IT‘S a balmy afternoon and most of the museum staff are already preparing for home. Orders came in last week from the top to reduce the operating hours, a directive that‘s in response to the dwindling number of visitors to the Selangor Museum.
In fact, visitor arrivals have not been good since its reopening after the Japanese Imperial Army occupied the state three years ago. Despite the uncertainty about how long the museum will remain in business, the staff are just glad that at least they still have a job. With severe food shortages, high unemployment and rampant inflation, a vast majority of the Malayan population are suffering.
Unfortunately, none of the staff have any inkling about the catastrophe that‘s about to befall the museum on that fateful day of March 10, 1945.
Once certain that everyone has left, Jasbir Singh, the museum‘s sole night watchman, proceeds to secure the main entrance. Just then, he hears the familiar air raid siren emanating from the police post about a block away. The warning signal is quickly followed by a faint droning noise in the sky. He walks out to the open and looks up. There‘s not a single aircraft in sight yet the noise is getting louder by the minute.
“There must be high altitude bombers present,” Jasbir mutters to himself. He quickens his steps, alarmed at the thought of an imminent aerial bombing. He attempts to calm himself down by convincing himself that the pilots must have surely received clear instructions to avoid non-military installations like the museum. If only Jasbir knew how wrong he was that day.
Five minutes later, just as he is about to make himself comfortable on his camp bed, he’s jolted out of his skin by a thunderous explosion. He heads straight for the window and is greeted by a horrific sight. The entire right wing of the museum has been reduced to rubble. The resulting fire from the massive explosion is quickly turning the office furniture, historical records, electrical appliances and, more importantly, the valuable artefacts, into ashes.
Jasbir stands rooted to the ground - the shock is just too much to bear. He just cannot believe the museum has suffered a direct hit for the very first time since the Second World War started!
Firemen arrive within minutes, bravely putting their lives on the line to prevent the blaze from spreading to the other sections. An hour later, the all clear signal is given. Jasbir walks nimbly through the smouldering landscape and tries hard to salvage what he can. He‘s eventually joined by the returning museum staff who, by then, have received news of the unfortunate blast.
Despite the loss, Jasbir and his friends are relieved that the right wing was deserted when it was hit. News reports the following day reveal that the bombs were actually intended for the Japanese military equipment stored at the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station marshalling yards. Speculation was rife that the pilots could have easily mistaken the spires at the museum for the ones at the railway station, from their vantage point.
After that unfortunate incident, the Japanese Military Administration decided to close the museum indefinitely. For the first time since 1898, Selangor no longer had a museum to call its own. The salvaged artefacts, some dating back to the time when the Federated Malay States was founded, were transferred to the Taiping Museum for safe-keeping.
It would take another seven years and two further changes in government for the Selangor Museum to once again reopen its doors to the public. After the brief British Military Administration and the doomed Malayan Union, the British High Commissioner to Malaya, General Sir Gerald Templer, decided that the time was ripe to restart the museum.
In 1952, he launched efforts to construct a temporary museum. This smaller building, aptly named Muzium Negara Sementara, measuring 24.38m long and 9.14m wide, would remain open for eight years until the permanent Muzium Negara, as we know it today, was ready.
THE MALAYAN HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Photographs of Muzium Negara are very common but not so of the temporary museum. It was only recently that I saw one for sale in a Facebook group. I also managed to purchase several history books, which the seller from Parit Sulong simply described as “buku-buku sejarah” (history books).
I was ecstatic when the RM30 package arrived two days later. The historical books turned out to be the first three volumes of the Malayan Historical Journal. I later discover from a series of Facebook Messenger chats that the seller got the items from a retired school teacher who lived in Batu Pahat.
I‘m absolutely ecstatic to be holding the photograph in my hands. Although there are no inscriptions on the back, I‘m convinced that it must have been taken between the time when the museum was officially opened on Feb 11, 1953 until it was demolished to make way for the construction of the current National Museum in 1961. It‘s simply astounding to think that over a span of nearly 120 years, three museums have stood on that historic Jalan Damansara site.
Taking a closer look at the journals I realise that the first issue celebrates its 63rd anniversary this month. Published in May 1954, this inaugural print cost three dollars, a rather substantial sum considering a bowl of noodles cost less than 10 cents during that time! It contains, among others, the speech made by Templer during the first Malayan Historical Society meeting.
Templer (who‘s better known for his successes in ending the Malayan Emergency) in his speech paid homage to the people of Malaya and tasked the Society “...to ensure that things of beauty and historic value, old and new, find their way to a place where they‘ll be properly cared for, and are not allowed to moulder, forgotten and unappreciated.”
Templer made this historic speech on April 30, 1953, at the Kuala Lumpur Town Hall. Their Highnesses the Sultan of Pahang, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan, the Sultan of Kedah, the Sultan of Trengganu, the Regent of Perak, the Tunku Mahkota of Kelantan and the Deputy High Commissioner also honoured the Society with their presence at the meeting.
Two hundred dignitaries, including various leaders of society, were also present.
In the months leading to Merdeka, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman mooted the idea to construct a larger museum for the soon-to-be-independent Malaya. After much consultation and several series of fundraisers, the-then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak officially announced in July 1959 that Malaya would have its very own National Museum befitting its rich cultural heritage, traditions and customs.
Renowned architect Ho Kok Hoe was commissioned to come up with a design that would reflect local traditional values. Construction began soon after Tun Abdul Razak’s announcement and Muzium Negara was completed just in time to commemorate the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
Tunku made regular visits to the site throughout the contruction period, making sure that his brainchild was second to none in terms of function, design and originality. The Kedah prince made every effort to ensure that the rich Malay palace elements and vernacular Malay architecture were incorporated into the building’s design.
Unesco authorities also chipped in by dispatching their expert, Lother P. Witterburg, who at one time served at the New York Natural History Museum.
The new $1.3 million Muzium Negara was officially declared open by the third Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Syed Putra on Aug 31, 1963. Ever since then, this iconic three-storey national repository has been on its long and tireless journey of enlightening the minds of generations to our nation‘s glorious past.
I draw inspiration from Templer‘s words made during his inaugural Malayan Historical Society speech and hope our Muzium Negara will continue to grow from strength to strength. “A nation which doesn‘t look back with pride upon its past, can never look forward with confidence towards its future.”