The guided tour of the National Museum took all of 90 minutes and did not do justice to Malaysia's rich cultural and archaeological history.
It has the trappings of mystery, intrigue and curiosity – elements that would make any self-respecting sleuth hanker for more. The decades-old National Museum, a Kuala Lumpur landmark, is shrouded in tales of an underground lair filled with priceless artefacts and historic curios.
What’s even better is the hushed whispers of those in the know about the repository, which is deliciously rumoured to be haunted with ghostly sightings as witnessed by several museum employees.
But for Kamarul Baharin Kasim, the museum’s director, ‘rumoured sightings’ are as mysterious as things get. For one thing he affirmed that there’s no such thing as hidden vault. But there are however, several storage units around the country that are fast being filled up with more artefacts.
To the question of having accessibility to these storage warehouses, Kamarul said that getting into one of these requires special security clearance and that even he sometimes isn’t made privy to its contents.
“What you see at the main exhibit area is the Permanent Gallery which is split into four areas, namely the Prehistory Gallery and the Malay Kingdoms Gallery on the first floor, the Colonial Era Gallery and Malaysia Today Gallery on the second.
“What you see is probably 30 per cent of what is owned by the National Museum and the other 70 per cent is kept aside for research and documentation or categorised for special exhibits,” he explained.
Apart from the 415,081 artefacts showcased on a daily basis, there are 322,631 archaeological remnants, 64,344 animal and plant specimens and 28,106 ethnological objects under the care of the national museum.
While this may sound terribly thorough and well thought out, detailed even, it seems something of a puzzle as to why the main area of the National Museum, while beautiful, seems vacant.
This writer and a friend went on a guided tour of the museum and the entire walk-around even with staggered stops, took no more than an hour and half. For all the millions (RM20 million to be exact) spent on refurbishing the museum, it still seems devoid of so many corner stones that make up Malaysian culture and history.
Federal Cabinet interference
Situated near Merbok, Kedah, between Gunung Jerai in the north and Muda River in the south, it is the richest archaeological area in Malaysia. These archaeological remains show that there was a
Hindu-Buddhist polity here. The name itself is roughly translated into “Dragon Valley”.
The area consists of ruins that may date more than 2,000 years old. More than 50 ancient tomb temples, called candi, have also been unearthed. Bujang Valley also has a clay brick monument dating back to 110AD, making it the oldest man-made structure to be recorded in Southeast Asia.
A visit to the National Museum however, begrudges the visitor of a satisfying range of these items. Should you want to see more of it, The Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum might be a more satisfactory option.
There are some who are convinced that cultural and religious biasness is the reason why more of these artefacts aren’t on display at the National Museum.
“The public would always have questions about what we exhibit and what we don’t. What they don’t understand is that there is a lack of space in the museum and we have to carefully select what we display by way of rotation. It’s not just the public we have to contend with, but also the (federal) Cabinet.
“Sometime in 2002, we had this Ghost-themed exhibition. But the (federal) Cabinet frowned upon it saying that we were trying to highlight something superstitious. So whom do we please?
“We are often caught in the middle and you can’t please everyone. But we have a suggestion box and the feedback forms we receive are collected on a daily basis,” he added.
When asked why isn’t there any information on Yap Ah Loy who is regarded by many as the founding father of modern Kuala Lumpur, Kamarul proffered: “Maybe some people who visit the museum are prejudiced and maybe there are some others who are trying to highlight certain things just to ruffle some feathers.
“This is a National Museum and we must highlight specific things and not just focus on one item or person.”
Keeping things relevant
Kamarul said that the size of the National Museum was enough for the time when it was built, in 1961. Now however, he is of the opinion that it should be at least three times bigger than it is to allow for more exhibits and a higher volume of visitors.
In 2000, the museum welcomed 556,694 local and foreign visitors. In 2009, as final stages of renovations were being carried out, the number of visitors swelled to 961,149.
When probed for an answer as to whether there are specific items that are kept from the public eye, Kamarul relented and admitted that there are several such artefacts.
He declined to elaborate further, except to add that the “the National Museum has its own justification to keep it private and confidential.”
“Some of these items are unpleasant and we would rather not rub anyone the wrong way or ignite any negative feelings by exhibiting these items.
“When we tell people something like this, they call us government agents and say that we are hiding these things because of some hidden agenda. We have no agenda, hidden or otherwise.
“We are just doing our best by trying to keep things within a relevant historical and cultural purview,” he said.