The Museum of Picture Book Art in Malaysia is a gorgeous homage to Southeast Asian creativity and talent.
Within its walls in Kuala Lumpur, there is an astonishing display of art, not only within picture books of pristine quality, but also the framed posters and postcards being featured in the museum.
From the gothic art of Khairul Azmir Shoib (a.k.a. Meme) to the cheeriness of Emila Yusof’s elegant illustrations, the styles cover a broad spectrum.
It would be a misconception to relegate picture books as something that only caters to the youngest of bibliophiles.
Without a doubt, the crown jewel of The Museum of Picture Book Art is its extensive rare books collection.
These include a selection of old Malaysian picture books that were painstakingly curated and comprise generous contributions from the private collections of Linda Tan Lingard, the managing director of the museum, and the museum’s employees and friends.
Some books are so aged that they’re too fragile for readers to even take a peek at their pages! The oldest book on display is Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes. The hardcover book was published in 1947, and though its pages are yellowed and its spine appears weak and weathered, it stands proudly in its glass time capsule from the past.
Some of the collection’s oldest books have endured through the British colonial times, and are now a contemporary reminder of the trials and tribulations Malaysia has been through. They are also a testament of Malaysia’s rich and multifaceted history.
This preservation of cultural history is a nod to the old bookstores of the UK. Referencing London’s Charing Cross Road bookstores, where old editions can be found, Peter Duke, the chairman of the museum, laments the lack of history appreciation within the Malaysian book industry.
Despite the challenge of finding old Malaysian picture books, the museum has much to offer in terms of variety. Adults and especially veterans, will surely be intrigued by the museum’s offerings that serve as a nostalgic blast from the past.
Younger guests can also savour the array of modern picture books, ranging from a dramatised history of pasteurisation and heartwarming stories on familial love, to child-friendly retellings of classic ballets, notably, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (Music Storybooks) by Ji-Yeong Lee, and the Young Scientists series by Nury Vittachi.
The books preserved in the rare books collection, while valuable as cultural artifacts, hold stories so integral to our childhoods that the intrigue of their contents have long been exhausted.
Newer picture books, in contrast, are tasked with the daunting challenge of competing with the multitude of digital distractions in the new media age, forcing them to evolve into innovative and inventive works of art.
One bilingual book tells two stories simultaneously, in two languages. It requires the reader to read the book from cover to cover, rotate the book, and reread it to complete the experience. Such books are a far cry from the stereotypical picture book and are definitely worth exploring.
Peter points out that the museum holds four broad categories of books: Malaysian English, Bahasa Malaysia, Southeast Asian and international books, though there are still books in other languages, such as Chinese.
The array of languages represented is only the tip of the iceberg in the assortment of books found in the museum. Aside from the multilingual nature of the museum, the stories and contributors are diverse. The in-house bookstore sells books set in areas from Ipoh to Borneo, with authors from South Korea, China and more.
Our Folktales: The All-Time Favourite Folktales Of Asia, an anthology edited by Ruth Wan-Lau, explores the classic folktales of Asian countries, with each country represented by an illustrator and author native to that country, creating a unique and bite-sized view of different cultures.
The Museum of Picture Book Art demonstrates that a two-dimensional art form, such as picture books, can be anything but.
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced operations to halt for almost half a year, the museum is eager to dive into new projects following the country’s rapid reopening. Duke plans to expand the museum to include a second section with copies of rare books. This will give people the opportunity to read through some of the more fragile selections.
“We want to link the past to the future,” Peter says.
The museum has witnessed groups of Arts and Marketing university students, browsing to prepare themselves for the future.
Linda’s Oyez!Books publishing business has facilitated the production of books by authors in their late teens, paving the way for the books of the future.
“A child with a book is king. A child who reads has a future,” Peter said, quoting Linda, adding that, “We are also trying to build the future. (Teenagers) are going to grow up, and they’re going to get married, and they’re going to have children, who then come and buy books.”
For teenagers, the museum also occasionally offers workshops on topics like publishing to writing and illustrating. Peter says the effort is aimed at getting more teenagers involved in the book industry.
Discerning youngsters might also appreciate books with advanced topics, such as Under The Stars: Astrophysics For Bedtime by Lisa Harvey-Smith. The well-researched book, with eye-catching illustrations, is sure to engage the reader.
The exploration of niche topics through picture books, provides an avenue for teenagers to discover new interests in an enthralling way.
Watch out for the Museum of Picture Book Art’s next exhibition, which is slated to coincide with IBBY week in September.
All Images were supplied by Teioh Nuan Ning.