One Year at the Job – Maritime Silk Route and ‘Ilm علم

ACM Front

Promoting our Permanent Collections

A year into the job, I’m convinced, more than ever, that a museum needs to be relevant.

Not just to its local community, but also to the world.

What I mean is that a museum also needs to respond to contemporary global developments at the macro-level, whether geopolitical, economic, socio-cultural or security-related.

And so this October, taking advantage of the fact that we are installing new permanent galleries, and therefore have no special exhibitions planned, we are experimenting with the way we promote our Permanent Collections.

Collections which, in my view, can contribute relevant and important perspectives on prevailing global economic and geo-political issues.

Let me illustrate.


Years before China’s One Belt One Route (OBOR) initiative and its associated rhetoric as to how the overland and maritime silk roads have connected civilisations for thousands of years through trade, we have – at the Asian Civilisations Museum – already been on to it.

The Museum’s very MISSION conveys an important message to the world about how civilisations have never existed in isolation, but have always connected, interacted and mutually enriched each other.

And we have had the opportunity to build up a magnificent collection of artefacts and works of art that tangibly, viscerally illustrates this point.

For example, on the ground floor of the museum, we display our very important and comprehensive collection of Asian Export Art. These are masterpieces of ceramics and porcelain, furniture and other decorative arts (e.g. clothing chests, reliquary caskets, fans, pen cases, etc), lacquer and enamel, textiles and paintings, that were produced in China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia for the global market.

Taken together, our collection of Asian Export Art tells a 1000-year history of maritime trade within Asia and trade between Asia and the rest of the world. In other words, the history (and art history) of the Maritime Silk Route, from 800 – 1900 AD.

Being produced primarily for export, Asian Export Art is cross-cultural, in that it is “East-West” (Asian-European), or “East-East” (Asian-Asian) in essence.

6-15 Tang 900vw2

Dragon-headed ewer, Tang Shipwreck Collection. 9th century. China.

Take this magnificent green-glazed ceramic dragon-headed ewer, for example, which comes from the Museum’s Tang Shipwreck (or Belitung Shipwreck) collection – a National Treasure and treasure of World Heritage. This is dated to the late Tang Dynasty. While the piece was made in China, its form is not Chinese at all but Sasanian Persian. It’s thus an “East-East” piece made by China for the Middle Eastern market in as early as the 800s AD!

1995-03897_dish w figures

Kraak blue and white dish with Persian ladies. 大型加橹瓷盘. Porcelain. Mid 17th century. Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, China.

Similarly, this blue-and-white kraak porcelain dish, made about 800 years later in the mid-1600s AD in China’s famed Jingdezhen 景德镇  kilns, features a pair of Persian ladies at centre, and was also probably made for the Middle Eastern market, i.e. “East-East”.

2011-01951_Hong bowl

Canton Hong Bowl, c. 1785. Porcelain. China.

Here’s a third piece – our Canton Hong Bowl. It was made in the 1700s AD for export by way of China’s great entrepôt port city of Canton (today’s Guangzhou 广州). In form, it is European – this is a punch bowl used at banquets in stately homes (the likes of Downton Abbey).  But this is Chinese porcelain. And it depicts a Chinese…well, a cross-cultural scene of European factories (or “hongs” 行) on the bustling Canton waterfront. This is classic “East-West” – Chinese export art made for the European market.

Up until recently, the Chinese museums and collectors were not quite so interested in collecting this stuff at all because it was seen as not being “Chinese enough”. But since the OBOR initiative, collectors and museums alike have been encouraged to get into the act.

There is now a proliferation of exhibitions in China featuring Chinese export porcelain and the Maritime Silk Road. In the past year, Chinese museums have also expressed tremendous interest in collaborating with the Asian Civilisations Museum on research and exhibitions featuring Chinese Export Ceramics 外销瓷, in particular, our Tang Shipwreck Collection.

As a matter of fact, at the recent Belt & Route Forum in May 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping preambled his OBOR speech with a reference to the Tang Shipwreck (which he referred to in Chinese as the 黑石号).

The speech was titled “Work Together to Build the Silk Road Economic Belt and The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”

And it’s worth quoting the specific passage in which the Tang Shipwreck appears (bold text mine):

“Over 2,000 years ago, our ancestors, trekking across vast steppes and deserts, opened the transcontinental passage connecting Asia, Europe and Africa, known today as the Silk Road. Our ancestors, navigating rough seas, created sea routes linking the East with the West, namely, the maritime Silk Road. These ancient silk routes opened windows of friendly engagement among nations, adding a splendid chapter to the history of human progress. The thousand-year-old “gilt bronze silkworm” displayed at China’s Shaanxi History Museum and the Belitung shipwreck discovered in Indonesia, bear witness to this exciting period of history.

Spanning thousands of miles and years, the ancient silk routes embody the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit. The Silk Road spirit has become a great heritage of human civilization.”

Unfortunately, the English version sounds far more functional than the sweeping and evocative Chinese version, also worth quoting:



Why are China and the Chinese suddenly interested in Asian, or rather, Chinese, Export Art (particularly the Tang Shipwreck)?

ONE: Because the millions of pieces of Chinese Export Art that exist in the world today are tangible proof of trade having taken place at a global scale for at least a millennium. In particular, the Tang Shipwreck is proof that huge volumes of trade took place within Asia long before the Europeans came with their colonialism and gunboat diplomacy.

