Friday, January 30, 2009

Mourning My National Museum

I had read in the Utusan Malaysia today on the plan to bring the Mona Lisa to be exhibited at the National Art Gallery. How exciting! Although I am pretty darn far from the artsy-fartsy lover, I am of the school of knowing-what-I-like-and-appreciating-it when it comes to art. I enjoyed immensely my few visits to the National Art Gallery to look at the Lat retrospective exhibition and the Tun Dr Mahathir photography commemoration. There were other stuff there which were pretty nice and I loved the Mobius strip-like central staircase of the gallery. However, I will admit to not enjoying the 3D sculptures: if I can't identify immediately what it is, I'm not interested.

I must say that the National Art Gallery is very well organised and planned to enhance the contribution of the arts to the collective national agenda. Granted they don't appear to publicise their doings loudly enough, but my visits showed that the exhibits are well-presented and current by changing the exhibit themes. This brought to mind the sad state of the National Museum.

The last international level exhibition to be found at the museum was I think in 1994: the Beauty Through Suffering exhibition. It was mostly a collection of photographs and artifacts showcasing the various methods and instruments used in the pursuit of beauty from the world over. Every continent was presented in colour and gore. The African scarification, the South American porcupine needle piercing to name a few (not to mention insane plastic surgeries of the West). It was a fantastic exhibition and you walk away with something new and thoughts to ponder.

When you speak of the heydays of the National Museum, you must recall the fantastical Khazanah dari Kubur or Treasures from the Grave exhibition in 1991. It was astounding. Funerary artifacts from the world over was gathered at the National Museum: from shrunken heads, to mummified remains from South America to the glorious golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. The entire exhibited smelled of earth, suspended decay and rot, but that did not deter visitors from gazing in awe at how inventive man has been in honouring and processing the dead. They even extended the showcase due to the tremendous response not just from Malaysian citizens but also from foreign visitors.

These glorious past can be laid down to the doors of Dato' Shahrum Yob, the then-curator of the National Museum. He braved lambasting from religious leaders and cynical detractors to bring history to life in the museum. His exhibitions were often innovative, well-designed and comprehensively researched with an artistic eye for presentation. He did not only look abroad for inspiration of his exhibits, but also at the local flavours; quite literally when he had the durian exhibition in the 1980s. I remember a cartoon by Lat of this momentous occasion of him eating durian with the ministers outside the museum, impeccably clad in a well-cut suit and an immaculately knotted bow tie.

I met him once at the University Malaya library and I bitterly regretted not having anything on me for him to autograph (I doubt the librarian would let me keep the book I had on me for momento sake). His tall and lean body was as immaculately dressed as his Lat caricature, and he spoke carefully and courteously in his well-modulated voice (I seem to use the word well a lot in relation to Dato' Shahrum). His Malay bore traces of his youth in Perak, the cadence and words so familiar to me as those from my father's lips. Ah, Dato' Shahrum, how I missed your curatorship.

My last visit to the National Museum was to the Misteri Alam Ghaib exhibition. It was touted to be an exploration of the mystical supernatural beliefs of South East Asia. I didn't have high expectations of it but my God what a horrific disappointment. The exhibit looked as though it was researched and constructed by a team of school children (which is an insult to all school-going children, mea culpa). The highlight of the exhibition was this tiny bottle said to contain a jenglot and a hantu galah sculpture. You walk through the exhibit in less than 10 minutes: there was nothing of note to see. The research was one-dimensional and shoddy; something amazing considering the richness of mystical lore of the region. There was so much more that they could have done: include the books and films done in horror genre produced in the country for example (e.g. Sumpah Pontianak, Sumpah Orang Minyak, Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, etc.), use a different approach to present the material, include more details and so on. But what can you expect when from the museum when the Ming vase exhibition artifact was labelled thus,"Mangkuk. Biru. China" (i.e Bowl, Blue, China).


*tears out hair by clumps*

The very least you can do is include the dating of the specimen and the region it was found, for the love of God. If you are not colour blind, you can see that it IS A BOWL THAT IS BLUE IN COLOUR. When I saw that label I was nearly tearful with rage: how could you prepare an exhibition with such hideous labelling at THE FREAKIN' NATIONAL MUSEUM!!!!!

*expletives deleted*

Sigh. I should look up the curator and write him a letter, no?


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