University of Leicester
2023MaculLPhD.pdf (36.59 MB)

Decolonising Museum Notions of Authenticity in the Sarawak Museum: The Lepo’ Tau Kenyah, Kayan, and Berawan paintings

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posted on 2023-11-30, 16:15 authored by Louise M. Macul

This thesis explores museum notions of authenticity by examining the collection of traditional paintings by Lepo’ Tau Kenyah, Kayan and Berawan people of the Sarawak Museum (Malaysian Borneo). The research aims to understand on what basis the authenticity of ethnographic objects has been determined over time and how that applies to the paintings. It looks at how museum practices such as collecting, “salvage ethnography” and the concept of “primitive art” rely upon colonial perceptions of indigenous and native cultures for determining authenticity, value and meaning. Contrary to these colonial notions, it uses the biographies of the paintings to determine what I call layers of authenticity, thus validating their value and meaning. 

Methodological approaches in this qualitative research include grounded theory, literature review and narrative inquiry. A literature review of the broader context of ethnographic museum practices over time was conducted. Narrative inquiry and archival review were the basis of the creation of the paintings’ biographies. The grounded theory approach enabled the concept of layers of authenticity to emerge not a priori but through the process of exploring and examining the cultural, historical and curatorial aspects of the paintings.

Colonial notions of authenticity and value in museums based on Euro-American standards and criteria can be detrimental to the care, management, interpretation and appreciation of objects. The authenticity and value of ethnographic material, such as the paintings, are discovered through origin community engagement and serious biographical work that includes looking at curatorial motivations and historical considerations in the museum context. These inclusive practices would serve as a decolonising process of evaluating authenticity, value, and meaning. The implications of considering layers of authenticity are not limited to the paintings of the Sarawak Museum and could extend outside the field of museum studies.



Sandra Dudley; Huw Barton

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Museum Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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