On a recent trip to Malaysia I visited an exhibition on Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu at the University of Malaya Art Gallery that really impressed me.

Pua kumbu are textiles that are woven by the Iban people on the island of Borneo. (“Pua” is the Iban word for “blanket,” and “kumbu” means to wrap.)

Pua kumbu were traditionally used by the Iban for various ritual purposes. That, of course, makes these textiles important, but what makes them even more significant is that each pua kumbu has a story woven into it that the weaver can “read” by viewing the cloth.

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For those of us today who have no connection to the traditions of the Iban, however, “reading” pua kumbu and understanding the ideas that they contain is all but impossible.

However, the Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu exhibition made this possible by employing “polysensory and immersive digital media” to educate visitors to the exhibit about how pua kumbu are made, as well as about their significance and the tales they contain.

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The exhibition opens with a video projected onto the floor. The beginning of the video takes viewers into the interior of Sarawak where many of the pua kumbu in the exhibit were produced.

To view the video, one has to walk right up to the edge of the area where the video is projected, and in doing so, one gets the sensation of actually entering the video and boarding the boats that take one upstream into the interior.

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Upon “arriving,” the video on the floor goes blank, but the story continues on the adjacent wall where the image is so big that one has to take a few steps back in order to view it all. Here again, one gets the sense of being immersed in the video rather than simply viewing it.

This opening video provides historical information about the Iban and their tradition of weaving pua kumbu.

Once that video ends, visitors then proceed to another room where there is another video which shows a master weaver “reading,” in Iban, stories from pua kumbu.

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Accompanying these readings are animated interpretations of the stories.

The animated figures in the stories are almost geometrical in shape. This at first may seem merely artistic, but then one quickly comes to realize that these geometric shapes match and mimic the geometric patterns on pua kumbu themselves.

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After learning some of the stories that are on individual pua kumbu, visitors than proceed to another room where a large pua kumbu is laid out. This pua kumbu contains one of the stories that is “read” and animated in the previous room.

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Further, next to the pua kumbu is a device, similar to an iPad, that viewers can slide alongside the pua kumbu. At certain points one can see on the screen a detail from the textile. If one then presses the screen, what is an abstract detail on the pua kumbu then gradually transforms on the screen into a more realistic image of what is represented there.

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The exhibit then proceeds on to another room which contains information about the area where the pua kumbu in the exhibit were woven, and then on to another room with a video about how pua kumbu are made.

This video is projected onto a curved wall, and on either side of the screen are two large pua kumbu. In fact, however, viewers soon realize that those two textiles are part of the screen as well, as images from the pua kumbu “fly out” of the textiles into the screen, creating an interaction between the video and the pua kumbu on display.

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There is much more that one could say about this exhibit, such as the fact that one can download an app to ones smartphone so that when one holds the phone up to a photograph on the wall, a video will start playing on the smartphone about the contents of the photograph, etc.

However, what should be clear is that this exhibit does an amazing job of using digital technology to enable one to gain a deep understanding of both tangible and intangible culture.

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The cultural and historical information in the exhibit is the product of a couple of years of research on the part of Dr. Welyne Jeffrey Jehom of the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Malaya.

The digital presentation and enhancement of that information, meanwhile, is the product of the work of Professor Harold Thwaites, the director of The Center for Creative Content & Digital Innovation at the University of Malaya, along with members of his team from that Centre.

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A press release about the exhibition that came with the brochure sums up nicely what impressed me the most:

“This exhibit showcases for the first time, via various forms of digital capture and innovative media communication methods, the intangible culture and heritage of creating this textile craft of East Malaysia.

“Professor Harold Thwaites explained, ‘this exhibition is a cutting edge knowledge mobilization from High Impact Research at UM that goes far beyond just journal articles.’

“All too often in University research projects, the culmination of the work is somewhat traditional, resulting in a number of journal articles, talks at conferences or academic publications of various kinds, shared with a special audience only.

“Here in Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu the goal is to take research beyond the academic sphere and bring it to the public sphere.

“Public interactives presented in the form of exhibitions, can serve to mobilize knowledge much faster than more traditional modes of ‘publication.’ It creates and presents to the public, a living, digital, cultural imaginary of intangible knowledge, that heretofore could only be experienced by a very few people.”

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I couldn’t agree more with the need to move academic knowledge out of its restrictive and limiting world of specialists and journals, and to use digital technology to do so. This exhibition does a wonderful job of demonstrating one such way to do this.

For more information about the exhibition, consult the following facebook page: http:/fb.com/ttpk.um

And for more on pua kumbu, see: http://rhgareh.com/

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Finally, I would like to thank Professor Thwaites and Dr. Jehom for taking the time to talk to me when I visited the gallery, as well as the kind graduate student who showed me around the exhibition.