Run by the government’s Department for Orang Asli Affairs, the Orang Asli Museum aims to present a portrait of the various groups of Orang Asli, former nomadic hunter-gatherers in the jungle who are now largely resident in rural settlements.

A large map of the Peninsula in the foyer makes it clear that the Orang Asli can be found, in varying numbers, in just about every state. That surprises some visitors, who see little sign of them during their travels. Besides collections of the fishing nets, guns and blowpipes the Orang Asli use to eke out their traditional existence, the museum also has photographs of Orang Asli press-ganged by the Malay and British military to fight communist guerrillas in the 1950s (see The Emergency and the Orang Asli). Other displays describe the changes forced more recently on the Orang Asli – some positive, like the development of health and school networks, others less encouraging, like the erosion of the family system as young men drift off to look for seasonal work.

The head carvings

Hidden in an annexe to the rear of the building, examples of traditional handicrafts include the head carvings made by the Mah Meri tribe from the swampy region on the borders of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, and the Jah Hut from the slopes of Gunung Benom in central Pehang. Around 50cm high, the carvings show stylized, fierce facial expressions, and are fashioned from a strong, heavy hardwood. They still have religious significance – the most common image used, the moyang, represents the spirit of the ancestors.

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