Discover the museum's exhibitions


DAYAK. The art of the head-hunters of Borneo

In Western imagination, they are nothing but ferocious head-hunters who exhibit macabre trophies. But reality is, as always, different. Dayak people are also artists of great charm and mystery, and through their works they manifest the relationship between men, gods and natural phenomena of one of the last unknown lands on the planet.

The exhibition is the result of multi-year research conducted by MUSEC, in collaboration with international scientific partners. This is one of the largest exhibitions in the world ever made on this subject and certainly the largest in the last forty-five years. The exhibition goes with an illustrated book by Paolo Maiullari (Arte dayak, Culture Arts & Books, Lugano 2019, 296 p.). Together they are the highest achievement of the study, valorisation and growth of MUSEC’s Borneo’s art collections; the project was started by the MUSEC fifteen years ago and led to the production of exhibitions and books, as well as cultural diplomacy actions in synergy with the Indonesian authorities.

The 170 works exhibited were produced for the most part between the beginning of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century and come from the MUSEC, from four other Swiss ethnological museums and from Swiss and European private collections. They are representative of the major dayak art genres well known in the West: monumental wooden sculptures, masks, hunting magic sticks, paddles, shields and traditional weapons, fabrics, body ornaments, garments, skulls, tattoo matrices, baby-carriers, architectural elements, musical instruments, jars; basketry and other decorated objects.

Foto gallery

The exhibition’s sections

The exhibition occupies fourteen rooms on the first and second floor of Villa Malpensata. Two are the main themes of the exhibition, which is divided into eleven thematic sections. The first part of the exhibition focuses on the encounter between the Dayak populations and the West, which started ethnographic research and collecting interest and influenced the Western way of looking at Borneo and its native inhabitants. The second part of the exhibition, proposing a change of perspective, progressively accompanies the visitor to the discovery of the meanings and values of the works on display, in which the relationship between men, deities and natural phenomena of one of the last unknown lands on the planet is expressed.

The thematic sections presented in the exhibition are: 1. A crossroads of civilization; 2. The construction of an imaginary; 3. The ethnographic research; 4. A passion for collecting; 5. Heart of darkness; 6. The art of war; 7. Prestige and dignity; 8. The religious universe; 9. The dog-dragon; 10. The supernatural world; 11. The art of the body 

The book

The temporary exhibition is accompanied by a book by Paolo Maiullari dedicated to dayak culture and art. In the catalogue are reproduced a good part of the works on display with the relevant scientific data sheets.

Paolo Maiullari, Day Artak, series Anthropunti 12, Culture Arts&Books, Lugano 2019, pp. 296. ISBN 978-88-944775-1-1. CHF 39.00

The art of Borneo and the MUSEC: a project, a minimal story, by Francesco Paolo Campione

The "discovery" of the last unknown land
A multi-ethnic world
The meeting with the Dayak
The birth of Western imagery  of Borneo's headhunters
The appearance of dayak art in the West
Meanings and functions of dayak art
The works on display



Works entry
Bibliography cited

coperta Arte dayak



Dayak. The art of the head-hunters of Borneo


Museo delle Culture, Spazio Mostre (1st and 2nd floor)

Villa Malpensata, Riva A. Caccia 5 / via G. Mazzini 5, 6900 Lugano


28th of September 2019 - 17of May 2020

Opening time

Every day 11 am - 6 pm, closed on Tuesday.