Not everyone can give a detailed explanation of artefacts displayed at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur. But as the museum’s volunteer guide, architect Bahiah Ismail, 29, is able to enlighten visitors on all things related to Malaysia’s rich history, be it stone tools from the Neolithic period, relics from the Malacca Sultanate or memorabilia from Malaya’s colonial history.

“Books on world history, ancient civilisation, study of archaeology and heritage stories have always piqued my interest. As a volunteer at the National Museum, I can share my knowledge on history with visitors,” said Bahiah, a volunteer since 2013.

Visitors can easily identify Bahiah and the other guides from their black vests with the National Museum emblem. These friendly individuals can be seen guiding a tour or managing the front desk at the entrance of the National Museum. The museum was established in 1962 and serves as an archive of the country’s rich cultural and historical heritage.

The Museum Volunteers Malaysia (MVM) programme – under the guidance of the Museums Department Malaysia (MDM) – was launched in 2007. The guides are instrumental in providing visitors with an interactive learning experience of getting up close and personal with historical treasures such as the Perak Man – the oldest and near-intact human skeleton in South-East Asia, a handwritten holy book, Al-Quran Seratus Tahun, and ancient Portuguese weaponry.

The National Museum’s volunteer guides are at hand to give a detailed explanation of Malaysia’s rich history. Photos: The Star/Samuel Ong

The National Museum’s volunteer guides are at hand to give a detailed explanation of Malaysia’s rich history. Photos: The Star/Samuel Ong

The programme comprises 147 volunteers from Malaysia and expatriates from Japan, the United States and France. Their job involves an hour’s free-guided tour (at 10am) in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, and foreign languages such as French and Japanese. Tours in other languages are available upon request.

Bahiah may be in her 20s but her knowledge of history can put many to shame. Unlike her peers – who prefer to surf the Internet during their free time – she visits libraries to hone her knowledge of history.

“People might think history is boring but I love it. Research helps me to explore the country’s past to understand our history and heritage. And that’s what I like best about being a volunteer as I get to pursue my interest in history,” explained Bahiah who serves as a museum guide volunteer once a month.

New challenges

Through guiding duties, Bahiah said her confidence had improved by leaps and bounds.

“I used to be timid and shy. I used to get nervous about speaking in public. With the role, I’ve overcome my fears and am now able to lead large groups for an hour, going through four exhibition halls in the museum. I’m a more confident person and ready to take on new challenges in my volunteering role and professional job,” said Bahiah, the eldest of four siblings.

While volunteering at the museum may seem fun, MVM president Karen Loh, 48, said the job scope is far from a walk in the park. Guides are expected to be well versed in history and must be able to lead tours around the museum – which houses four galleries allotted to ethnology and natural history – for an hour.

To equip themselves, volunteers are required to undergo a four-month training course.

“The training comprises learning about Malaysia’s past, spanning pre-history, Malay kingdoms, colonial era and Malaysia today. Besides in-house trainers, guest speakers from MDM and local universities organise seminars to further sharpen trainees’ knowledge of Malaysia’s history,” said Loh, a businesswoman who has been MVM’s president for eight years.

Besides the four-month training, trainees are required to take extra efforts to brush up on their history knowledge, Loh explained.

“Guides are akin to ‘ambassadors’ who must be geared to help guests get the most out of their museum visit. They must be prepared to interact with diverse audiences, different age groups, and must be prepared to answer basic questions regarding artefacts and the country’s history.”

Museum volunteer guides are instrumental in providing visitors with an interactive learning experience of historical treasures.

Museum volunteer guides, such as Bahiah Ismail (right), are instrumental in providing visitors with an interactive learning experience of historical treasures.

Loh is pleased with the support received by Malaysian and foreign volunteers.

“We’ve had great response from the public. The programme is a great way to build public awareness of museums, create appreciation and understanding of the history and cultures of Malaysia,” explained Loh, adding that guides are required to have information on artefacts at their fingertips when conducting tours.

Besides guiding duties, volunteers assist with school programmes (during school visits or to cater to the needs of disadvantaged and disabled children), library duties (upkeeping the museum’s library) and focus events (organising lectures, heritage and museum visits).

Most homegrown volunteers are made up of retirees, middle-aged professionals and young working adults who all share a common interest – history preservation. Volunteers are between the ages of 22 and 75.

“The common binding factor is their interest in history. It’s nice to see individuals coming together to share their knowledge of history to the world. However, it demands commitment as guides must be prepared to spend hours researching Malaysian history,” said Loh.

Veterinary surgeon Dr Ivan Thomas, 69, has been a volunteer for four years and has come to know the museum like the back of his hand.

Dr Ivan Thomas (left) explaining the history behind the bunga mas to tourists.

Dr Ivan Thomas (left) explaining the history behind the bunga mas to tourists.

Ask him details about the bunga mas (golden flowers presented to the king of Siam as a sign of friendship) or the traditional bridal costumes, and the museum’s “walking encyclopaedia” will gladly provide you with a detailed explanation of all the works. You name it, he’s got it covered. He readily approaches visitors and sets them at ease with his warm and friendly demeanour.

“The volunteer programme has helped me to expand my horizons, meet new people and soak myself in ancient civilisation. It gives me a sense of pride to educate visitors – local and foreign – on Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage, ethnology and natural history,” said the Johor-born septuagenarian.

To make each tour more interesting, Dr Thomas loves to share anecdotal stories passed down through the generations.

Milestones

“I was born in the 1940s and went through significant milestones in the country’s history. I lived through the Japanese Occupation and Emergency period. My past experience allows me to further explain about exhibits from the Japanese Occupation, such as old Japanese currency notes, samurai swords and bicycle infantry,” said Dr Thomas, who is also a part-time lecturer at Kolej Pertanian Malaysia in Bukit Kayu Hitam, Kedah.

At the National Museum, free guided tours are routinely provided in English, French, Japanese and other languages upon request.

Dr Thomas, who volunteers on a monthly basis, is proof that age is no hindrance when it comes to learning. The fact that he had only signed up as a volunteer several years ago clearly shows his insatiable thirst for knowledge.

“Age is just a number when it comes to learning. I enjoy reading history books and sharing knowledge with visitors. It’s always nice to meet people who share an interest in Asian history,” said Dr Ivan, who has visited numerous museums in Europe and Asia.

Regarding ways to keep visitors entertained, the father-of-two said: “The biggest hurdle is garnering visitors’ interest and getting them involved during a tour. Essentially, it boils down to having a good grasp of history and presenting it in a way that’s fun and exciting. As a museum volunteer, our role is to make history lessons fun and exciting.”


Fancy becoming a volunteer?

The National Museum’s volunteer guide programme which kicked off in 2007 has produced about 300 volunteers to date.

What do volunteer guides do?

They provide a free one-hour guided tour of the National Museum for up to 15 visitors.

What do volunteer guides become involved in?

School programmes, library duties, organising lectures/visits, research, operations and IT.

What is the training objective?

To provide volunteers with a broad understanding of the fascinating and complex culture and history of Malaysia to support the museum’s guided tours.

When and where is training held?

Training is held twice a year over a period of 16 weeks. Training is conducted in English and Japanese, and is held in the National Museum training rooms.

Who provides the training?

Guide volunteers, National Museum staff and outside experts with specialist knowledge.

What happens upon completion of training?

Volunteer guides attend a graduation ceremony to receive their certificates.

For more information on museum volunteers, go to museumvolunteersjmm.com or write in to mvjmmqueries@gmail.com