SIBU: The executive director of the Friends of Sarawak Museum (FoSM) Louise M Macul says the Sarawak Museum in Kuching is one that showcases the racial harmony of the people.
Speaking at the Sarawak Chinese Culture Seminar here on Sunday, the volunteer of the museum from Maine, United States, said many artifacts exhibited came from various people, both coastal and the interior.
She said these items proved to be interesting reading and evidence that at no time was the collection being built specifically along racial lines.
“Inside the tangible collections are signs of racial harmony.
We can focus on the differences in cultures and races in Sarawak, or on the similarities despite the differences. For the latter, we only have to look at its collection that shows the fl exibility of culture.”
Louise said the museum had shown the interaction of people of various races dating back to the Song and Ming Dynasties.
“The maritime trade routes between India and China are known to have had Borneo on their path. This brought Chinese trade goods to Sarawak in return for jungle products.
Indians also traded, especially in Santubong.”
She said these people brought more than merchandise; they brought their culture, and the exchange of goods and import of culture left an indelible mark on the people of Sarawak.
She said the Sarawak Museum had a large collection of jars now a part of the Dayak culture.
“These were originally from China dating back to the Northern Song Dynasty. Often, these jars were of the storage variety with a dragon motif, but, their values were more than a mere container.
“Many other ornamental jars dating back to the late Ming Dynasty went on to become coveted heirlooms by the Melanaus, Ibans, Lun Bawang, Kenyah, Kayan and Kelabit.”
She said items that came from afar had added value and so did the jars and beads from China, India and beyond.
“The natives incorporated them into their belief, like the use of the jars in burial and for fortune telling. The beads were used by shamans as ritual objects for healing.”
She said the integration of these objects into a culture represented a harmony among the races.
Louise gave another instinct of the cultural integration – the Chinese dragon joined the local dog to become ‘aso’.
She said the style of dragon was found in the more coastal areas with the Melanaus, as seen in their Bilum exhibited in Sarawak Museum, and the Ibans.
Louise gave another interesting aspect of the cultural integration.
“Tigers are not found in Borneo, yet, tiger and dragon designs are found in cultural items throughout Sarawak.
She said tigers were on tiny bells on the Bidayuh costume, and the Kayan and Kenyah put the animal in paintings in a place of structural support to the rest of the life depicted.
To the Ibans, the ‘remaung’ (tiger spirit) is powerful, protective and prominent in their oral traditions.
Of all the ethnic groups, Louise said none were more infl uential in aterial culture than the Kayan, Kenyah and Kajang of the ulu.
“With their ‘maran’, social stratification, vaguely similar to the Indian caste system, these people fl ourished in the arts.”
She said they held the copyright for tattoo in Borneo, adding many ethnic groups had adopted this art form.
“The curving, swirling trading of the Kayan and Kenyah is seen everywhere in Sarawak.”
Louise said the most obvious representation of harmony in Sarawak Museum was in ‘Kayu aren’ or the tree of life.
“Similar to that of an Indian tradition, this tree also has an intense symmetry in the midst of so much detail. The hornbill sits prominently at the top, like the dove often sits atop this image in other cultures. Indeed, in every culture, there is a bird that symbolizes peace and harmony.”
She said there were many examples of borrowed images, shared meaning and adopted uses of motifs and objects throughout the Sarawak Museum.
“From secondary burial jars (a custom shared with the Hakkas), to the tiny, tinkling tigers of the Bidayuh, the artifacts are a sweeping testimony to people who got along with one another.
“These precious treasures of the different racial groups that comprise the population of Sarawak are given a quiet voice in Sarawak Museum.”
Louise has been staying in Southeast Asia for 15 years.
Her passion and interests have led her to be a volunteer for the National Heritage Board in Singapore for 13 year and a volunteer for the Sarawak Museum for the last three years.
She is enrolled in post-graduate studies in museology with the University of Leicester, England.