Our new ACM Treasures – Collection Highlights publication just hit the shelves! It serves as our interim “Best of Asian Civilisations Museum” catalogue, until our permanent galleries are completely finished and re-opened in end 2019. In my Introduction to the catalogue – shared here – I articulate the new Mission of the museum, and describe how the Mission will be manifested in the permanent galleries. I hope you enjoy the read.
ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM – SINGAPORE’S MUSEUM OF ASIA
Singapore’s heritage is that of an open, cosmopolitan Asian port city. For hundreds of years, it has been at the crossroads of global trade, and a site of interaction for cultures and civilisations from across the globe.
It is a maritime heritage, in that it has more to do with sea, port, and shipping network, than with land, fortress, and hinterland. It is also, by nature, a global heritage, since little of this heritage is indigenous to Singapore alone. It was brought to Singapore by the very maritime networks that carried people, goods, and culture here from all over the world.
What is unique about Singapore’s heritage is that many aspects of it have roots elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Asia, and the rest of the world. And it is in the mixing of them, on a tiny Southeast Asian island just over 700 square metres in area, that a Singaporean heritage – hybrid and multicultural at its core – was born.
That Singapore’s heritage is global may seem self-evident, since Singapore’s contemporary brand continues to be global and multicultural at the core, with maritime and hybrid implicit in this globalised multiculturalism. But conceptions of a global Singapore have only just begun to include elements of history and heritage. Prevailing narratives, official and academic, have, until recently, tended to focus narrowly and self-consciously on SINGAPORE as an end in itself, rather than Singapore in the context of a larger Southeast Asian and Asian region, or in the context of the even larger historical perspectives of global trade and migration. This inward-oriented reflection is only natural, since Singapore is a young nation-state. So some fifty-odd years after it became an independent republic, it is only now starting to tackle questions of meaning and (national) identity.
It was with the intent of reflecting Singapore’s maritime, global, hybrid and multicultural heritage, and of contextualising Singapore’s heritage against broader historical and art historical movements in Asia and the world, that the Asian Civilisations Museum recently reviewed and shifted its curatorial approach.
When the museum opened its doors in 1997 at the former Tao Nan School on Armenian Street, and in 2003 at its new Empress Place premises, ACM was structured like a typical Asian Art Museum. That is, the permanent galleries were organised by geography: China, West Asia/Islamic World, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The motivation behind this geographical orientation was representation: it ensured that each of Singapore’s ancestral cultures (Chinese, Malay, Indian) had their histories told. The inclusion of a Southeast Asian gallery was critical, of course, since Singapore is squarely within that region.
That format served its time well. Many visitors fondly recall the “old ACM”, with its atmospheric gallery spaces and displays of exquisite textiles, jewellery, and ethnological material. But others thought the galleries too dark, and too creepy, when confronted with ritual and funerary objects and so much religious statuary.
In 2011, spurred by currents in the academic world, the ACM was the first museum in the region (and one of the first in the world) to shift its curatorial direction from a geographical orientation to a thematic approach. Drawing on Singapore’s intrinsic nature as a cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-religious trading hub and port city, the collecting strategy and the permanent galleries are being re-oriented in terms of three broad themes – Trade, Faith and Belief, and Materials and Design.
Fortunately, around the same time, ACM received a significant injection of funding, both public and private, towards object acquisition and for a refresh of the permanent galleries, as well as for construction of two new wings. This meant that the new curatorial approach could be implemented, and a total re-organisation of the permanent galleries could begin.
Today’s ACM is truly “Singapore’s Museum of Asia”, as the tag line declares. The museum presents the history and art history of Asia through the lens of Singapore. Our mission is to foster understanding of the diverse heritage cultures of Singapore, their interconnections, and their connections with the world. Our new thematically organised galleries emphasise networks and flows of people, ideas, belief systems, and artistic traditions rather than national and regional borders and boundaries.
Galleries on the first level tell the story of Trade and the Maritime Silk Routes.
The story begins in the ninth century, with the Tang Shipwreck. The more than 1000 pieces of ceramics, gold, and silver displayed in the Khoo Teck Puat Gallery tell the tale of the bustling Indian Ocean trade, and of globalisation long before the term was coined. Nearly 1100 years ago, an Arab ship bearing a precious cargo of ceramics, gold, silver (and probably silk and tea) set sail from the port of Canton (today’s Guangzhou) bound, probably, for Basra, main port in the Abbasid Empire, and then onwards by camel caravan to the fabled city of Baghdad and beyond. But the ship never made it. Just off the shores of Sumatra, near the island of Belitung, the ship sank, and remained untouched until discovered by chance in 1998.
The tale continues in the Maritime Trade Galleries, which present Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian ceramics, much of it made for export. Objects on display reveal the world’s enduring fascination and love for Chinese porcelain, and how in attempting to imitate Chinese porcelain, Europeans, Middle-Easterners, Japanese, and Southeast Asians created new forms that gained popularity as well. Alongside ceramics, Asian furniture and decorative arts for the export market are also on display. The inclusion of maps and views of Canton, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Batavia, Nagasaki, and Manila further explore the history of the cosmopolitan Asian port cities that came before Singapore, and add context to the displays of ceramics and decorative arts.
