Borneo Boat Lute Revival, Pitt Rivers Museum

Borneo Island is one of the most exotic destinations in the world, and its cultural heritage is a source of pride for its indigenous communities. The Borneo Boat Lute Revival (BBLR) is a collective of researchers, cultural practitioners, and creatives from Borneo Island who are passionate about preserving their cultural heritage. In May, they will visit the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University, to view and engage with the collection of artifacts from Borneo. The visit is a unique opportunity to highlight the boat lutes from differing communities such as the Sundatang, Belikan, Tapi, and the two-string Sampe’ Bali, the predecessor to the Sape’ as it is currently recognised.

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Borneo Boat Lute Revival: Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University

Bornean Boat Lute Revival

Boat lutes are stringed instruments of the chordophone family and have traditionally played a significant role in the cultural and spiritual lives of indigenous communities in Borneo. The BBLR's visit to the museum is part of the Borneo Boat Lute Revival project, which aims to explore the roots of these instruments and tell the stories of boat lutes and their traditional custodians from across Borneo Island, as well as their potential for contemporary music. The continued and sustainable knowledge transfer of this instrument relies on communities having access to primary and secondary forests and natural materials, strong inter-generational connections, documentation, and preservation efforts, and collaboration between traditional practitioners and contemporary musicians.

Gingdung Mc Feddy
Gingdung Mc Feddy from Sabah East Malaysia is leading the way in reviving Sabah's sundatang instrument. | Photo credit Lloyd Belcher
Zariq Rosita-Hanif
Kertaspapel, whose real name is Zariq Rosita-Hanif, is skilled in both illustration and playing the Sape instrument. | Photo credit Kurt Schroeder

Opportunity to Engage with Bornean Culture

The visit to the museum will be the first of its kind, and it aims to review and amend incorrect information about the artifacts and ensure indigenous names and perspectives are accurately recorded within the museum’s collections database. The three representatives from BBLR will also host a public sharing session, with demonstrations by cultural practitioners. Gindung Mc Feddy Simon, a musician, researcher, and instrument maker leading the revival of the sundatang lute in Sabah, and Zariq Rosita Hanif, a Malaysian illustrator better known as Kertaspapel. The BBLR team hopes that the visit to the museum will enhance its existing relationships with international cultural institutions and facilitate knowledge exchange, skills, and perspectives, whilst also addressing the complicated legacy of colonialism both in museums and across the region.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

In recent years, the Pitt Rivers Museum has played a leading role in confronting the legacy of colonialism within museum collections, addressing and adapting contentious interpretations and displays and prioritising work with originating and diaspora communities. This pioneering approach has led the Museum to engage more closely with its past practices and the nature of its collections, and the effects these continue to have today. The collaboration with Borneo Boat Lute Revival is part of the Pitt Rivers Museum’s comprehensive programme of work which focuses on co-curatorial approaches and embraces reconciliation and redress.

Catriona Maddocks
Leading the research efforts of the museum, Catriona Maddocks is the curator and researcher of Borneo Boat Lute Revival. | Photo credit Nova Goh

Platform for Indigenous Voices

The project is supported by the British Council's Connections Through Culture programme, which aims to support and nurture relationships between the United Kingdom and Southeast Asia. The initiative addresses so many crucial and relevant contemporary conversations, and we’re delighted to support Borneo Boat Lute Revival in their efforts. Through this collaboration, the partners will co-produce new content that focuses and elevates the voices of indigenous custodians, providing a platform for communities that so often don’t get a chance to share their perspectives. We hope that our support will enable opportunities for the UK arts professionals and the public to discover Borneo’s cultural diversity and heritage, and that it will produce more knowledge exchange and collaborations between the two regions.

Future of Bornean Cultural Heritage

The Borneo Boat Lute Revival is a platform to research, elevate and revive endangered indigenous knowledge, practices, and instruments from Borneo. For the past five years, our collective of musicians, cultural practitioners, curators, and researchers have been exploring the family of traditional lute instruments found throughout Borneo. The most famous of this family is the sape’ but includes the Iban belikan, the Lun Bawang tapi, and the Dusun sundatang and more. Catama Borneo is a social enterprise co-founded by Catriona Maddocks and Amalina Arip. Working with rural and urban communities, indigenous artisans, and cultural practitioners, their focus is to document and explore traditional and contemporary approaches to Borneo’s unique creative heritage. Based in Kuching, Sarawak, East Malaysia. Kertaspapel is an artist platform initiated by Malaysian artist, Zariq Rosita-Hanif and Filipino artist, AR Arcon. With a focus on heritage and culture from Malaysia and the Philippines, their striking illustrations pay homage to the rich traditions of this region.

The Borneo Boat Lute Revival project is a testament to the importance of preserving cultural heritage and the role of museums in facilitating this process. The visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum is an exciting opportunity to showcase the boat lutes of Borneo to the world, and to engage with indigenous communities in a meaningful way. We hope that this project will inspire future collaborations and that it will help to ensure that Bornean cultural heritage continues to thrive for generations to come.

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