federation Museums Journal, which makes the work a valuable detailed insight into museums in Malaysia.
The book, however, mainly focuses on the documentation of the museums and their evolvement, and as in the main argument of the book, how these museums are first established according to the mould of the nationalistic agendas. Generally, I expected a more critical and rigorous unpacking of such positioning of this argument in a dedicated chapter of the book, in which with further reading, I find lacking. The problems of why a “nationalistic agenda” through Malaysia’s exhibition strategies has not been contested or revised needs to be discussed by addressing various practical questions such as, who curates the exhibitions, who endorses the exhibitions, what are the receptions of the audiences, whether or not “nationalistic agendas” are still relevant in today’s museum’s exhibition strategies and what is the future of Malaysian museums, as these discussion would be a critical future resource in designing museum exhibits. The data presented in Tables 0.1, 0.2 and 0.3 in the book are actually astounding. As noted by the author in 2013, there are actually 189 museums in Malaysia (p.26), and yet the well-informed practice of a curator in setting up the various exhibitions in these museums seems to be absent from the discussion of this book.
Museums, History, and Culture in Malaysia, in my humble opinion, is ultimately a disappointment as it neither critically unpacks nor challenges exhibition and curatorial strategies of the selected museums and memorials. Nevertheless, Abu Talib Ahmad, offers readers some of the best established scholarship on the history of museums and his insights into Malaysian history and culture and these, indeed, are valuable contributions to the field.

Reviewed by Sarena Abdullah, Universiti Sains Malaysia (

Abdullah, S. 2016. A review of Abu Talib Ahmad. 2014. Museums, History, and Culture in Malaysia, posted online on 3 June 2016: 

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