Travellers looking for places to visit in Malaysia must put the Penang Museum and Art Gallery on their list. The museum is on Pulau Penang (Penang Island) and it is considered to be one of the best museums in Malaysia. To learn about the history of this beautiful island and the nature of the tolerant native people that live there take a walk through the interesting and well planned room layouts. The museum doesn’t concentrate on just history but the festivals and cultures of Penang as well. Many nationalities have settled in Penang over hundreds of years and they are all described in great detail.
Penang Free School to Penang Museum or An Old School Educates a New Generation
The attempts to open a museum in Penang have always been unsuccessful in the past. The first museum opened in St. Xavier’s Institution back in 1940 but the building was destroyed in the Second World War. In 1956 a Mr Bingham was responsible for a new museum taking shape at Northam Road (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) but this was subsequently demolished. The collections of archives and artifacts were kept out of the public eye for a further ten years before suitable premises were found and converted to showcase these treasures of Malaysian history.
The Penang Museum and Art Gallery in Georgetown is relatively new and opened in April 1965. The State Government eventually decided to use the building that once housed the Penang Free School and the Hutchings School. Many of the local leading citizens were delighted as many of them had once attended school there. Malayasia’s First Prime Minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, was instrumental in making this happen. Penang Museum and Art Gallery had so many collections of heritage materials but no central point for local people and visitors alike to come and admire them.
The Penang Free School building that is now Penang Museum and Art Gallery was built in two phases, the first part of the colonial style building was created in 1896 followed by phase to two in 1906 as more money became available.
A Cannon Full of Coins
The Penang Museum and Art Gallery is an attractive white building with many arched windows and is only a couple of hundred metres walk from the beach through a shady park. As you enter the museum compound you are greeted by the bronze statue of Captain Francis Light. Light was the founder of the Penang Straits Settlement and keeps a watchful eye on you as you prepare to journey through the galleries and rooms that are dedicated to sharing the history of Penang. You can learn in the museum how Light allegedly cleared the dense vegetation to create the town with his cannon full of silver coins.
Some of the artifacts that can be seen in the Penang Museum and Art Gallery include intricate Baulu moulds, carpentry tools, silver ceremonial items and a beautiful hand-written Koran. The rather intriguing Putu Mayang Moulds are used for making a steamed cake from rice flour and coconut.
The Chinese furniture on display is stunning and takes up two floors along with the opium pipes. The most ornate pieces are the beds inlaid with mother of pearl and the intricately carved wooden furniture. The section dedicated to Baba Nonya culture is amazing, there are fantastic pieces of jewellery, costumes and porcelain that are unequalled anywhere else in the world. An elaborately decorated wedding bed has been created complete with lavish hangings and gold leaf. A life size street scene shows how the Baba Nonya people went about their daily lives.
Art, Fashion and Photos
On the first floor of the Penang Musem and Art Gallery there is an impressive collection of detailed and fascinating paintings by local and international artists. The highlight of the collection has to be the eight landscapes by Captain Robert Smith. Smith came to Asia with the East Indian Company as a military engineer and his local knowledge of the area helped him to paint these outstanding pictures. There are ten in the collection but two are privately owned.
Superb collections of old photographs, documents, embroidery, costumes and other relics from the past vie for your attention as you browse around not just the permanent exhibits but the temporary displays. Temporary exhibitions could be about decades of music in Penang or items relating to Malaysia’s seafaring past as many subjects are covered.
Upstairs as well there are displays made up of large photos showing street scenes of old Penang. For anyone wondering where to go in Penang for a gentle stroll, a few steps from the museum is Northam Road (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah). The street runs more or less parallel to the coast and would have been the place to be seen in years ago. In the 19th century the gentry would have trotted along in their horse and carriage or promenaded slowly under the canopy of leafy green trees. The ladies of the era would have been immaculately dressed to go out for these events and their colourful fashions can be seen the series of models in the museum.
Admission is free to the Art Gallery and RM 1.00 Adult / RM 0.50 Children to the Penang Museum. Opening hours are from 9am to 5pm Saturday to Thursday but closes Fridays and Public Holidays.
If you are walking to the museum or taking a taxi head for Lebuh Farquhar, in between Jalan Masjid Kapitan Kling (Lebuh Pitt) and Love Lane (Lorong Cinta). By bus the numbers are U103 / U104 / U204 on the Rapid Penang Bus Route.
There are many things to do in Penang but the Penang Museum and Art Gallery is the best place to start. Spend several hours inside and get an insight into not just Malaysian history and culture but into the many other nationalities that have chosen to call this wonderful island home. In 2005 Penang State Museum building was a recognised under the Heritage Act as a building of great importance and deserves to be visited by locals and visitors alike. By visiting the museum it will also give you some good ideas of where to go in Malaysia on your next trip.