When it comes to unravelling the rich tapestry of a nation’s history and culture, few places can rival the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur. Nestled in the heart of Malaysia’s capital, this iconic institution offers a captivating journey through time, showcasing the diverse heritage and remarkable stories that have shaped the country.
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History of the Museum
The National Museum, also known as Muzium Negara, stands as a testament to Malaysia’s commitment to preserving its cultural legacy. It was inaugurated on 31 August 1963 by the Third Yang di-Pertuan Agong, six years after Malaysia’s independence.
The museum was built on the site of the Selangor Museum, which was established in 1887 by the British colonial government and later merged with the Perak Museum in Taiping as the Federated Malay States Museums. The Selangor Museum was accidentally bombed during the Second World War and its collections were transferred to the Raffles Museum in Singapore.
Designed by the renowned Malaysian architect, Ho Kok Hoe, the museum’s unique architecture draws inspiration from traditional Malay and Minangkabau influences. Its distinctive roof, resembling a traditional Malay palace, serves as a visual reminder of the nation’s royal heritage.
Ho Kok Hoe was born in 1926 to a family of architects. His father, Ho Kwong Yew, was a well-known Singaporean architect who designed many landmarks such as the Cathay Building, the Capitol Theatre and the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Ho Kok Hoe followed his father’s footsteps and studied architecture at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He then joined Swan and Maclaren, a prestigious architectural firm that was responsible for many colonial buildings in Singapore and Malaya.
Ho Kok Hoe was not only an architect, but also an artist and a patron of the arts. He was the president of the Singapore Art Society from 1954 to 1968, succeeding Dr. C.A. Gibson-Hill of Raffles Library and Museum. He promoted local art and artists, and organised exhibitions and competitions. He also painted and exhibited his works, which were mainly landscapes and portraits. He was awarded the Public Service Medal in 1983 for his contributions to the arts.
Ho Kok Hoe passed away in 2010 at the age of 84. He left behind a legacy of buildings and artworks that reflect his passion and talent for architecture and art. He is remembered as one of the pioneers of Malaysian and Singaporean architecture, who helped shape the identity and culture of both nations.
Museum Galleries & Exhibits
The museum has four main galleries that cover different aspects of Malaysia’s ethnology and natural history.
Some of the weapons used in this region 4,000 years ago during the Neolithic Age which is also known as the New Stone Age started around 10,000 BCE and was the final stage of cultural evolution or technological development among prehistoric humans. It marked a major change in human history, as people began to cultivate plants, domesticate animals, and settle in permanent villages.
Gallery A: Prehistory
This gallery traces the origins and development of human civilization in Malaysia from the Palaeolithic era to the early Malay kingdoms. Exhibits include Palaeolithic-era stone tools from 200,000 years ago, Neolithic pottery, a replica of the Perak Man skeleton (reckoned to be 10-11,000 years old), a bronze Son Dong bell found near Muar, Johor which originated from Vietnam in 150AD, and a seated Bodhisattva statue thought to be around a thousand years old.
Perak Man is the name given to the skeletal remains of a man who lived about 11,000 years ago in the Lenggong Valley district of Hulu Perak. He is the oldest human skeleton found so far in Peninsular Malaysia. He belonged to the Australomelanesoid race, a type of hominid that occupied the western part of the Indonesia archipelago and continental Southeast Asia at the end of the Pleistocene and early Holocene. The Perak Man had a deformity that caused his right arm to be shorter than his left arm, and he was buried in a fetal position with grave goods such as stone tools and animal bones.
Perak Man was discovered in 1991 in a cave called Gua Gunung Runtuh, which is located a few kilometres north of the town of Lenggong and 105 m above sea level. The skeleton was in various, small fragments, so the researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) had to use a CT scan and a 3D model of a real skull to reconstruct his skull. Then, they used a software called Blender to recreate his face.
Lenggong Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains evidence of human occupation dating back to 1.83 million years ago. The valley contains four archaeological sites in two clusters: Bukit Bunuh-Kota Tampan, Bukit Jawa, Bukit Kepala Gajah and Bukit Gua Harimau. These sites span all the periods of hominid history outside Africa, from the Paleolithic to the Metal Age.
Another fascinating site in the Lenggong Valley is Bukit Bunuh, where hand axes and other stone tools were found in association with a meteorite impact crater. The hand axes are among the oldest outside Africa and are dated to 1.83 million years ago. They suggest that hominids were present in Southeast Asia much earlier than previously thought. The meteorite strike also blocked and diverted the Perak River, creating a paleolake and preserving the archaeological evidence.
Despite some trying to link the Malay old history with the Middle East to justify the religious connection, the truth is the region was heavily influenced by Hinduism and Indian old kingdoms. The Bujang Valley is a historical complex in Kedah, Malaysia, that was once the centre of a prosperous trading kingdom from the 3rd to the 12th century. The archaeological remains of the kingdom include more than 50 temples or candis (a replica is shown above) that show Hindu and Buddhist elements.
Gallery B: Malay Kingdoms
This gallery showcases the rise and fall of various Malay kingdoms that ruled over parts of Malaysia and Southeast Asia from the 2nd to the 19th century. Exhibits include artefacts from the Srivijaya, Majapahit, Malacca, Johor-Riau, Kedah, Perak, Kelantan, Terengganu and Negeri Sembilan sultanates, as well as models of royal palaces, forts and ships. The gallery also features a replica of the Bukit Siguntang inscription from Palembang, which is considered to be the oldest written record in Malaysia.
The Bukit Siguntang inscription is one of the oldest written sources related to the Srivijaya empire, a maritime power that dominated the Malacca Strait and the surrounding regions from the 7th to the 13th century CE. The inscription was discovered in Bukit Siguntang, a small hill in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, where many archaeological relics of Srivijaya have been found.
