Asian, Civilisations, Museum – A Definition of Terms

ACM Exterior

The Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

So I suppose it’s time to spill the beans.

On 1 September, I will take the helm as the Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. It is a magnificent museum, and I am privileged and excited to be taking on the job after my predecessor (who played a pivotal role in the museum’s development – thank you!). THAT was the major change I was hinting at in the last post about London, Brexit and change.

In the following weeks, I will be doing the requisite press and media interviews where I share with the public, what my vision and plans are for the museum as its new director. And I’m looking forward to doing that.

But ahead of the press, I felt I owed it to myself and to Dream Of A City to share some early musings – not a sneak preview, but a sneak preview of the sneak preview – here first.

[And this is the only time I will allow a confluence between the personal-professional and the work-professional.]

ACM Wing

Entrance to the Riverfront Wing, Asian Civilisations Museum

Since I AM a writer, I believe that clarity of vision stems from clarity of terms.  Specifically, the terms “Asian”, “Civilisations” and “Museum”, which form the museum’s very name.

And so the question I will attempt to address here is this:  What do “Asian”, “Civilisations” and “Museum” mean in the context of the world we live in today, and in the context of my own specific interests and personal journey?

In other words: what will I mean when I use these terms “Asian”, “Civilisations” and “Museum”?

This has bearing on the nature of the museum itself.


What is “Asian”?  And how is it different than “Asia”?

Curiously, while the museum’s name is “ASIAN” Civilisations Museum, its tagline professes it simultaneously to be “Singapore’s Museum of ASIA”.

But these aren’t the same things, exactly.

ASIA is a continent; a landmass. It implies geography, regions, boundaries, and a whole lot of “not”s, i.e. Asia is Not-Europe and Not-America and Not-Africa. To my mind, it is a limiting kind of parameter.

ASIAN, however, is a state of being. One talks about Asian-ness, without consideration about geography. It is a term that relates to people and to ways of thinking and forms of creative expression. There is Asian-ness in Asia for sure, but also in Europe, America and Africa.

So is ACM a Museum of Asia, or a Museum of the Asian? It has certainly been the former. I am inclined towards it being the latter.

If only because this allows me to further my own interest in the interstices between the great world civilisations; to temporarily look past landmass for the periphery – places once seen as unimportant in the minds of the grand civilisations of Asia by dint of them being at the edge of imperial consciousness.

Places like those cosmopolitan port cities of Asia’s coasts, like those historically turbulent, palimpsest-like desert crossroads and like those centres of diaspora communities (Asian diasporas worldwide and other diasporas in Asia) – where the great world civilisations intersect and either succeed or fail to accommodate each other.

I believe that in a world that is becoming increasingly xenophobic and intolerant, it is even more important for a museum such as ACM to emphasise that civilisations have never existed in monolithic, hermetically-sealed boxes. Instead, cultures, religions/faiths and peoples have always mutually influenced, informed and enriched each other.

The interstices between civilisations are becoming more important and relevant than the civilisations themselves.

[This is a view I share with my predecessor, and one which, I believe, ultimately got me the job.]


This brings me to “civilisations”.

Being a sociologist, I find the word problematic on two levels: the first being that it connotes a distance between art/culture and everyday life; high art versus low culture. And the second being the inherent, lingering neo-colonial after-tones. The European colonial powers believed, after all, that they were bringing the “light of civilisation” to the barbarian hordes in the rest of the world.

As originally used, “civilisations” is a rather more divisive than inclusive term.

So how we do we turn this on its head?

I accept, for a start, that at face value, MINUS the connotations, “civilisation” is an everything and all-encompassing type of word, referring simply to the entire historic and lived experience of a particular culture or peoples. This is inclusive of art, performance, architecture, ritual, but also political, economic, social (court and community) organisation.

Which means that what the museum is at present doing – collecting and displaying spectacular pieces of art and ethnologically significant artefacts – is merely one piece of the bigger picture.

It’s an EXTREMELY important piece; in fact, THE MOST IMPORTANT. Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe in this fundamental role of the museum (see section below on MUSEUM).

But I would love to do more to explore the interstices (this word again!) between ART and other aspects of “Civilisation”.  Perhaps even take things a step further and explore the definition of “collecting” and “display” itself. [I got this idea of redefining “collecting” from a colleague – you know who you are!]

I would very much like, for example, to explore more deeply, and in a take-to-the-streets kind of way, the relationship between art and architecture (acknowledging that I’ve been, these last five years, walking through the streets of Asia’s port cities as an obsessive, intrepid street photographer).

