Last chance to catch Sumatra: Isle of Gold

The Sumatra: Isle of Gold has been exhibiting at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore since the end of July, but I hadn’t had the chance to take a visit because of some reason or another. But finally, I had the chance to catch the exhibition this morning, and lucky thing too – the exhibition is going to close this Sunday!

Sumatra: Isle of Gold


Sumatra is the western gateway for the maritime journey to Southeast Asia, and given that we know of Indic influences from the early centuries CE, it’s not surprising that we see many signs of cultural exchange. It’s this theme of cultural exchange and influences from external forces that shapes the exhibition. The exhibition is the first international travelling exhibition on Sumatran culture, and features exhibits from the collections of the ACM, the National Museum of Indonesia and the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.

The earliest exhibits show influences from the west, north and east in the form of some carnelian beads, a bronze vessel, and bronze earrings reminiscent of ling-ling-o.

Carnelian beads from Pasemah, South Sumatra. Probably of Indian origin.
Carnelian beads from Pasemah, South Sumatra. Probably of Indian origin.
Bronze Vessel found in Kerinci, Jambi Province
Bronze Vessel found in Kerinci, Jambi Province
Bronze earrings from Sumatra, looking very similar to linglingo found across Southeast Asia, and probably originating east and north of Sumatra.
Bronze earrings from Sumatra, looking very similar to linglingo found across Southeast Asia, and probably originating east and north of Sumatra.

The visitor is invited to view each of the cultural influences in turn; from a central hub, the visitor can enter smaller galleries featuring the Indian, Chinese, Islamic, Regional and European influences found in Sumatra.

Exhibition hall for Sumatra: Isle of Gold

In the Indian influences gallery, among the featured artefacts are statues and bronzes from the Srivijayan period, and the original Bangka Inscription on loan from the National Museum of Indonesia. I had featured the Bangka inscription on an earlier post.

Sculpture showing Indian influences from the Sumatra: Isle of Gold exhibition
Sculpture showing Indian influences from the Sumatra: Isle of Gold exhibition
This wall relief is described as a dancer wearing an elephant mask. Does anyone know why this is identified as a dancer and not Ganesha?
This wall relief is described as a dancer wearing an elephant mask. Does anyone know why this is identified as a dancer and not Ganesha?
Kota Kapur Incsription from Bangka Island
Kota Kapur Incsription from Bangka Island

The exhibition also features some of the royal regalia and bling from the Sultanates of Aceh, Siak and Riau-Lingga.

Royal artefacts from the Sultanate of Riau-Lingga
Royal artefacts from the Sultanate of Riau-Lingga
Gold seal from the Sultan of Aceh
Gold seal from the Sultan of Aceh

While the exhibition talks a lot about the outside influences, we mustn’t forget that Sumatra also already holds a tremendous amount of diversity within its native peoples – the home to groups such as the Bataks, the Minangkabau and the Nias islanders.

Batak carvings featuring the singa motif
Batak carvings featuring the singa motif
Ancestor figure from Toba, north Sumatra
Ancestor figure from Toba, north Sumatra

Sumatra: Isle of Gold is exhibiting at the Asian Civilisations Museum until Nov 7, which is the end of the week. If you’re in Singapore, catch it while you still can! We also remember that Sumatra was last week struck by a tsunami that had claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed as many as 10 villages. At the same time, Indonesia is also dealing with the destruction following the eruption of Mt Merapi in Java. Please consider donating to the Indonesian Red Cross to help with the aid efforts – they accept both local and US dollar donations.

Special thanks to the Asian Civilisations Museum and Binjin for permission to photograph in the gallery.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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