Sabah Museum: An Abode Of History, Art And Culture.

Sited on 17 hectares of land at Bukit Istana Lama, Muzium Sabah is the state museum of Sabah, Malaysia. The complex is surrounded by lush gardens just off the Jalan Penampang.

Apart from the Main Building, it harbors the Heritage Village and Ethnobotanical Garden as well. It also houses the Sabah Art Gallery and the Science and Technology Centre.

Other galleries include the Islamic Civilization, Natural History, Ceramics, Archaeology, and Brassware. Being the state museum, it aims to collect, conserve and document interesting aspects of Sabah’s cultural and social history.

Sabah Museum ©


It is at a distance of 4 km from the city of Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah. It is located at Jalan Kebajikan. It opens daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. A short tour of 2 hours is enough for sightseeing tourists to gain rich insights about this place.

Though not as big as world-class museums, its greatness lies in connecting the dots of the past. It has well preserved historical artifacts, documentation, and photographs. People who love stories of Borneo could spend half a day here. It showcases the interesting past of Sabah.

Its design is inspired by traditional Rungus longhouse. It was built in 1985. It is situated where Istana of North Borneo’s British governor was once located.

Art Galleries:

1. Ceramic Gallery

An important commodity for more than a thousand years, ceramic jars were a part of daily life of Sabahans. People brewed wine, used it for storage, performed rituals and even burial in it.


Ceramic imports from China are reported as early as Sung dynasty period (960-1279 A.D.). They were highly valued and marked a sign of wealth.

Sabah museum has been acquiring antique jars that were passed down the generations as an heirloom. That’s why they are able to have the best collection here.


Many trade wares can also be seen here from the period of Yuan, Wing, etc. dynasties of China. Antiquities from countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, and Europe are also displayed. A few of them were recovered from sunken shipwrecks.
Other items showcased are ceramic pillow, cosmetic boxes and spittoons, which are no longer used today.

2. Headhunting Gallery

The fearsome headhunters roamed the land of Borneo hundreds of years ago. They hunted human heads as trophy with their armed sword and blowpipe.

Marriages were approved on the ability of a man to get a skull. It also used to symbolize bravery. This gallery takes you back to those times.


The skulls were believed to bring fortune and protect the families. The gallery portrays collection of hundred year old human skulls being tied together with Silad leaves. This is deemed to be a commonly practiced in those times
Swords and weapons used by kadazandusun and Murut tribes are a common sight. These were used to cut the enemy’s head. Some photographs provides details about how heads were “processed” by the headhunters.

3. Natural History Gallery

This one provides an overview of ecology in Borneo. At the entrance, a skeleton of a Sumatran Rhino captivates the tourists eyes.

A skeleton of a Sumatran Rhino ©


Specimens of different flora and fauna from marine, rainforest, swamp and cave ecosystems can be seen. It serves as a nice educational guide for naturalists.


They also have specimens of very elusive and secretive animals like clouded leopard, bird pitta and mud lobster. These are extremely rare to find in the wild.

There is a specific section in the gallery dedicated to some local herbs. They are known to cure snake bite, breast cancer, leukemia, etc. This is probably the reason that Borneo rainforest is termed as the largest natural drugstore by the scientists.


4. Ethnology Gallery

Sabah has the most colorful and diversified culture in Malaysia. With 32 indigenous groups and about 100 languages, it’s a state that has been influenced by the neighboring countries. To get insights into any culture, one needs to see what they wear, use and play.


The gallery exhibits handicrafts, farming tools and musical instruments. Music lovers can play musical instruments in a sound-proof room.

A separate cosmos section displays unique yet interesting costumes and accessories. They belong to different ethnic groups. A simple item like basket could be made in numerous designs by the tribal people. This gives an idea of their amazing creative skills.


5. Ancient Culture Gallery

If anthropology excites you then this hall is for you. It exhibits the best pieces of prehistoric artefacts from important sites.

Stone tools from Mansuli valley dating as far back as 235,000 years has been the latest edition. The valley excavated at the Lahad Datu is believed to be the earliest human civilization of Borneo.


