How Not to Decolonize Your Museum

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Thomas Stamford Raffles. Source: Asian Civilisations Museum
Thomas Stamford Raffles. Source: Asian Civilisations Museum
Thomas Stamford Raffles. Source: Asian Civilisations Museum

via Hyperallergic, 26 Mar 2019: A critical piece about the Raffles exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum (see other reviews here and here), but the headline is unfair – it suggests that the exhibition sets out to ‘decolonize’ the museum (for whatever that means) in the first place.

Three large billboards loom beside the gates of Singapore’s Raffles Place metro station, advertising the Asian Civilisations Museum’s latest special exhibition, Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman. The billboards feature several taglines about the metro station’s namesake: “Plagiarist or pioneer? Leader or liar? Scholar or scoundrel?” The tone here is barbed, suggestive, inviting us to reconsider our understanding of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), a British colonial administrator now branded in history textbooks as the founder of Singapore and a national hero: a figure whose legacy includes an international healthcare conglomerate, the state’s most prestigious high school, and, yes, a subway station. While the museum’s marketing team deserves kudos for getting the ball rolling in a long overdue public reconsideration of Raffles’ legacy, the exhibition unfortunately turns out to be entirely different from what is promised, lacking the bite and verve of its advertising campaign.

Source: How Not to Decolonize Your Museum

Revisiting Raffles exhibition reveals what an ignoramus Raffles really was

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The guardian Mahakala as depicted in The History of Java, and in actuality. Source: SG Magazine, 20190207
The guardian Mahakala as depicted in The History of Java, and in actuality. Source: SG Magazine, 20190207

via SG Magazine, 07 Feb 2019: A review of the Raffles in Southeast Asia exhibition currently at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore until 28 April. You can check out my review here.

Curated in collaboration with the British Museum in London, the exhibition consists mostly of Javanese and Sumatran objects Raffles personally collected, employing him as a frame to explore the encounter between the British, Dutch, Javanese, and Malay peoples here in the Malay Archipelago. It grounds notions of the colonial ruler as a collector of natural history and culture from Southeast Asia, before subverting them with new possibilities—that he was exploitative, wrongfully pompous; even a plagiariser.

Source: Revisiting Raffles exhibition reveals what an ignoramus Raffles really was | SG Magazine Online

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.

Public Lecture: Raffles, Archaeology and the British in Indonesia

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In conjunction with an exhibition of Raffles’ Letters around the founding of Singapore, Professor John Miksic will give a talk about the man and his efforts to study ancient Southeast Asia.

Raffles, Archaeology and the British in Indonesia
Date: 24 November 2012, Saturday
Time: 2pm to 4pm
Venue: National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street Singapore 188064, Possibility Room, Level 5
Registration is required:
Admission: Free
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