TWO: Because China sat at the very centre of this global trade.  An overwhelming proportion of world trade in the past millennia was driven by worldwide demand for luxury goods produced in China – porcelain, in particular, but also lacquer, ivory, enamels and naturally, silk. This is notwithstanding China’s own traditional disdain for trade and for merchants. The maritime (and overland) silk routes were all about getting to China, and sourcing and buying as much as one could of its luxury products for resale elsewhere in the world.

THREE: When it comes to global trade in the historical longue durée, China, the Middle Kingdom, or 中国  was, as its proper name suggests, right at the centre.  China is keen to reclaim this central  position, and Chinese Export Art – and Asian Export Art in general really – provides tangible historical justification in the millions to support their claim.

Why should Singapore and Singaporeans be interested in Asian Export Art? 

FIRST: To understand our heritage and thus our competitive advantage better. The heritage of Asian Export Art is the heritage of trade and a cross-cultural heritage. So too, the heritage of Singapore. Each piece of Asian export ceramic mirrors us as a people – the product of trade and the crossing of cultures.

And a heritage of trade and a crossing of cultures can only be a competitive advantage in a new world order emphasising trade and – this is the crux of the matter – ALSO strongly emphasising the crossing of cultures.

SECOND: To get into China’s “mind”, so to speak. To understand China’s motivations better and strategise Singapore’s response. The Chinese are couching their contemporary global role and world order in terms of history and heritage, going so far as to get museums into the act.  Singapore must do the same – we must couch our own specific role and value to China and to the world in terms of history and heritage.

To secure our relevance (and survival), we have to bank on our history and our heritage.

This history and heritage is sitting at the museum.


I am tired of how all news and discourse pertaining to Islam and the Islamic world is overwhelmingly negative. I am tired of hearing about fundamentalism, about ISIS (Islamic State) and about terrorism.

I am not trivialising terrorism. It is important to stand vigilant and united against any acts of indiscriminate violence against the innocent.  I respect and salute security officers in the airports and public buildings of the world for keeping us safe.

But Islam and the civilisations of the Islamic World deserve better press. And really, ISIS and terrorism doesn’t NEED anymore publicity.

That’s why at Asian Civilisations Museum, we have decided, this October, to use our Islamic Art collection to turn around stereotypical notions of the Dar-al-Islam  دار الإسلام, or the Islamic World.

We want to remind our visitors, and the world, that the Islamic world, which at its height spanned the entire Eurasian continent from Spain to the Malay Archipelago, was a crucible of scientific invention, artistic excellence and intellectual progress.

In fact, Islam does not differentiate between sacred and secular knowledge. The word for knowledge – ilm علم – refers to both. For centuries, the Islamic world was far superior to that of Christian Europe, in the fields of mathematics, science and astrology and also in terms of architecture, craftsmanship and the arts.

In the lead-up to the re-opening of our permanent galleries dedicated to Islamic Art, Asian Civilisations Museum is presenting highlights from our Islamic Art collection; masterpieces that recall the brilliance and beauty of Islamic civilisation in Asia.

Here is a sampling.


Planispheric astrolabe. Iran, 18th century. Brass alloy.

The astrolabe as a scientific instrument, was invented by the Greeks around 220 BC, and inherited by the Arabs and the Persians. An astrolabe is a computational device that represents the three-dimensional sky as a two-dimensional model. The positions of different celestial bodies, including stars, are marked on the plates. By aligning different parts of the astrolabe, one can calculate the time, as well as past and future events, and determine geographic locations.

Medieval Muslim scientists developed new features which can be observed on this specimen: shadow squares for solving trigonometry problems and a universal plate with markings for both equatorial and ecliptic coordinate systems.


Parts of the astrolabe I. Note beautiful, and elaborate tassel-like details.


Parts of the astrolabe II. The names of constellations are etched on the surface in Arabic script.

Aside from being a scientific instrument, this astrolabe is also a magnificent work of art. When it’s taken apart, one can observe the remarkable precision and craftsmanship that went into its casting and creation.


Casket. India, Gujarat, late 16th or 17th century. Mother-of-pearl, mastic resin, wood, metal mounts.

This is a casket made in Gujarat, India in the late 16th – 17th centuries.  It is an exquisite jewel of a piece, consisting of a wooden base, inlaid with shimmering mother-of-pearl. The decoration of this casket is testimony to the materials and specialised skills used by artists in western India who made objects for Islamic markets in the Middle East and Mughal India, as well as for Europe. Finely cut mother-of-pearl was regarded as a wonder in Renaissance Europe and the Islamic world. Pieces in shades of pink, green, and silver were carefully selected to create variety and colour gradations.

Around the four sides of the object, a Persian love poem is inscribed in sensuous, curling nasta’līq نستعلیق script.


Qur’an, probably Java. 18th century. Paper, ink, gold, pigments.

Nowhere are the sacred and the secular arts more wondrously combined than in the tradition of illuminated Qur’ans. Here we have a splendid 18th century illuminated Qur’an with Arabic calligraphy contained within an exuberantly coloured and ornamented double frame.

This Qur’an comes from the Malay Archipelago – we know this because the specific technique of using a double embellished frame features in Javanese Qur’ans. Decorated double-spreads such as these occur at the beginning and end of the Qur’an, and frequently, a third decorated spread appears in the middle.

These and more are on display at the museum till mid 2018.

In the meantime, I celebrate my first full year on the job, and look forward to the next.


Come to the ACM!

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, Landmarks & History, Museums, Singapore and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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