If a visitor to KL asked me to tell him about the exhibits in Muzium Negara, I wouldn’t have been able to — my last visit there was when I was still in the single-digit ages. So when an email invitation to the museum for a batik printing workshop showed up in my mailbox, it came as a welcome surprise, and a good chance to revisit the museum.
The event was organised by Tripovo, an online travel platform that offers personalised itineraries and holidays, to tie-in with creating awareness of International Museum Day on 18 May. Looking at my email, I thought that the time of the event seemed rather long — were we really going to be working on batik printing for five hours? This was a serious workshop! — but it turned out there was a reason: it was actually a museum tour and batik workshop that we were attending that day.
The only real memory of the museum from my childhood was that the lights in every room seemed so dim. That part hasn’t really changed, creating the perfect setting for a haunted museum scenario. Now there’s an idea for Halloween, or Hungry Ghost Festival…but perhaps the idea of turning a museum into a fun space might be too much for locals right now. During this visit, we were accompanied by a tour guide, the knowledgeable Mr. Yee.
I’m a firm believer of guided tours, be it audio or a real person — it elevates my interest and engagement in whatever I’m looking at. In a two-hour tour, Mr. Yee brought the exhibits to life for us; from the Paleolithic ages to modern day Malaysia, it was like taking a step back into secondary school history lessons, with Mr. Yee adding tidbits of information not found in your textbooks.
Some of the artifacts in the museum are replicas, including the desk that Tunku Abdul Rahman signed the constitution on — an unexpectedly simple and functional brown desk with no drawers — but the bicycle ridden on by swift and surreptitious Japanese soldiers (riding into Malaya with Thailand) hanging unceremoniously on a wall was a real one. So was the steel sword that was supposedly used to kill JWW Birch.
With all the things Mr. Yee had to say about the exhibits, it should have gone on for another half-hour or so, but our next item on the itinerary, the batik workshop, was up. With all the colour and wax layering techniques involved, proper batik-making class would have taken five or six hours–maybe even a whole weekend, but this was the not-any-less fun express version.
Before we began, Rosidah Abdullah, head of the Textile Museum gave us a short explanation on how batik is processed further to make the colours brighter, before her colleague demonstrated how to draw the outlines with wax. She made it look really easy, with her needle gliding over the fabric with ease.
The Textile Museum folks brought over pre-framed, pre-stenciled squares of fabric with different pictures on them — mostly with flowers, but some with butterflies or cartoon characters. I picked a relatively straightforward one, and alas, my wax job (couldn’t resist the pun) didn’t go so well.
You really have to be fairly quick in going over the stenciled lines, or you’ll get too much wax in one spot, and the wax on the needle tip starts to harden, causing unevenly waxed lines. Mine had the added problem of wobbly lines because my hand was shaky.
Anyway, for the first time, it was what it was. I figured I could still save my piece by doing better on the colours. It was just like water colour painting, something I hadn’t done wince early secondary school. I’m not sure if the traditional method uses paint brushes as the main tool, considering they work with large pieces and more complex patterns, but for our small pieces of fabrics, it was perfect. I used yellow as my base to brighten the whole thing up before colouring in the rest.
Other attendees were more elaborate with theirs, using watercolour methods of painting and shading. My friend Tieng made hers more realistic by giving her flowers a bit more depth. I like how we have different background colours, but kept our flowers the same.