Photo: Big murals make the museum easy to spot.

National Museum

Our rating:

As Malaysia’s National Museum, the large collection on display manages to be at times fascinating, frustrating and infuriating, but is certainly still worth the visit for those with an interest in the story behind modern-day Malaysia.

The most important point to emphasise is that while the National Museum is, well, the National Museum, there are in fact two other museums within the same area, the Museum of Malay World Ethnology and the Orang Asli Craft Museum. It is this latter museum, dedicated to the original inhabitants of Malaysia, which we found infuriating. Not, about the museum itself (it is quite interesting), but why the hell aren’t the Orang Asli in the main National Museum? One could suggest this sidelining of the Orang Asli is a reflection of real-life Malaysian governmental policy, but, whatever the reason, it is a poor state of affairs.

In the beginning there were rocks. Photo taken in or around National Museum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

In the beginning there were rocks. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Now we’ve got that off our chest, shall we get on with things? You need to walk past the Malay World Ethnology and the Orang Asli Craft Museums to reach the National Museum, where you need to then buy tickets for both—the ticket seller may not explain this to you when you ask to buy a ticket, so if you plan to visit all three museums, be sure to say so, as otherwise, if like us, you assume the one ticket is for the lot, when you try to walk into the Museum of Malay World Ethnology or the Orang Asli Craft Museum you’ll be sent back to buy another ticket.

Who comes up with these ideas?

Life pre-iPad. Photo taken in or around National Museum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Life pre-iPad. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Established in 1963, the National Museum is on the site of the Selangor Museum which dated back to 1906. The original was bombed by a US B-29 bomber, destroying the right wing of the museum and the rest was flattened at the end of the war. The cool floor tiles in the main central area? A gift from the government of Pakistan.

The main museum is broken up into four clearly delineated sections, marked A,B,C and D. The sensible approach is to tackle them in alphabetical order. Section A covers “Early history”, section B “The Malay Kingdoms”, section C “The colonial era” and section D “Malaysia today”. Throughout displays are clearly labelled in English and Malay with plenty of maps, recreations, dioramas and some simply stunning artefacts.

Just sublime. Photo taken in or around National Museum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Just sublime. Photo: Stuart McDonald

We enjoyed the ground floor (A and B) the most—the “Early-history” section includes artefacts like Dong-Son drums from Vietnam, some ancient skeletons from archeological digs (which are unfortunately displayed under multiple levels of glass making them a little difficult to enjoy and near impossible to photograph) neolithic tools and pottery from ancient times.

The “Malay Kingdom” section has some spectacular displays including a wildly impressive 7th to 12th century Avalokitesvara which was found in a tin mine of all places. There are also some beautiful kris on display (look for the crouching Hindu deity on the handle of the Balinese one) and some lovely Chinese ceramics that were recovered from 16th century wrecks. After this there is a striking diorama representing when Islam came to Melaka then a series of displays about growing Islamic influence on Malaysia.

Another terrific specimen. In this case, Agastya. Photo taken in or around National Museum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Another terrific specimen. In this case, Agastya. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Upstairs you’ll reach the the “colonial section”, which could easily be renamed “The Portuguese and Dutch were bastards”. Early on in the display there is a map that deftly illustrates just how far Portugal was from Malaysia, while they busied themselves kicking heads and ravaging Malay tombs for masonry—and much else. The curators have taken an interesting approach in recreating different gates and porticos created by the colonialists which helps to steer you through the ages. This wing starts with the Portuguese and finishes with the English.

Leaving the Brits behind you cross to the final main gallery which covers “Malaysia today” essentially working through the Malaya Emergency, the meltdown with Indonesia and other events of modern history. The treatment is what you’d expect to read in a government approved history textbook—we skipped through this section pretty quickly.

Overall, within the main museum, the ground floor galleries are by far the most appealling.

Amazing handiwork. Photo taken in or around National Museum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Amazing handiwork. Photo: Stuart McDonald

From here you leave the National Museum and walk back to the Museum of Malay World Ethnology and the Orang Asli Craft Museum. The former concentrates on musical instruments, handicrafts and games while the later gives an overview of the Orang Asli across four compact galleries—but it really belongs in the main museum. Are these two galleries worth the second ticket? Yes.

The National Museum has free tours in English on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10am. In French on Tuesday and Thursday at 10am and in Japanese on Thursday and the third Saturday of the month, also at 10am. You could easily spend two hours on location.

Less imagination required. Photo taken in or around National Museum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Stuart McDonald.

Less imagination required. Photo: Stuart McDonald

The National Museum is set on an island ringed by very busy roads. The closest MRT station is Muzium Negara Station (which can be reached without needing to cross the road) but if you want to get to Sentral, it is a bit of a walk and not the easiest walk at that—be careful dashing across those roads!

National Museum
Jalan Damansara
Mo–Su: 09:00–18:00
T: (03) 2267 1111 F: (03) 2267 1011;
Admission: Adults 5 ringgit children (6-12 years) 2 ringgit, below 6 years, free

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Location map for National Museum

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