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Thursday, June 18, 2015

The old Malacca Museum: A glimpse from the past

The old Malacca Museum: A glimpse from the past

By C S Wan

The muffled pounding of feet was the only noticeable sound heard, as I ascended the short flight of stairs. At the top floor, I caught a glimpse of a guard sitting motionless in a chair, a lone figure in the gloom of the dimly lit room. A musty smell permeated the air of the poorly ventilated room, redolent of a vacant house with prolonged neglect.

However, I was not stepping into an abandoned house, but was standing inside the first floor of the old Malacca museum.

The old Malacca Museum has been converted into the
Melaka Stamps Museum ( Muzium Setem Melaka)
Photo: 2015
The old Malacca Museum with an information board
on the wall.

History of the Building
" This building previously known as the Old Melaka Museum or
the Photo Shop was originally used as the residence of Dutch dignitaries
living in Malacca. During the British rule the building still retained its
original function until it was completely abandoned after the Second
World War. On 19th March 1954 G.E.W. Wisdom the Resident Commissioner
in Malacca, turned this building into a museum. However, in 1982 the museum
was moved to the Stadhuys building"

The Stadhuys ( Dutch town hall)

The museum, an 18th century Dutch building with salmon red fa├žade, nestled at the lower slope of St. Paul’s Hill and overlooked a field, beyond which was the Straits of Malacca. The end of the field near the museum was bordered by low concrete posts strung with iron chains to mark the position of a former shoreline while the other end of the field was occupied by a row of food stalls.

Low concrete posts which used to mark the shoreline have
been replaced with metal posts and chains..
Photo taken in 2015

The museum was within walking distance of the Drainage and Irrigation Department where I had just started work as a probationary Irrigation Inspector in the late 1950s. The Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID) was housed on the top floor of another Dutch building while its ground floor was occupied by the Malacca Library.

The Drainage and Irrigation Department is now an
Architectural Museum ( Muzium Seni Bina)
Photo: 2015

A view of St. Paul's Hill from Muzium Seni Bina Melaka

 Next, to the DID building was the State Education Department which was also housed in a Dutch building,

The State Education Department is now Muzium Islam Melaka
Photo: 2015

 At the back of the DID building was a concrete staircase that led directly from the top floor to the back door of the library and its ready accessibility allowed me to spend many hours of my lunch break and after office hours in the library. Next to the State Education Department there were also stone steps which provided easy access to the church on the top of St. Paul's Hill.

The steps leading to St. Paul's Hill( 2015)

Late one afternoon, after work, instead of spending my usual time in the library I decided to take a short walk to the museum and view the artefacts that were on display.

Now as I stood in the dimly lit room, I noticed a few peranakan rosewood chairs, tables, and a bridal couch were lined against the wall, their dark colours making them almost invisible in the semi-darkness. Further down the room, a locked glass case displayed an array of antiquated coins and old keris. The natural light that filtered through the windows provided sufficient light for me to read the inscriptions on the mostly worn-out coins.

Sensing the profound silence that enveloped the room, I looked around me and discovered I was the sole visitor in the museum. Leaving the guard who was still comfortably ensconced in his chair to his timeless watch, I crept quietly down the stairs to the museum’s courtyard.

The gate leading to the courtyard ( 2015)

 The small courtyard was enclosed by concrete walls and paved with flagstones which were worn with time. The back wall rested against the lush green slope of St. Paul’s Hill, while fairly large alcoves lined the wall to my right.

The alcoves ( 2015 )

An alcove in the courtyard that used to house a rickshaw

 In the murky recess of an alcove was a solitary rickshaw with its shafts lowered, as if an unseen  rickshaw puller was getting ready for his unknown passenger to embark.

An old rickshaw
Photo Credit: Walter Arufat www.chinatoday.com

As I took in the scene, I could sense the place oozing with the history of its glorious past. I could picture the courtyard echoing with cheery voices and boisterous laughter of Dutch dignitaries and the sharp cadence of their wine glasses as they partied within its homely confines.

When the Dutch withdrew to Batavia and the British occupied Malacca I wondered about its eventual occupants. Was it home to a British family who would perhaps, gather at the open balcony in the late afternoon to talk and reminisce about their homeland, while they sipped tea and gazed  across the hazy expanse of water. Perhaps, it was home to a peranakan family or even a convent for nuns from the mission schools.

The balcony of the old Malacca Museum

The evening light was fast failing and dark, long shadows had begun to creep across the courtyard. Realising, the museum was about to close, I hurriedly stepped into the late evening air and left the past behind me.

The uneventful visit would have slipped from my memory, if not for a story which appeared in the local papers not long after my visit to the museum. The story was about witnesses who reported seeing a ghostly female figure, clad in a nun’s habit, strolling across the museum’s courtyard in the late evening. 

According to another article which appeared in The Straits Times in November 1953  by Sheila Prentice  titled 'The Hantu of No. 7 Fort Road,' the building which housed the museum dates back to the Portuguese era. Next to house No. 7 was a convent where Bastion House used to stand ( now the Malay and Islamic World Museum).  According to Ms Prentice, a Portuguese nun at the convent was involved in an illicit affair with a Portuguese soldier and as punishment was condemned  to death by being bricked-up alive in the outbuildings in the garden behind the house.

Years later, the local papers reported that workers who were doing renovation work at the old museum discovered a skeleton that was interred in one of the walls of the museum. Were the skeletal remains that of the nun who used to walk across the courtyard. 

Perhaps, we will never know.  

1 comment:

  1. Nice narrative at the boundary between history and fiction, reality and the realms beyond. The old Malacca museum will continue to preserve its deepest secrets and perhaps, its unseen inhabitants!