Founded in 1888 and opened in 1891, the Sarawak Museum is the oldest museum in Borneo.
Since its inception until 1974, the head of the museum was called ‘Curator’. After this, the title for the head of the museum became “Director.”
Sarawak Museum has seen so many curators and directors passing through its doors since it was first opened. Each head of the museum has their own stories on how they ended up at their post.
After Sarawak joined to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, we’ve had our own Sarawakians as directors: Benedict Sandin (1966-1974), Lucas Chin (1974-1991), Dr Peter Mulok Kedit (1991-1996), Ipoi Datan (1996-1997, and then again in 2009) and Sanib Said (1997-2008). Currently, Suria Bujang is Acting Director.
Of course like any other working environment, Sarawak Museum has its own office stories or rumours to tell. Who better to tell the story other than one of its own curators, Edward Banks?
He served as the curator from February 1925 to 1945. Banks was interned at Batu Lintang camp during the Japanese occupation of Sarawak during World War II.
The former curator once wrote his experiences working at the Sarawak Museum. In the article, he roughly pointed out the contributions and achievement of all the curators that came before him.
Here is the article written by Edward Banks which was published in The Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983:
There are several stories about the origin of the Sarawak Museum. There is no doubt the idea first started from a suggestion from Alfred Russel Wallace when he visited the country. He became a close friend of James Brooke, first Rajah of Sarawak, in fact they went away together to his country house on Peninjau Hill behind Siniawan. It seems certain Wallace persuaded Brooke to have a museum and orders were given for this. Later events delayed the start but Charles Brooke, the second Rajah, took his uncle’s orders seriously and went ahead with the scheme for a Museum.
I have always been told that when looking through magazine he saw a picture of a girl’s school in Adelaide – “Just the thing for a museum”, said he, whistled up the PWD (Public Works Department) and so it was built. You can see a picture of it in Shelford’s book. The question of somewhere for the Curator to live came up and on looking at a picture book about Switzerland and he saw a photograph of Swiss Chalet – “Ha, just the thing for a Curator” and that is where I used to live.
A museum had to have glass cases and stuffed animals. To it came Bartlett, sometime assistant in the London Zoo. He was a very good taxidermist indeed, many of his mounted specimens are still on show. He also sent many specimens home to be mounted by Gerarrd in London and they are still probably home some of the main Museum today with a certain amount of artistic merit. Bartlett’s assistant was a Chinese gentleman named Chiang Jee Koo who became nearly as good as mounting birds as was his master.
Bartlett was replaced by Shelford, almost certainly recommended by Wallace. He brought order to the Museum, everything was catalogued and numbered so that what every specimen you wish could easily be found among the very large reference collection that he accumulated. The museum owes its firm foundation to his orderly mind. I believe Shelford was a cripple and there used to be in Museum a very large back basket in which he is said to have been carried up Mount Penrissen.
Shelford was followed by Hewitt, an indefatigable collector of insect and of plants but he did not stay very long before retiring to Natal.
Then came John Coney Moulton. His service to the museum was immense, he had another wing built on, started the Sarawak Museum Journal and became an authority on Cicada; with a foretaste of things to come the museum was soon full of files and of memos and all the signs of coming bureaucracy. Then can came the first War and Moulten went off to Singapore to join his regiment and when the war was over, he was appointed Director of the Museum in Singapore. Up to this time, Charles Vyner Brooke had been his own secretary, all outstation officers wrote to him and he wrote back to them. In about 1923 he made Moulton his Chief Secretary in Sarawak. It was not a popular appointment, most administrative officers thought they could have done the job better. (After the second war there was once a suggestion they might do worse than have another curator for Chief Secretary and I know what the anti feelings were like!)
The Curator at that time was a Swede named Mjöberg. He must have been the finest collector the Museum ever had. Nothing moved on foot or fin or wing but he had it, he knew what he was collecting too, a very able man. His manners aroused the dislike of many people, some D.Os (District Officers) would not have him in their district, in fact he was just not popular with anyone. He must have used his position as Curator to obtain large numbers of old jars and plates which did not reach the Museum collections. This led to a furious row with Chief Secretary Moultan and Mjöberg had to go. It is almost incredible that he packed up numbers of jars and of plates to take with him. They were of course confiscated by the customs and placed in the Museum. A furious correspondence followed, ordering me to send on his property which of course I could not do and we all got well shot at between the pages of his book “Durch die Insel der kopfjarger.”
I was the next Curator, arriving in February 1925, Moulton put me through it and was apparently satisfied and I was allowed to move in. Here I met an old Chinese gentleman named Chiang Jee Koo who became a lifelong friend. He had started with Bartlett, had seen Shelford, Hewitt, Moulton and Mjöberg come and go and now I must say he had picked up some astounding English from former Curators and it was quite exciting being taken around the Museum exhibits by him. But he was a dear, we got on famously and did not always work too hard, he loved talking about the past. The Sarawak Museum was his God and it owes a great deal to this old gentleman.
