Raffles in Southeast Asia: A multilayered exploration of the man, colonialism and re-looking our past

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Last week while I was back in Singapore I took the opportunity to visit the Raffles in Southeast Asia exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum. The exhibition coincided with Singapore’s bicentennial celebrations, a “celebration” that has been met with mixed reception because it commemorates the arrival of Raffles to Singapore, and hence the colonial period of Singapore.

The arrival of Raffles has traditionally been the start of beginning of the history of Singapore. This view has softened somewhat, due in no small part to Prof. John Miksic’s work on the archaeology of Singapore. With the discoveries at Fort Canning, school history books now acknowledge the Temasek period. Still, the idea of Raffles as founder of modern Singapore carries an air of preeminence and prestige, and some of the country’s top schools and institutions bear the name of Raffles.

The bicentennary, Raffles, the discourse of (de)colonisation and rejection of the ‘Big Man’ myth of Raffles all come together in this one exhibition. On one level, Singaporeans only learned about the Raffles who came to Singapore in 1819 but never knew the Raffles who was Governor of Java and his role in the rediscovery of Borobudur. Raffles never actually went to the now-Unesco world heritage site, but he commissioned the survey and is now credited for its discovery. This unearned claim to fame would be a recurrent theme in his career.

Plan of Borobudur, donated by to the British Museum by the great-grand-niece of Raffles but probably prepared by Hermann Cornelius, the Dutch engineer sent by Raffles to uncover the stupa.

The exhibition, through the lens of Raffles’ seminal History of Java and the items collected by Raffles and his contemporaries show a bias towards ancient Hindu relics but pay little attention to Muslim culture.

A collection of rare three-dimensional puppets which were owned by Raffles but not mentioned in The History of Java.
Painting of Candi Sukuh in East Java by T. C. Watson, during the time Raffles was Governor of Java. The Europeans at the time did not believe that the native Javanese were capable of building structures like these, and thought they might be related to the Egyptian civilization which is reflected in the painting.

Some of Raffles’ personal flaws also come through, now with 200 years of hindsight and other historical sources to draw upon. This story of the tapir publication is quite telling about Raffles’s conflict with his second, William Farquhar. Farquhar arguably should be credited as the actual founder of the Singapore settlement (having done the actual legwork) but even the named after him was erased in the 1990s, a victim of Singapore’s urban redevelopment. William Farquhar’s legacy was more recently redeemed in Nadia Wright’s book, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow

Juvenile Malayan tapir from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, National University of Singapore
I love this caption basically says Raffles was a dick.

Raffles in Southeast Asia was enjoyable in many layers. For many Singaporeans, it was an eye-opener to the influence of Raffles on the rest of the region and not just the country he ‘founded’. The exhibition can also be seen as a critique to the legacy of colonialism, and how its perspective was selective in many ways.

Raffles in Southeast Asia is on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum until 28 April 2019. Admission fees apply.

Asian Civilisations Museum to open 3 new galleries for Christian Art, Islamic Art, and Ancestors and Rituals

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via Straits Times, 27 November 2018: New galleries in the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.

The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) will open three new permanent galleries for Christian Art, Islamic Art, and Ancestors and Rituals on Saturday (Dec 1).

These galleries, found on the second level of the museum, will show how systems of faith and belief spread across Asia, and how traditions of religious art adapted as a result.

Among the highlights are a 17th century sculpture of the Virgin Mary with possible Chinese, Filipino and Mexican influences; an ornate 19th century Quran made in Terengganu; and a hornbill carving by Sarawak’s Iban community.

Source: Asian Civilisations Museum to open 3 new galleries for Christian Art, Islamic Art, and Ancestors and Rituals, Arts News & Top Stories – The Straits Times

Call for Applications – Asian Civilisations Museum Research Fellowship 2019

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Postdoc opportunity from the Asian Civilisations Museum! Deadline is 15 December 2018.

