Yunci Cai

Indigenous Agency, Native Curatorship and Cross-cultural Museum Practices in Southeast Asia

Based on a multi-sited ethnographic study of four indigenous cultural villages and their communities in Malaysia, namely: the Mah Meri Cultural Village in Carey Island, the Orang Seletar Cultural Centre in Johor Bahru, both in West Malaysia, and the Monsopiad Cultural Village and the Linangkit Cultural Village, both in Sabah, East Malaysia, I seek to investigate how cultural revivalism and struggles for indigenous rights among indigenous communities are embedded in complex networks of international, national and local actors, including international and local activists, the Malaysian government, cultural brokers, tourists, researchers and the indigenous communities themselves. I will examine the phenomenon of cultural revivalism and recent proliferation of indigenous cultural villages in Malaysia by investigating their surrounding dynamics, focusing on the ideologies of the Malaysian government towards the state’s indigenous populations vis-à-vis the indigenous communities’ own sense of cultural identity and heritage, the Malaysian government’s efforts to assimilate them into the mainstream Malaysian society, and the roles of international and local activists and cultural brokers in these dynamics. I seek to understand how indigenous cultural heritage can perhaps serve as an avenue for indigenous communities to negotiate their indigenous rights, and consider the impacts of this entanglement on the form and function of their cultural identity and heritage.

My investigation into indigenous cultural heritage in Malaysia is structured around five core questions:

a) What is motivating the revival of indigenous cultural heritage in Malaysia, and what forms does this revivalism take?

b) What functions are indigenous cultural villages performing for different actors and stakeholders in the Malaysian context?

c) What is the relationship between indigenous cultural heritage and indigenous politics and activism in Malaysia (e.g. land rights, self-determination, political representation, etc.), and how is this influenced by international discourses and movements relating to indigenous rights?

d) What impacts do these political entanglements have on the cultural heritage, knowledge and identity of the indigenous communities?

e) In the light of the above, do indigenous cultural villages in Malaysia represent an alternative to the dominant ‘Western’ model of the museum?

My study will be an original research on an emergent museum culture in a relatively under-researched region of the world. It will add to the current literature on cultural and indigenous activism by considering how cultural heritage is articulated by indigenous communities in Malaysia, how these contribute to issues of indigenous agency and self-determination among these indigenous communities, and how these lead to transformations of their cultural heritage. It will also contribute to the literature on cultural brokerage in developmental work and social movements through a critical examination of the roles of cultural brokers in bridging differences among the various stakeholders in the establishment of these cultural villages.

My study will contribute to the on-going discussions on non-Western museum models, and build upon current museum literature on indigenous museums and cultural centres, which has so far focused on the phenomenon in North America, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, by offering a perspective from Southeast Asia, where the different political, economic, social and cultural contexts can produce dynamics and outcomes that contrast sharply with the tradition of cultural activism and heritage interpretation in these aforementioned regions.

Funding organisation

  • UCL Overseas Research Scholarship
  • UCL Graduate Research Scholarship


 Educational background

  • B.Soc.Sci (Hons), Geography (First Class), National University of Singapore, 2005
  • MA, Museum Studies (Distinction), University College London, 2010

Cai, Yunci (2013) “The Art of Museum Diplomacy: The Singapore-France Cultural Collaboration in Perspective” in The International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 127 - 144.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Museums as Temples of Cultures or Palaces of Entertainment: A Study of New Museums in Singapore” in The International Journal of Inclusive Museum, Issue 1, Volume 3, pp 73 – 85.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Law and Singapore’s Built Heritage” in Essays in Singapore’s Legal History: In Memory of Professor Geoffrey Wilson Bartholomew, Tan, Kevin Y. L and Hor, Michael (eds.). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 87 - 125.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Living Landscapes: Community Heritage Institutions”, in BeMuse, Issue 3, Volume 2, pp. 76 – 79. Singapore: National Heritage Board.

Cai, Yunci (2008) “In the Land of the Ascending Dragon”, in BeMuse, Issue 3, Volume 1, pp. 68 – 75. Singapore: National Heritage Board.

Conference presentations

Cai, Yunci (2014) “Performing Cultures, Negotiating Identities: The Cultural Politics of Indigenous Cultural Villages in Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Citizens, Civil Society and the Cultural Politics of Heritage-Making in East and Southeast Asia, Academia Sinica Institute of Sociology Conference, 11 to 13 December, Taipei, Taiwan.

Cai, Yunci (2014) “Indigenous Cultural Villages as an Alternative Museum Model?: A Comparative Study of Indigenous Museums and Cultural Villages in West Malaysia” [Paper Presentation], Presenter, Museum of Our Own: In Search of Local Museology for Asia, International Museum Conference organised by Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia) and National Museum of World Cultures (Netherlands), 18 to 20 November, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Cai, Yunci (2014) “From Museum Collections to Museum Souvenirs: Creating a Second Life for Museum Collections through ‘Souveniralisation’” [Powerpoint Presentation], Presenter, Material Properties Conference, 28 February, London, United Kingdom.

Cai, Yunci (2011) “Multicultural Museum Programming in Singapore and the Politics of Inclusion” [Powerpoint Presentation], Co-presenter, Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM) Conference, 25 to 27 May, Singapore.

Cai, Yunci (2011) “Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Singapore” [PowerPoint Presentation], Networking on East Asia Cultural Heritage (NEACH) Seminar, 5 to 8 March, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Cai, Yunci (2010) “Protection, Preservation and Promotion of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Singapore” [PowerPoint Presentation], Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museum Field School, 23 August to 5 September, Lamphun, Thailand.

Cai, Yunci (2008) “Museums as Temples of Cultures or Palaces of Entertainment: A Study of New Museums in Singapore” [Paper Presentation], International Conference on Inclusive Museum, 8 to 11 June, Leiden, Netherlands.

[Selected publications and conference presentations are available for download at

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