South Asian trade is featured in the Court and Company Galleries. Masterpieces of Indian and Sri Lankan export furniture, trade textiles, and decorative arts tell of the burgeoning trade carried on by the various European East India companies – the Portuguese Estado da Índia based in Goa, the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (VOC) at Batavia, and the English East India Company. Company trade is contrasted against domestic demand – exquisite Indian miniatures and courtly decorative arts made for the Mughal, Rajput, and Deccan courts.
Second-level galleries present systems of Faith and Belief; their origins in Asia, their spread across the continent by land and by sea, and their localisation each step of the way.
The Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Gallery of Ancient Religions features the grand religions of India – Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Masterpieces of sculpture, painting, and ritual objects trace the spread of these ancient religions across trade routes from India to China, and on to Southeast Asia.
The Christian Art Gallery explores Christian works of art used or made in Asia. Many objects on display are products of cross-cultural artistic exchanges between Asia and Europe. They tell the stories of cultural diversity and religious tolerance, and show how encounters with other religions can precipitate the creation of exquisite works of art.
The Islamic Art Gallery presents objects produced by cultural environments configured by Islamic values and sensibilities. Ritual, secular, courtly, and scientific objects showcase the myriad artistic traditions across the Islamic world. In particular, a strength of our collection is its focus on Southeast Asian objects, which typically do not feature in canonical art historical treatises on Islamic art.
The Southeast Asia Gallery takes an ethnographic and anthropological approach in presenting mainstream and animistic cultures and traditions of both mainland and island Southeast Asia. Contextualised displays of sculpture, textiles, and ritual objects reveal the rich diversity and hybridity of cultures and traditions in the region.
The Scholar’s Gallery, housed in the Kwek Hong Png Wing, explores Chinese systems of belief, philosophy, and ritual, some of it derived from Confucian ideas of propriety, through presentation of the courtly arts and objects collected and admired by scholars of the literati tradition. Many of these traditions still survive in some form in many Asian countries. Furniture, calligraphy and paintings, along with decorative arts, reveal the taste and pursuits of scholars and those who would emulate them.
Galleries on the third floor feature Asian Materials and Design.
The Fashion and Textiles Gallery adopts a pan-Asian approach in surveying and exploring different textile traditions in Asia, including Indian trade textiles, Southeast Asian batiks, and Chinese embroideries, among others. Historical women’s and men’s fashions are juxtaposed, with grand robes worn by Chinese princes and officials presented alongside the sophisticated and elegant silhouette of the Southeast Asian sarong kebaya.
The Jewellery Gallery examines jewellery-making traditions and practices throughout Asia. The timeline spans the neolithic period to the twentieth century. An emphasis will be on hybrid forms of jewellery, in line with the larger thematic focus on flows of people and artistic traditions and practices. Imperial styles of jewellery, from the Mughal, Javanese, and Chinese courts, sit alongside equally spectacular vernacular pieces. Wedding regalia and Southeast Asian tribal gold are among the highlights.
Finally, the Ceramics Gallery presents a comprehensive survey of Chinese ceramics from the Han through the Qing dynasty. In particular, we feature ACM’s excellent collection of pure-white Dehua porcelain, known historically in the European tradition as blanc de chine.
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At present, the museum is still completing its multi-year refresh, and the full vision of the new curatorial approach will not be implemented in the physical museum spaces until end 2019. This publication, therefore, provides the visitor – local and international – with a glimpse of the future ACM.
The structure of the publication follows the structure of ACM’s permanent galleries, with sections dedicated to Trade, Faith and Belief, and Materials and Design. Within each section, chapters mapping onto present and future gallery spaces present masterpieces and other highlights from our collection.
The reader will find that many of the objects are cross-cultural, meaning that they are hybrid – “east-west” or “east-east” sorts of things – essentially mixed, just like Singapore and many of its residents. Our key message is that Asia, like Singapore, has always been cross-cultural. No culture or religion in Asia has ever existed in isolation, but rather, the grand world civilisations have always interacted with and mutually enriched each other.
This publication would not have been possible without funding and support from the Singapore Government, private corporations, foundations, and many individuals. ACM wishes to thank the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, Singapore; the National Heritage Board of Singapore; the Asian Civilisations Museum Advisory Board and Acquisition Committee; and our many major donors and patrons. Your generosity and unwavering support has allowed ACM to build up one of the most exceptional collections in the region.
I also have to thank my predecessor, former ACM director Dr Alan Chong and former chief curator Dr Pedro Moura Carvalho, who masterminded the shift in the museum’s curatorial approach, and who, with their keen eyes for beauty and sense of history, selected and acquired many of the artworks featured in this volume.
Welcome to Asian Civilisations Museum! I hope the reader is inspired by the beauty and history contained in these pages, and will come pay us a visit in person.