I would also like to explore what “collecting” and “display” mean in the context of Asian intangible heritage such as music, performance, ritual and food. And conversely, to find ways to “animate” the living objects in our collection – kerises, shadow puppets, sireh sets, etc. This is where tapping the wisdom of community would add a level of depth and humanity.

I would, furthermore, like to explore exhibitions, books, programmes, talks and interventions that bridge domains, say… historic AND contemporary fashion & design; science, technology and ceramics; or textiles, court & community; or the art & history of food; or contemporary mixed-media art inspired by monuments and antiquities…and so on; that turn traditional domains and categories on their heads.

I’m betting that it is within the space of the interstice that we will find content that is new and groundbreaking and that would have the museum appear to be current, cutting-edge, cool and accessible at the same time.

And I will go one step further to suggest that it is critical the museum be, first and foremost, current, cutting-edge, cool and accessible to our local visitors, i.e. Singaporeans and other residents on these shores. Because being here, they have the potential to be the museum’s most loyal and staunchest supporters. And because they too are hungry for new and groundbreaking experiences.

The good news is that I believe Singapore, being an old-new, traditional-advanced, interstice-like, cosmopolitan, port city sort of place, has all the ingredients – the art, history, architecture, fashion, food, audiences, patrons and experts  whether academic or vernacular – for us to embark on exploring the interstices, of both the Asian and Civilisational varieties, right here, if we want to.

And in so doing, we will also learn more  about this unique condition of being Singaporean – a subject that fascinates me and many fellow Singaporeans of my generation.

[AND, I must add, I am so lucky, so grateful and so happy to have board members, patrons, donors, collectors, expert advisers, academics, funders, docents, volunteers, supporters and a team of museum professionals who love the museum as much as I do and are as passionate about it as I am! Because one can only trust love and passion.]


So I’m left with the most important term of the three…

Root word: Muse, of the classical, Grecian variety; a mouseion being a temple dedicated to the Muses, i.e. a space set apart for study and contemplation of the arts.

I find I am quite conservative on this front. I rather like the classical definition of a museum. In fact, I feel we have strayed a little too far from what museums ought to be doing…

For example, I am personally a little suspicious of the trend towards the so-called “digital experience” in the museum, mostly because the focus is always wrongly on carriage rather than content. Time, effort and $ spent on developing new infrastructure would be better off directed towards great collections and great content, in my view.

I stand firmly by first principles: content – tangible, physical, visceral content – is key.

By this I mean great art that makes your heart leap or gives you goosebumps when you encounter it because it is so beautiful or so significant or so impossibly old and well-preserved. Exhibitions, publications and talks that linger in your mind because they have changed your view of the world or of everyday life. Stories told of art, history and people that wrench or inspire or impart joy.

I want visitors to step into the museum and experience epiphany, or minimally a strong emotional reaction.

To elicit emotions and epiphany – the “So what?” and the “Why?” needs to be articulated for everything that we have and in everything that we do.

Why is this work of art in the museum? Why are you doing this exhibition? Why should this be of interest to me, the visitor?  Why is all of this important? 

Answering the questions of “so what?” and “why?” are extremely critical, because in answering these, we clarify who we are and what we stand for, and help our visitors understand who they are and what they stand for.

Let me illustrate.

Why are you spending time and effort writing this post? 

Because it explains who I am, what the museum I helm will stand for, and why it is absolutely important that you, the reader and the visitor, come visit.

Why is ACM important?

Because ACM explores the state of being Asian; what being Asian means historically and, more importantly, what being Asian means today. Because it presents heartbreakingly beautiful art and historically significant artefacts. Because it stands for all that is new, groundbreaking and exciting in the space of presenting art and antiquities. Because it is against intolerance and xenophobia and strives to remind the world that its peoples, faiths and cultures have never existed in silos. And because in coming to ACM, you will learn something about yourself as an Asian and as a Singaporean (if that is who you are).

Welcome to Asian Civilisations Museum.

Allow me to be your host and your guide.

Sunset ACM

Sunset at Asian Civilisations Museum.

ACM Skyline

A most spectacular view of the Singapore skyline, from the terrace of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Incidentally, the beans had already been spilt about a month ago…see the link below:

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Culture & Lifestyle, Heritage, Singapore, Southeast ASia, Travel & Mobility. Bookmark the permalink.

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