More Amazing and Amusing Museums

loading Penang War Museum.

Deeper experiences of Penang’s heritage are promised by its many museums. Penang Monthly visits some of them.

There is a boom in privately owned and run museums in Penang. With themes ranging from the colonial to the downright quirky, their primary objective is to share histories and local cultures, attracting both selfie-loving locals and curious tourists.

In the wake of George Town’s listing as a Unesco Heritage Site, interest in various aspects of Penang history has certainly escalated.

Reminders of the War

While many of Penang’s new or newly revived museums are located in George Town itself, farther afield is one that is steeped in history and the horrors of the last war.

During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya from 1942 to 1945, atrocious crimes were committed against the populace and the loss of life and destruction of buildings was substantial. Over 70 years have passed since then, but at the Penang War Museum one is given a unique and authentic glimpse into a raw and painful past.

Situated on top of Batu Maung Hill at the south-eastern tip of Penang Island, the museum was formerly a mighty fortress built in the 1930s by the Royal British Engineers against enemy invasions coming across the Straits of Malacca. It was however abandoned in the face of the speedy advance of the Japanese Imperial Army during in 1942.

The Japanese naturally occupied the fortress until their emperor surrendered in 1945. The museum that now occupies the fortress is managed by a private company that was granted the concession by the Penang state government in the late 1990s, and is helmed by entrepreneur Johari Shafie.

Part of the kitchen terraced into a slope of the hill. Prior to WW2 it was used as a kitchen for soldiers preparing for war. When Penang fell, during the war, it became a place for nourishment to POWs - many of whom were tortured and massacred.

Johari turned the abandoned fortress into the first outdoor living war museum in South-East Asia. The extensive research Johari undertook in the late 1990s in London and various parts of South-East Asia eventually shaped his project into what it is today. By 2007, the museum had gone through what is called its second and third phases of development and restoration.1

The museum reveals the atrocities that were inflicted on the population and the hard life locals had to endure for the three years and eight months of Japanese Occupation. In the compound are empty ammunition shells and a motorcycle used by the dispatch rider plying between the fortress and the British base at Minden barracks. There are also tunnels for easy physical movement, communication and escape for the British servicemen.

According to museum guide Nurmunirah Johari, display replicas are used whenever necessary, especially when the original cannot be sourced. These replicas are useful in explaining things – particularly to curious schoolchildren who prefer tangible items that suggest hidden stories.

The living quarters of the servicemen were separated according to ethnicity and religion, with one for British soldiers, another for the Indian rank and file, and a third for Malay soldiers.

There is even a room that showcases the trials and execution of General Masaharu Homma and General Yamashita Tomoyuki for atrocities committed by their underlings in Malaya, among displays of other related events that took place across South-East Asia. Many actual gory incidents occurred in a few of these rooms, which lend uneasy credence in the mind of many visitors that the museum ground is haunted!

Individual visitors – compared to visiting busloads of schoolchildren – do not qualify for museum guides, and are left to wander about the museum compound by themselves after being given a short briefing. Sadly, such an arrangement may explain the case of vandalism in the museum, particularly the etching of names and symbols on the walls of certain old buildings.

Bygone Peranakan Life

As its name promises, Colonial Penang Museum takes us back to the days when wealthy merchants of Penang and others in the upper strata of society lived an affluent lifestyle that matched those of the colonisers. This is most easily reflected today through the exhibition of the expensive furniture and other exclusive items that filled their residences.

Established on January 17, 2015 and located on Jalan DS Ramanathan in Pulau Tikus, the museum takes pride in their collection of over 1,000 pieces of rich legacy antiques and collectibles from the colonial era. These pieces were originally commissioned for the mansions of Penang’s wealthy merchants during the eighteenth to twentieth century.

A parchment document handwritten by Captain Francis Light.

Outside the museum building are 22 heavy pieces of Roman pillars and a unique tree house. Museum proprietor Jasmine Tan says that collecting of artefacts took over 50 years and was made possible by the relentless motivation of her Peranakan parents and grandparents to amass items of historical value.

Highlights include a parchment document handwritten by Captain Francis Light; the reversed painting by William Morris & Co.; Baba-Nyonya collections such as a bridal table; and stained-glass windows by Hubert McGoldrick/Alfred Ernest Child and Katherine O’Brien.

This museum is sustained through entrance fees.

Don’t Believe What You See

One of the creative murals at the Made-in-Penang Interactive Museum.

Made-in-Penang Interactive Museum (MIPIM) is meant for those who prefer “active participation” in a museum setting, with impressive 3D artwork and about 30 interactive “trick art” paintings. Smartphone-totting visitors are bound to be attracted to the display items that provide quirky photo opportunities.

Claiming to be the first of its kind, MIPIM puts heavy emphasis on the cultures of diverse ethnic groups and foods found in Penang. Housed in a pre-war building on Pengkalan Weld, MIPIM is poised to offer new products in the next few months under new management: young managing directors Jimmy Foo Kok Keong and Feynman Lau Eng Hong have vowed to make MIPIM more than just a museum; they aim to make it a “tourist destination”.

Apart from the ticket collection, these directors plan to sustain the museum by setting up stalls for visitors, especially foreign tourists, so that they can have a taste of local delicacies such as cendol, nasi lemak and char kway teow after touring the museum. This is in addition to the planned sale of merchandise and souvenirs targeted at cruisers that bring tourists ashore for a limited number of hours.

Sustainability is key, and well-curated museums can do well to draw ever-curious locals and the growing number of tourists into the state.

Coupled with George Town’s status as a Unesco World Heritage site and the state’s ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, these museums can provide an extra dimension to the experiencing of Penang’s history and heritage.

1 See Abu Talib Ahmad (2015), Museum, History and Culture in Malaysia, Singapore: NUS Press, pp. 134-138

Dr Mustafa K Anuar is a Fellow at Penang Institute who is fascinated by the many stories that come to life in Penang museums.

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