Standing majestically atop a hill at Jalan Tun Abang Haji Openg, Taman Budaya, near Padang Merdeka, and exuding a timeless elegance from the British Colonial era, the Ethnology Museum (Sarawak Museum Old Building) in Kuching is a precious gem and an important part of Sarawak’s history. Originally built in 1891, it was a grand ambition of the second White Rajah, Sir Charles Brooke, who wanted it to be the most expensive permanent structure in all of Borneo. Its importance at the time was (and still is) apparent, despite being located much further inland compared to other edifices that were built closer to the river. This is suggested by the fact that it was built away from the street and came with a vast, well-manicured garden.
Officially opened in 1891, the Ethnology Museum was built to permanently house arts and crafts of the local natives. But it is most famous for its showcase of a vast collection of animal taxidermy featuring various species found in these parts, as encouraged by Alfred Russel Wallace. For those who don’t know it, Alfred Wallace was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, biologist and illustrator whose paper on the theory of evolution through natural selection was jointly published with some of Charles Darwin’s writings back in 1858. Wallace was collecting local animal specimens at the time. And unfortunately, some of those animals have now gone extinct.
The museum, rectangular in shape and measuring 44ft x 160ft, was constructed using fair-faced bricks for its walls and pillars (the first of such building material to be used in Sarawak), as well as concrete and belian wood for its roof. Dormer windows were incorporated to create more wall space while allowing natural light into the galleries. The museum, according the Sarawak Gazette, was fashioned in the style of Queen Anne Revival during the Victorian period.
There are several stories behind the museum’s architectural design. One source said that the museum was designed by Charles Brooke’s valet, who was French, which would explain its resemblance to a Normandy town hall. But that could not have been the case as designs, procurement and implementation at the time were done by the Public Works Department (PWD).
According to another source, the design was based on a girl’s school in Adelaide, Australia, whose picture was featured in a magazine (most likely the Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil) that Charles Brooke gave to the PWD to adapt for Sarawak. However, the school, which was built in the 1870s, featured a Gothic style and was a single storey building.
There was, however, another building that was featured in the magazine in its Aug 31, 1878 issue, that had a striking likeness to the museum – the Adelaide Children’s Hospital. Both buildings were built in the style of Queen Anne Revival and had similar features like rectangular windows and quoining, gabled end bays with a veranda and balcony in between the end bays, as well as double sided stairs in the middle, on the front of both buildings.
Over the years since it opened to the public, the museum has undergone several renovations. In 1911, more sections were added to the museum, extending it to its present form. The double-sided stairs had also been removed and ancillary buildings were built on the museum grounds in the early 1900s. Behind Ethnology Museum, an aquarium centre was built to showcase various species of fish and even a crocodile. The aquarium is currently undergoing refurbishment and expansion to better showcase the many different fish species in and around Sarawak.
The museum survived the Japanese Occupation between 1941 and 1945, with minimal damage and very little looting when it was put under charge of a sympathetic Japanese officer at the time. Today the museum remains one of the best anthropological museums in the region, if not the world. Well preserved and maintained, it is used to exhibit the natural history of Sarawak as well as its wildlife specimens. However, it is currently closed to public since Oct 23, 2017 (until further notice) for restoration works. Once reopened, the public will once again be able to admire not just the exhibits inside but the magnificence of the museum building itself.
Source: THE HISTORY OF ARCHITECTURE IN SARAWAK BEFORE MALAYSIA, John H. S. Ting, 2018