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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.