LIKE many, I have often wondered why the Perak Museum is located in Taiping and not in the capital like most State museums in our country. It is only after my first visit that I realise that Ipoh was not the capital of Perak when the museum was built.
Back in the 1870s, when the idea of the establishment of the nation’s first historical centre was mooted by Hugh Low, Perak’s fourth British resident, Taiping was the capital as well as the centre of administration.
The famous botanists and geologist, Leonard Wray, was given the responsibility to build the museum from scratch. Apart from coming up with the blueprint of the 131-year-old museum we all know today, Wray was also credited with scouring the four corners of the state to look for suitable artefacts, objects and specimens.
Construction of the museum only commenced in 1883 due to financial constraints. While waiting, he was forced to seek a temporary holding area for his growing collection. Utilising two large rooms in the Taiping State building, he remained steadfast in his mission despite having access to very limited funds. Wray was said to have disappeared for days on end, only to return with cartloads of precious artefacts from all over the State.
The museum took three years to complete, opening its doors to the public in 1886. By that time, Wray already had in excess of 5,000 specimens. Most of them were displayed in the museum’s four main galleries, while the remainder were kept securely in the administrative section.
Fortunately for Wray and his staff, the architect commissioned by Low had allocated sufficient space for most of their important zoological, archeological, botanical and ethnological specimens. Wray had to depend on his assistants to help mount the large collection of stuffed animals which are still on display until today.
In his capacity as curator, Wray was also said to have corresponded regularly with experts from abroad, sending them rare samples for analysis and identification. Among the institutions that he collaborated with were the British Museum in London, Raffles Museum in Singapore, as well as the Cambridge and Oxford University Museums in Britain.
JOURNEY THROUGH TIME
Walking through the galleries is like taking a journey through time. Visitors can still see many of Wray’s original work.
The section I like best is the one housing the extensive Nielloware collection. The Nielloware cottage industry used to be concentrated in the southern Siamese region of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Researchers today agree that this industry saw its heyday during the Rattanakosin era, which began in 1782 with the establishment of Bangkok as the new capital.
During the Nielloware production, craftsmen have to heat a mixture of silver, lead and copper to 3,000° Celsius for several hours before adding sulphur. The resulting Niello amalgam is then allowed to cool slowly. After that, pure silver is hammered and chiselled to produce the desired design.
Most craftsmen in Nakhon Si Thammarat are predominantly Muslims. They only produce designs which are flora in nature in accordance to their faith. The final step to this laborious process is to carefully apply the Niello amalgam to the carved silver sections. The finished product is sandpapered and waxed to give it a glittering finish.
Items made using the Niello technique (or more commonly referred to as Cutam in Malay) saw widespread use in the northern Malay States during the early 19th century. Back then, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu were part of the Siamese controlled territories and the sultans had to periodically sent tributes in the form of bunga mas to the Siamese King.
In return, the Malay State envoys would be given gold and silver Cutam to be taken back as acknowledgement gifts to their respective rulers.
The extensive and almost complete collection of Cutam in the Perak Museum gives rise to a suspicion that Wray may not have actually restricted his specimen collecting forays to Perak alone but instead he might have extended his trips to the neighbouring States of Kelantan as well as Kedah.
The Cultural Gallery is a good place for visitors to view various local handicraft such as intricately-woven tudung saji (food cover), tikar pandan dan mengkuang (pandan and mengkuang mats), as well as multifunctional baskets. The significant number of indigenous tribes in Perak such as Senoi, Proto Malay and Negrito are featured prominently in the Clay and Indigenous People Gallery.
I am amazed at how these resourceful people make their clothing from tree bark and wood pulp. I also admire their ability to produce interesting musical instruments and artworks. The highlight of my visit is an ancient dart tube said to be an integral part of the indigenous people’s spirit worshiping ceremony. The clay utensils on display are more than 100 years old. Most of these intricate pieces could have been acquired by Wray during his numerous field trips in the past.
Although Perak Museum ranks among the best in the country today, things have not always been smooth sailing. The most challenging periods were during the Second World War and Malayan Emergency.
Even though the building was fortunate enough to have avoided aerial bombings, many of the artifacts were discovered missing by the museum staff when they returned after the Japanese Occupation. There were suggestions that these priceless items were either looted during the chaos or taken away by the Japanese when they withdrew.
No one knows for certain what actually happened during that tumultuous time. The museum staff then had the unenviable task of organising expeditions to replace the missing exhibits.
Unfortunately, the relative peaceful period after the Japanese Occupation was shattered on June 16, 1948. A group of communist terrorists rode up to Elphil Estate in Sungai Siput and gunned down its manager, A. E. Walker, together with two other European planters. That single act of terror has gone down in history as the main precursor to the Malayan Emergency that lasted 12 long years.
During that time, the museum staff faced many travel restrictions as a number places in the State were considered “black areas”, where the bandit activity was rife. It was only after the Emergency was officially declared over on July 31, 1960 that archeological digs and field researches able to progress without hindrance.
Apart from the traditional exhibits, Perak Museum has also moved with the times by introducing modern concepts such as the 3D trick eye section. These colourful and life-sized artworks are a hit with the younger generation, who enjoy posing for selfies and wefies using the local culture themed setups as backdrop.
The ones featuring silat exponents (Malay art of self defence) and roti canai maker were the most popular. This novel addition is a great way to attract children to the museum and perhaps spark their interest in the rich Perak history.
The outdoor exhibits are mostly transport themed. The sheltered section at the back features a selection of vintage cars once used by the royal family.
I particularly like the antique automobile made in the 1920s by the Star Motor Company, based in Wolverhampton, England. This car must be one of the rarest in the museum collection as the company only had a small production capacity before folding in 1932.
• Perak Museum, Jalan Taming Sari, Taiping, Perak.
• Tel: 05-807 2057
• Fax: 05-806 3643
• Email: email@example.com
• Opening Hours: 9am-6pm daily. Closed only on Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Hari Raya Aidiladha.
• Admission: RM2, entrance free for children below 12 years old and those in school uniforms