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Inside the Oldest Museum in Borneo


article-imageall photographs by the author



[Sarawak Museum 1.JPG – The proboscis taxidermy display.]

Entering the galleries in the Sarawak Museum, you probably can’t help but feel like all eyes are on you - watching you, watching them.

[Sarawak Museum 2.JPG – A loris taxidermy giving you an eyeful.]

It may be the use of minimal bright lighting, or the gloom of a cloudy weather that day; whichever the reason, this added a subtle eerie air to the roomful of taxidermy specimens that has been there for decades.

[Sarawak Museum 3.JPG – Sarawak Museum (Old Building), the oldest museum in Borneo.]

Prompted by the famous British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Brooke the second White Rajah of Sarawak, built the Sarawak Museum in 1891. This historic building sits on a slope in the center of Kuching, Sarawak. It houses the natural history collection on its ground floor, and the ethnographical artifacts of indigenous peoples on the first.

[Sarawak Museum 4.JPG – Taxidermied Orang Utan, one of the many taxidermy exhibits from the Brooke Era displayed in the museum.]

The natural history collection contains many taxidermy exhibits that dates back to the Brooke Era; like this particular Orang Utan display. Based on the story, this Orang Utan was one of the two shot by James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak. Both Orang Utans were then packed in ice and shipped to Britain, where they were taxidermied and mounted into a display case of wood and glass, and then shipped back to this museum. Imagine the amount of time it took for all this done with no harm to the entire display in the 1900s.

[Sarawak Museum 5.JPG – Another long-time exhibit, a fang-baring primate taxidermy encased in a wood and glass display.]

[Sarawak Museum 6.JPG – Flying squirrels in permanent suspended animation.]

[Sarawak Museum 7.JPG – Bushy-tailed ground squirrel taxidermy from the jungles of Borneo.]

[Sarawak Museum 8.JPG – Various taxidermied birds of Sarawak.]

[Sarawak Museum 9.JPG – Unusual but well-preserved jungle fowl.]

[Sarawak Museum 10.JPG – Forever watchful big-eyed tarsier and loris.]

[Sarawak Museum 11.JPG – A taxidermy of wild cats.]

[Sarawak Museum 12.JPG – A local fish specimen conserved in a jar is also part of the natural history collection, along with other specimens of reptiles, amphibians and marine life.]

Moving on to the first floor, you’ll find a collection of traditional indigenous artifacts.

[Sarawak Museum 13.JPG – Traditional ceremonial masks from various ethnic groups.]

It includes these wood-carved masks used by spirit doctors for rituals from celebrating a good harvest to spiritual ceremonies like luring illness-causing evil spirits out from a victim’s body.

[Sarawak Museum 14.JPG – Masks of the Orang Ulu (left) and the Iban (right), which has a ‘beard’ made from human hair.]

Most of these masks come from the Iban, a tribal subgroup of the Dayak people of Sarawak. Some ceremonial masks have actual human hair implanted into them as facial hair.

[Sarawak Museum 15.JPG – More masks from the Iban tribe.]

[Sarawak Museum 16.JPG – Creepier looking Iban ceremonial masks.]

In the old days, headhunting was practised by the Dayak people. Usually, this practice relates to funeral rites where a head of the enemy is required to end the mourning period, especially for the Iban and Orang Ulu groups.

[Sarawak Museum 17.JPG – A circle of human skulls hung on the ceiling, as part of the exhibit in a longhouse model built within the museum.]

Heads preserved and installed in longhouses are usually placed at the communal gallery. These heads are believed to bring a good harvest, fertility to the community, and serves as a visual warning to enemies. However, keeping these heads takes diligence: they need regular food offerings, and a constant fire lit beneath them. Failure to do so would anger the spirits of the heads, and this only spells bad omens to the inhabitants.

[Sarawak Museum 18.JPG – Face-to-face with a skull.]

Impressing the in-laws may be difficult today, but in those days, it takes on a whole different meaning. A suitor had to present a head to the parents of a potential bride in order to be truly impressive and win her hand in marriage.

Of course, the practice of headhunting has long been eradicated. No need to lose your head with worry over it today.

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