It’s amazing to see hundreds of tools made from stones, clay, shells, bones, and wood on display. Apart from these other interesting things include:

  • Pottery sherds from Bukit Tengkorak synonymous with Skull Hill in Semporna.
  • More than 900 years old buffalo-head ironwood coffin. There isn’t anything similar like this found in other parts of Southeast Asia.
  • A 2,000-year-old Vietnamese drum. It is an extraordinary piece from Bronze age.
More than 900 years old buffalo-head ironwood coffin ©

An interesting fact comes from the Neolithic period. Here the largest pottery making sites were established at Bukit Tengkorak stretching 3500 km away. It marked the international trade routes.
It also contains chronological graph of ancient cultures and map of associated archeological sites. Ancient Borneo had many links with other parts than western Malaysia that still needs to be uncovered.

6. Sabah History Gallery

People of Sabah had been more connected to sultan of sulu (Philippines) and Brunei. Malaysia as a country came into the picture less than 60 years ago. So naturally it has been absent from most of the history of Borneo.

This arcade features major political and social events of Sabah’s history through sign, photographs and antiquities. Most of the information is before the formation of Malaysia, i.e., 1963.


It takes 15 minutes to walk through the 500 years old historical data of Sabah compressed in a 500 sq. Meters area. The chronological order of rulers of this region is as follows:

  1. Rulers from Brunei.
  2. The Sulu Sultanate.
  3. The westerners.
  4. The British who named it North Borneo.

The British colonial era witnessed some uprising from the locals against the imperialist rulers. During World War II, the Japanese invaded Sabah in 1942. It got liberated in 1945 and in 1963 got merged with Malaya to form Malaysia.


Like any other place, Sabah too had phases of dark sides in its history. The events recorded are:

  • Age of piracy and slavery around 1870
  • No village was found more than 60 miles along the Kinabatangan River
  • Bloodshed by rebellions
  • Opium trade permitted by British government
  • The weapons used in wars.Amongst locals, the elderly people have lived through those hard times. So they could be often spotted digging deep into this section.

Other tourist attractions:

Both local and foreign vacationers can find numerous things to explore in this complex. If time permits try out these other wonderful locations.

Islamic Civilization Museum

This one is a small museum away from Sabah Museum. It takes 20 minutes to walk here. No extra entrance fee is required to enter it if you visit the same day.


This part highlights the Islamic culture of Sabah. It demonstrates the Al-Quran, ceramics, costumes, mosques, antiques, etc. very nicely. Furthermore, it has an extensive collection of fancy betel nut containers.

  • This Museum hosts galleries like –
  • The Islam in Nusantara
  • Islam in Malaysia
  • Islam Sabah
  • Prophet Muhammad
  • Islamic Commandment.

Science and Technology Center

The Science and Technology Centre presents three exhibitions:

  • Oil and gas production.
  • Broadcasting.
  • North Borneo Railway.

Ethnobotanical Garden:

A collection of commercial, medicinal, food, and ornamental plants makes up the ethnobotanical park. The museum grounds are also graced by beautiful montane garden.

Heritage Village:

The village exhibits different types of traditional dwellings of the various indigenous groups of Sabah. Visitors can stroll among the ethnic houses of Rungus, Dusun, Bajau, Murut, etc. and take pictures. Cultural activities are also held from time to time to give an enriching experience to tourists.

Notable attractions are:

  • Bajau residence with the complete wedding dias.
  • Murut Longhouse with a trampoline (lansaran).
  • A Chinese farmhouse with earthen floor.
  • A Bamboo home.
  • House of skulls.It lies adjacent to the Ethno-Botanical Garden and the museum building. One can find a pond and dense forest around the hamlet. There are many native fruits, herbs, and ornamental plants to get your hands on. Also, be careful of insects bites and carry an insect repellent with you.

Sabah Museum complex has too many things to offer to its visitors. It provides excellent sources to know the culture, history and social life of the region.

An itinerary to this place serves both as an educational and sightseeing tour. You will be amazed at the amount of information you’ll get through this one trip.

If you are looking for an enriching experience, this is your destination.

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