Tucked away with little to publicise it, this place will get you thinking about what tourism can mean.
Melaka, or Malacca to Anglophones, has a pretty town centre – a UNESCO site in its own right. The history of this place is dense and fascinating but the Museum of Enduring Beauty doesn’t care much for colonial stories or trade disputes. It’s a tribute to diversity as expressed through body modifications.
The Museum of Enduring Beauty is on the third floor of the Muzium Rakyat (People’s Museum), situated just south of the historic centre on Jalan Kota. It is painted the same Barbie pink as many other buildings, now. I understand that it’s been tarted up a lot externally since I visited. Now you can see it is actually a museum and not a derelict pink concrete office building.
We sidled up to the doorway and hung around for half an hour until a member of staff bothered to man the ticket desk. When they did appear it cost us about half a ringgit to get in. A ticket gains you entry to the whole building.
Up to the third floor we went, the only guests in the swelteringly hot building.
The Museum of Enduring Beauty aims to challenge our perceptions of beauty and to open our minds to alternative cultures who see it in a wholly different light. Our mutilation is their modification. Now, to some people what you’ll see here is shocking. But those people would have to be pretty sheltered – the kind of person that would claw their own eyes out if they accidentally traveled to notoriously goth Camden Town tube station instead of gentile Camden Road train station.
For the rest of us there’s not that much that we haven’t seen before, but for every familiar international example of tooth-filing, tattooing, piercing, or scarification, there are further examples of the weird and only occasionally wonderful world of body modification and adornment.
Tooth filing appears to be a particular favourite of the museum, with plenty of photos of what must be an excruciating practice.
Much more dangerous is the practice of neck stretching. The Paduang tribe of northern Thailand and Myanmar are the world record holders for the longest necks in the world. Achieved by adding copper rings to young girls’ necks it was originally supposed to protect them from tiger attacks, if you believe that. The neck does stretch, a bit, but the largest gain in length comes from forcing the collar bones down to create the illusion of greater height. It is a very dangerous ‘beauty’ regime because the rings take all the weight of the head away from the muscles, leading to their deterioration and also damaging the trachea. Removing the rings can, apparently, lead to suffocation. The tragedy of this is that until quite recently the Thai government was achieving its objective of protecting young tribe members from what many people see as abuse. When northern Thailand stabilised in the 90s it brought an influx of tourists eager to indulge in a spot of ethno-tourism which reversed all that and put these girls at risk again.
Lip plates are falling out of favour in many African and Brazilian cultures, after a history stretching back at least 10,000 years, but the Museum of Enduring Beauty provides this sculptural demonstration of it.
Some of my earliest memories of insights on far-flung cultures included videos of just these kinds of modifications. The fact they are dying out is probably the inevitable consequence of media coverage like that so it’s interesting that tourism itself is able to reinvigorate neck stretching.
These practices might be well covered by the museum but unless I missed them there were several omissions, major and minor, that I think should have been included. Genital mutilation being a major and completely unnecessary scourge on several African cultures that is completely overlooked here. The craze towards Caucasian hair styles among non-white racial groups is another extremely relevant beauty trend that’s pervasive and also pretty harmful at times. I refer you to Chris Rock’s excellent film ‘Good Hair‘ for a proper insight to what turns out to be a really important and political issue, although probably not in Malaysia.
My personal favourite came from closer to home.
‘The most famous lady in English history’
Not Margaret Thatcher, Queen Victoria, or Elizabeth Taylor. No – Ethel Granger.
‘Who?’ I hear you exclaim. I’d never heard of her either, but perhaps I should have.
“The most famous lady in English history was Ethel Granger who at one stage had a waist of a mere 13 inches, which was barely enough space for her spinal column. She lived a long, healthy life until the age of 77 when she died of natural causes in 1982.”
– sign in Melaka’s Museum of Enduring Beauty
Pretty astonishing but definitely not as well-known as claimed here!
The joy of this part of the People’s Museum lies in the small discoveries like this. It might not be too shocking but nevertheless it is an interesting exploration of the motivations behind these practices and an examination of why they have such an impact on other cultures.
The dangers of ethno-tourism
Reflecting upon the Museum of Enduring Beauty highlighted a lot of questions about why certain adornments continue, and reaffirmed my view on some ‘traditional village’ tours and ethno-tourism in general. Those being that it’s very regularly a bad thing. In submitting to the expectations of tourists some communities do themselves untold amounts of damage by accident.
Inflicting something like neck stretching upon children, all in the name of the tourist dollar, is incredibly irresponsible and surely cannot be worth that income? Progress isn’t always a good thing but at least ensure it’s the fully-informed adult that makes the sacrifice. Too many ‘beauty’ mutilations begin in childhood or are part of the ritual that turns a girl into an adult. Just because it’s ‘the way we do it’ doesn’t make it acceptable. Even if they go on to approve of the fashion the point is that they never really had a choice in the first place.
This museum tries hard to open up the minds of visitors to the reality of beauty around the world and often reiterates, in a patronising way, that these are sentient beings with just as much ‘ability to think’ as the rest of us. Unfortunately it muddies its message through an implicit acceptance of what goes on. In doing so it falls short of being a learning experience and becomes a bit of a freak show.
If I’m honest with you all that’s obviously why I went there in the first place. But it would have been nice to come out feeling that the museum actually cared, because at the end I certainly did. So did it do its job? Who knows, but if you’ve been here please let me know what you thought.