The inscription is written in Old Malay using Pallava script and dates back to the 7th century CE. It mentions a great battle that shed a lot of blood on the land of Srivijaya and a curse for those who committed evil deeds. The inscription also reveals some aspects of the Srivijayan society, such as the presence of Brahmins, warriors, merchants and commoners.
The original inscription is now kept in the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta, while a replica is displayed in the Sriwijaya Kingdom Archaeological Park in Palembang. The replica was made to commemorate the historical and cultural significance of the inscription and to educate the public about the ancient heritage of Srivijaya. The replica is placed in a pavilion that resembles a traditional Palembang house, surrounded by a garden and artificial islands.
One of the most interesting exhibits that most visitors may miss is these old (as far as the 1700s) but very detailed maps by the Europeans who started to venture into this region for trade and conquests. These maps whilst not so accurate, still contain some of the names that are still in use to this day. The above is an amazing map of the East Indies from 1818 created by John Pinkerton, a Scottish cartographer and historian, who used copperplate engraving to produce this detailed and accurate representation of the region.
Gallery C: Colonial Era
This gallery depicts the impact of colonialism on Malaysia by the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese powers from the 16th to the 20th century. Exhibits include weapons, uniforms, documents, maps, coins, stamps and photographs that illustrate the political, economic and social changes that occurred under colonial rule. The gallery also highlights the resistance movements and nationalist struggles that led to Malaysia’s independence in 1957.
There is a small replica of the A Formosa Fort from Malacca inside this gallery and numerous artefacts and items from the colonial time. One item that is no longer in use is a detailed tin dredger (kapal korek in Bahasa Malaysia) replica due to the fact that tin mining was one of the oldest industries in Malaysia, and it has played a significant role in the economic development of the country.
The most iconic and innovative method of tin mining was dredging, which was introduced in Malaya in 1913 by Malayan Tin Dredging Ltd which was a pioneer in the tin mining industry in Malaysia. The company was founded in London in 1911 as Malayan Tin Dredging Limited and transferred its domicile to Malaysia in 1976 by incorporating Tin Dredging (M) Berhad. At that time, MTD was the largest Malayan tin dredging group in Malaysia, operating several dredges across the country.
A dredge was a large floating machine that could dig up the riverbed or swampy areas where tin ore was buried. The dredge would then separate the tin ore from the soil and gravel using a series of buckets, screens, and jigs. The waste material would be dumped behind the dredge, forming long ridges called tailings. The dredge could move forward by pulling itself along steel cables anchored to the shore.
Dredging was a capital-intensive and high-yield process that required less labour and land than other methods. It also enabled tin mining to reach areas that were previously inaccessible or unprofitable. By 1931, British firms accounted for more than 65% of total tin production in Malaya, surpassing Chinese dominance. At its peak in 1940, 123 dredges were operating in Malaya, producing more than half of the world’s tin output.
The decline of tin mining and dredging in Malaysia began in the 1970s due to several reasons. The most important one was the collapse of the world tin market in 1985, which led to a sharp drop in tin prices and made many mines and dredges unprofitable. Other factors include the depletion of tin deposits, the rising costs of production and maintenance, the emergence of alternative materials such as plastics and aluminium, and the shift of economic focus to other sectors such as manufacturing and services.
A very iconic image of Merdeka that all Malaysians must know and must appreciate. The significance of this historical moment in Merdeka is fast losing its perspective in modern Malaysia. Image source: Wikipedia
Gallery D: Malaysia Today
This gallery celebrates the achievements and challenges of Malaysia as a modern nation since its formation in 1963. Exhibits include models of iconic buildings, monuments and landmarks in Malaysia, such as the Petronas Twin Towers, the National Monument and the Parliament House. The gallery also showcases the diversity and unity of Malaysian culture through displays of costumes, festivals, arts and crafts, musical instruments and cuisine. The gallery also features interactive exhibits that allow visitors to learn more about Malaysia’s education system, economy, sports and technology.
During our visit, there was a museum exhibition which is related to weight & measurements which showcased the various terms, tools and evolution of the standards in weight & measurements. One such change is the usage of the metric system which became the standard in France and Europe in the 18th century. Malaysia was still using the imperial system of measurement from the United Kingdom but after 1963, Malaysia joined the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM), an international body that oversees the metric system. In 1972, Malaysia passed the Weights and Measures Act, which made the metric system compulsory for all official purposes.
The museum also has an outdoor display area where visitors can see larger exhibits such as vintage cars, trains, planes and cannons. The museum also has a library, a souvenir shop and a cafeteria for visitors’ convenience.
The National Museum is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm (last admission is 4.30 pm). The admission fee is RM5 for adults and RM2 for children (Malaysian citizens), or RM15 for adults and RM10 for children (foreigners). Visitors can also join guided tours or audio tours for an additional fee.
it has been years since I last visited the National Museum but saw an opportunity to bring the family recently since they have not visited this museum and it was an experience that left my kids in awe. There was a great sense of pride in Malaysia’s rich heritage and remarkable stories.
The museum exhibits were not just static displays; they were windows into the past, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in the narratives of Malaysia’s history. The attention to detail and the informative descriptions accompanying each exhibit made the experience both educational and engaging.
What struck me the most during my visit was the museum’s commitment to inclusivity. The museum exhibits showcased the contributions of various ethnic groups, ensuring that every visitor could connect with their cultural heritage. It was a beautiful celebration of Malaysia’s diversity and a reminder of the strength that lies in unity.
So, if you ever find yourself in Kuala Lumpur, make sure to carve out some time to visit the National Museum. It’s an experience that will not only enlighten you about Malaysia’s history but also leave you with a profound appreciation for the vibrant cultures that make this nation truly unique.