Organizing institution(s): Asian Civilisations Museum Singapore
Deadline: 15 December 2018
Location: Singapore
Description: The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Singapore invites post-doctoral scholars to apply for fellowships in Material studies, Material culture studies, Museological studies, Trade, Singapore community heritage, Peranakan / Mixed heritage research, Cities/Urban studies, Intangible cultural heritage.

For more details and to download the application form, please visit https://www.acm.org.sg/research. To know more about the ACM’s collections, please go to http://roots.sg/learn/collections

For enquiries not answered in the information sheet, please contact: Secretariat, ACM Research Fellowship, nhb_acm_rpu@nhb.gov.sg

Angkor exhibition at Asian Civilisations Museum extended till July 29

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via The Straits Times, 09 July 2018:

Lifestyle News -SINGAPORE – The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) has extended its exhibition Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City by a week till July 29, 2018.. Read more at straitstimes.com.

Source: Angkor exhibition at Asian Civilisations Museum extended till July 29, Lifestyle News & Top Stories – The Straits Times

Angkor’s ‘modern history’ with France reveals the politics of art

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via Euronews, 07 May 2018: An interview with Dr Stephen Murphy, a personal friend and one of the curators of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore about the ongoing Angkor exhibition.

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore has decided to unveil this extraordinary story with its latest exhibit — and in an interview with Euronews.

Source: Angkor’s ‘modern history’ with France reveals the politics of art

Angkor Events at the Asian Civilisations Museum

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In conjunction with the exhibition, Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City that is currently on at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, there are a number of associated events upcoming in May and June:

  • 11 May 2018, The invisible paintings of Angkor Wat: This is me! I’m pleased to be talking about my discovery and research on the invisible paintings of Angkor Wat.
  • 18-19 May 2018, Exploring Angkor Symposium: A special symposium organised in collaboration with the Guimet Museum, with a number of speakers including Pierre Baptiste, Alison Carter, Chhay Rachna, Darith Ea, Martin Polkinghorne, Paul Lavy, Miriam Stark, Olivier Cunin, Stephen Murphy, Kong Vireak, Sok Sangvar, D. Kyle Latinis, and Damian Evans
  • 8 June 2018, Angkorian medical industries: Recent excavations at the Tonle Snguot Hospital Site, Siem Reap, Cambodia: D. Kyle Latinis will be talking about the recent excavation at Tonle Sngout and the spectacular finds discovered there, such as a 2m-tall statue of a dvarapala and a medicine Buddha.

Art from Angkor Wat at Asian Civilisations Museum

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via Straits Times, 04 April 2018:

Arts News -SINGAPORE – On Sunday (April 8), the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) opens a showcase of ancient Khmer art from the Guimet Museum in Paris. Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City runs until July 22.. Read more at straitstimes.com.

Source: Art from Angkor Wat at Asian Civilisations Museum, Arts News & Top Stories – The Straits Times

Bronze goddess statue returned to India

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Returned bronze statue of Uma. Source: Straits Times 20151106

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore has officially handed the 11th century bronze statue of Uma to India, after it was identified as stolen during the investigation of antiquities dealer Subash Kapoor.

Returned bronze statue of Uma. Source: Straits Times 20151106

Returned bronze statue of Uma. Source: Straits Times 20151106

Asian Civilisations Museum hands back sculpture identified as stolen to India
Straits Times, 06 November 2015

Asian Civilisations Museum returns 11th century sculpture to India
Today, 07 November 2015

The Asian Civilisations Museum has returned to the Indian authorities an 11th-century bronze sculpture in its possesion, which has been identified as stolen from India.

The museum had last month informed the Archaeological Survey of India and the High Commission of India to Singapore of its plan to return the religious icon depicting the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshwari.

The sculpture is among hundreds of stolen cultural artefacts amounting to over $148 million in an ongoing international art smuggling case. They are believed to have been looted and sold to museums by disgraced New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, 65, who is awaiting trial in India on charges of theft and smuggling.

Full story here and here.