Revisiting the Jewel of Muscat

Remember this?

Yes, it’s the Jewel of Muscat! It is a reconstruction of the Belitung shipwreck built by the Sultanate of Oman and then sailed to Singapore as a gift. I was aboard her when she called at Georgetown in 2010; now it is on permanent display at the Maritime Experiential Museum and Aquarium (MEMA) in Sentosa.

I visited the Maritime Experiential Museum last week on a field trip with the participants from the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre Field School. The museum is fairly new, having opened just last year and some of the exhibits (such as the aquarium and some of the reconstructed ships) are not yet ready.

Prof. John Miksic talking to students from the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre Field School participants at the Maritime Experiential Museum

Outside the museum, one can board several reconstructed ships from the region. The first is the Javanese Jong (which is the root for the word ‘Junk’) while the second might be familiar to Indonesianists – it is a reconstruction of the ship from the relief of the Borobudur. Only these two ships were on display at the moment, but there will eventually be five altogether.

Reconstruction of a Javanese Jong

Reconstruction of a Javanese Jong

The Borobudur, a reconstruction of the famous ship relief found on Borobudur

The Borobudur, a reconstruction of the famous ship relief found on Borobudur

Inside the museum, one is first introduced to Admiral Zheng He and his voyage from China to Africa and back. Along the way, galleries explore the major ports of call along Zheng He’s route, including Malacca, Galle and Muscat.

The lobby of the museum is a mock-up of Zheng He's Bao Chuan, or treasure ship

The lobby of the museum is a mock-up of Zheng He's Bao Chuan, or treasure ship

The gallery takes one through the major ports Zheng He would have called at on the way to the west, including Malacca, Galle and Muscat.

The gallery takes one through the major ports Zheng He would have called at on the way to the west, including Malacca, Galle and Muscat.

The Jewel of Muscat is the main focus of the next section of the museum, which incorporates the Typhoon Theatre, a multi-sensory ‘ride’ that takes you on an ill-fated ship on the way to Arabia. Some suspension of belief is required here: while the Jewel is an Arab-style ship, the story portrays the seafarers as Chinese. Who speak with American accents. The movie also has Chinese subtitles.

The Jewel of Muscat

The Jewel of Muscat

The Jewel of Muscat

Introduction video to the Typhoon Theatre

Chinese costumes + American accents + Chinese subtitles + maximum campiness = hilarity.

At the end of the show, one emerges at the basement, into the real ‘meat’ of the museum – a small gallery featuring the underwater archaeology of the Bakau Shipwreck, found in the waters between Sumatra and Borneo, as well as some artefacts from Singapore.

At the end of the Typhoon Theatre, you experience sinking into the depths of the ocean as the Belitung wreck. You emerge at the underwater archaeology gallery, featuring artefacts from the Bakau Shipwreck. Bloop bloop.

At the end of the Typhoon Theatre, you experience sinking into the depths of the ocean as the Belitung wreck. You emerge at the underwater archaeology gallery, featuring artefacts from the Bakau Shipwreck. Bloop bloop.

Artefacts from the Bakau shipwreck, found at the Karimata Strait between Sumatra and Borneo. Dates to the 15th century, around the same time as Zheng He.

Artefacts from the Bakau shipwreck, found at the Karimata Strait between Sumatra and Borneo. Dates to the 15th century, around the same time as Zheng He.

Bronze 15th century Buddha Head, probably from Thailand. Found in Punggol (northeast Singapore)

Bronze 15th century Buddha Head, probably from Thailand. Found in Punggol (northeast Singapore)

I’ll come right out and say it – the MEMA is altogether too Disneylandish. Unsurprising, since it’s located right beside the Universal Studios theme park. The narrative of the museum is pretty jumbled: starting from Zheng He, jumping backwards in time to the Jewel of Muscat, and then forwards in time again to the Bakau shipwreck. You also have to be slightly worried when the gift store area is about the same size as the exhibition space. Even worse, when said gift store contains all the kitch and nothing by way of a single book about shipwrecks or underwater archaeology or any books at all. People expecting a museum store will be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, the actual artefacts are pretty impressive. Just ignore the computer-generated imagery and the re-enacted dramatizations and you might actually learn something.

The Maritime Experiential Museum and Aquarium is part of Resorts World Singapore on Sentosa Island. Visiting information can be found here.

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