Moulton died shortly afterwards and I was on my own. Then came a slump and many officers more useful than I were made redundant, I have not the slightest idea why they kept on. The Museum was at its lowest when Mjöberg left and I remedied this as best I could. It soon became clear to me there could be no lasting support for an institution with just a lot of pin-ups and I began to apply Museum work to technical problems in public life. Sometimes it was the Turtles, the birds nest soup industry, I used to act for the Director of Agriculture or the Secretary for Native Affairs when they went on leave. I know this was often done in time that might have been spent in collecting or research but it gave the museum a very good name with the authorities -they even appointed G.T.M. MacBryan as Assistant Curator!
When the war came, I stayed behind with some idea of persuading the Japs to spare the Museum. I did not have to try very hard, they showed a great respect for the place and never touch a thing.
Finally when the Japs had gone, I rescued from the Printing Office another number of the Sarawak Museum Journal and gave them to my successor.
So who are the people mentioned by Banks in his article?
1.Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)
Best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection, Wallace was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer and biologist.
He arrived in Kuching on Nov 1, 1854 after a brief spell recovering from a shipwreck on his return to England following his explorations of Brazil between 1848 and 1852.
During his stay in Sarawak as the guest of James Brooke, he wrote a paper while occupying a government lodge in Santubong.
Wallace first met James in Singapore in 1854. James invited him to continue his exploration of animal species and to discover the beauty of Sarawak nature.
Entitled “On the Law which has regulated the introduction of new species”, the paper was then published in The Annals and Magazine of Natural History in London in September 1855.
The paper was later known as the Sarawak Law which in it Wallace declared, “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with closely allied species.
2.Edward Bartlett (1836-1908)
Bartlett was the Curator of the Sarawak Museum from 1893 to 1897. Prior to his stint in Sarawak, he had travelled to Palestine, Amazon basin and Peru. He was Curator of Maidstone Museum, England from 1974 to 1890.
Banks pointed out that Bartlett was a very good taxidermist. He perhaps learned the trait from his father Abraham Dee Bartlett. Abraham was a taxidermist and an expert on captive animals. As a superintendent of the London Zoo, he was known to bring the zoo into prominence. It was maybe under his father’s influence that Bartlett was able to work as an assistant in the London Zoo, as stated by Banks.
One of Bartlett’s publications is “The Crocodiles and Lizards of Borneo in the Sarawak Museum,” published in April 1894 in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Gerrard that was mentioned by Banks is most probably referring to Edward Gerrard, another fellow taxidermist. He worked for the British Museum (Natural History) as the resident Taxidermist from 1841 to 1890.
3.Robert Walter Campbell Shelford (1872-1912)
Shelford was a naturalist with a special interest in entomology and insect mimicry. His favourite insects? Cockroach and stick insect.
After graduating from Cambridge in 1895, he went to Yorkshire College as a demonstrator in Biology. He arrived in Sarawak in 1897 and held the post as Curator of the Sarawak Museum for seven years. During his tenure in Sarawak, he sent a number of specimens to his alumni at Cambridge.
Banks believed Shelford was a cripple and while it is a derogatory term, it is kinda true. He developed a tubercular hip joint as a child that incapacitated his mobility. After an operation, he became more mobile again but with some limitation. For instance, he could never participate in sports.
His best-known book A Naturalist in Borneo was published in 1916 after his death. It would be interesting if the Museum still has the basket which Shelford was carried around in.
4.John Hewitt (1880-1961)
Banks pointed out that Hewitt did not stay very long in Kuching as the Curator of the Sarawak Museum, which is true. The herpetologist only served in Sarawak from 1905 to 1908.
5.John Coney Moulton (1886-1926)
Moulton was the Sarawak Museum Curator from November 1908 to January 1915. As per mentioned by Banks, he was the founding editor of the Sarawak Museum Journal in 1911.
Thanks to him, Sarawak has one of the oldest scientific journals of the South-east Asian region.
6.Eric Mjöberg (1882-1938)
While Mjoberg was not able to take the old jars and plates from Sarawak (thanks to the Customs Department), he did take material from Australian Aboriginal people illegally.
During his 1910 expedition to Australia, Mjoberg took the skeletons of the Aboriginal people without permission, passing them off as kangaroo bones to get them out of the country. This might make you wonder; how similar are human and kangaroo bones?
Anyway, he served only for two years as the Curator of the Sarawak State Museum from 1922 until 1924.
He died in poverty in Stockholm. Towards the end of his life, Mjoberg was reportedly being haunted by constant nightmares of Aboriginal people chasing him.
G.T.M MacBryan was born Gerard Truman Magill MacBryan. He entered the Sarawak government service in 1920 at the age of 18.
He was the acting Curator for Sarawak Museum only for about two months from Dec 20, 1924 to Jan 24, 1925.
Some historians believed he was Sarawak’s equivalent to Rasputin.
8.Chiang Jee Koo
The most interesting figure mentioned by Banks is none other than Chiang Jee Koo. The only online record found about him is from National Herbarium Nederland.
According to the record, he was an employer of the Sarawak Museum since it was first founded. He was working as a clerk and taxidermist. Chiang retired from the museum in 1927 and died in 1932 in Kuching.
Despite some of their flaws and quirks, each of the curator had contributed significantly to the museum. Today, Sarawakians have the collections at Sarawak State Museum to thank them for.
If you have any information on Chiang Jee Koo let us know in the comment box.