Dec 02 2011

Of camels, the Australian outback, and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Published by at 1:26 pm under Events


If I said the most interesting exhibition currently showing in Kuala Lumpur was about the role camels (and their handlers) played in opening up the Australian outback, or that the venue for this esoteric offering was the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), you might be a trifle sceptical. But really, “Australia’s Muslim Cameleers Pioneers of the Inland, 1860s-1930s” is a cracking show, although I’m still not sure about its connection to Islamic art.

A fascinating story, well told.

A fascinating story, well told.

This special exhibition, which will be hosted by the IAMM until January 21, 2012, tells a fascinating tale about a little-known group of Australian pioneers: Muslim cameleers. The suitability of the so-called ships of the desert, for expeditions to the outback, was first appreciated in the 1860s, and they remained valued beasts of burden for more than seven decades.

The indignity of it all.

The indignity of it all.

Of course, expertise in how to handle these somewhat grumpy animals was not readily available in Australia. Instead, skilled handlers were brought in from Afghanistan and British India. So important were they to the process of opening up the interior that the Muslim cameleers were even exempted from the certain parts of the White Australia Policy (1901-1973).

Not white, but still alright.

Not white, but still alright.

Although the cameleers could to a certain extent be shielded from racism, nothing could be done about the march of progress. By World War II, both camels and handlers had largely been made redundant by mechanised transport. The vital role played by both man and beast faded into obscurity. Until now, that is.

Comfort far from guaranteed.

Comfort far from guaranteed.

The most common mistake many museums make is to bombard visitors with too many exhibits; a case of quantity over quality. But a good curator will know how to separate the wheat from the chaff, and create a compelling narrative. In this case, the exhibition was originally put together by the South Australian Museum, but without the sense of light and space provided by IAMM, it would not have worked so well.

An abundance of artistic delights.

An abundance of artistic delights.

However good this show is, it would be a huge shame not to continue your visit through the regular galleries of what is KL’s, if not Malaysia’s, foremost museum. The IAMM has enough high quality Islamic-influenced exhibits to keep visitors happy for hours. The breadth of the permanent collection is truly impressive, from architectural models of mosques, to miniature paintings from the Ottoman Empire.

Small but perfectly formed.

Small but perfectly formed.

One of the biggest pleasures of visiting the IAMM though has nothing to do with the exhibits. The building itself is a treat for the eyes, especially given the general standard of modern architecture in Malaysia. And both the museum shop and restaurant are well worth visiting in their own right — you can stop in at either without a ticket to the museum.

Simple and elegant, modern architecture at its best.

Simple and elegant, modern architecture at its best.

The IAMM is open daily 10:00-18:00, and costs 12 ringgit to get in if a special exhibition is on, and 10 ringgit if not. These prices apply to both locals and foreigners, a refreshing change from the outrageous double pricing that has become the norm at many of Malaysia’s most popular attractions. Less unusually, IAMM is poorly served by public transport, although it is possible to walk there (relatively safely) from Pasar Seni LRT or Kuala Lumpur KTM Komuter stations (follow signs for the National Mosque).

Well worth the walk (or taxi fare).

Well worth the walk (or taxi fare).

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Jalan Lembah Perdana, Kuala Lumpur
T: (03) 2274 2020
www.iamm.org.my

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