When I first started work one of the things I was determined to do was to take my love for cities and for travel into the museum, on the understanding that CITIES and TRAVEL were two things that resonated strongly with the contemporary Singaporean visitor, who loves travel and who – living in a major city – would understand and be further curious about the condition of urban living.
The means by which I have introduced CITIES and URBAN LIVING as a theme, is to ensure that in each special exhibition we have done so far, there is a (perhaps voyeuristic) window onto life in the city at the time.
This was certainly the case for our exhibition, Port Cities – Multi-cultural Emporiums of Asia, 1500 – 1900, wherein our Guest Curator (whose own love for port cities and lives therein aligned with mine), did not shy away from depicting everyday life, messy or beautiful, in the dozen or so historic Asian port cities we featured.
This was also case for Cities and Kings – Ancient Treasures from Myanmar, where the over-arching curatorial narrative was a journey through Burmese history with stops at five of its major cities – Sri Ksetra (Pyu city-states period), Bago, Bagan, Mandalay and Rangoon.
Finally, the recent Joseon Korea – Court Treasures and City Life also featured a section on everyday living in Hanyang – the Joseon capital, which has become today’s Seoul.
The reader would notice that my particular commitment to CITIES has also meant that all three special exhibitions at the museum I’ve opened as director thus far have had the word “cities” in their title.
What about TRAVEL?
The interesting thing about Asian Civilisations Museum, is that a visit to the museum is akin to travelling across Asia, or – in the case of special exhibitions like Joseon Korea or Cities & Kings – a journey to one particular nation or civilisation in Asia.
Every visit to ACM is tantamount to a virtual-tangible trip (“virtual” because you’re not actually there, but “tangible” because you’re viewing actual, physical artefacts) to one of the great historic sites and monuments in our grand continent; or, alternatively, a journey by sailboat, steamship or camel caravan across oceans or deserts.
Step into the Tang Shipwreck Gallery and be swept away on an Arab dhow journeying 1000 years ago across the Indian Ocean from the Arabian Peninsula, bound for the port city of Yangzhou on China’s glittering coast, where it would pick up its precious cargo of more than 60,000 pieces of ceramics, silver and gold.
Continue on to our Trade Galleries where you experience being on a Dutch or English East India Company sailing ship, departing from the port cities of Nagasaki or Canton or Calcutta or Batavia, cargo holds laden with exquisite goods like Chinese porcelain, Japanese namban lacquer, Ceylonese ivory caskets or Batavian ebony chests.
Explore our soon-to-be-opened Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Ancient Religions Galleries and relive the epic journey Buddhist monks in the Tang and later dynasties took to India to study Buddhist scriptures and take them to the Far East. One of these journeys would be immortalised as the novel, Journey to the West 西遊記 featuring the exploits of familiar characters, Tripitaka 玄奘, Monkey 孫悟空, Pigsy 豬八戒 and Sandy 沙僧, and the benevolent gaze of Guanyin 觀世音菩薩 (the Goddess of Mercy).
To underscore my commitment to travel in the years to come, the museum will be introducing greater contextual material and design in the permanent galleries.
By contextual material, I mean historic maps, paintings, photos and other views of ports, urban settlements, historic monuments, ships and people, so the visitor would get a vivid sense of where the artefact or work of art he or she is admiring would have hailed from.
By contextual design, I mean introducing elements of architecture and intangible heritage into the interior design and captioning of the permanent galleries; so that the physical experience in the museum would be more immersive.
Thus will I “engineer” museum visit as actual intrepid travel to ancient and faraway lands where one learns, first-hand, about the cultures and civilisations of Others, and therefore of one’s self.