Get us in your inbox

Search
ACM
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar

These are the hidden gems you can find at Asian Civilisations Museum

Get to know the history of the region through these lesser-known artefacts

Dewi Nurjuwita
Written by
Dewi Nurjuwita
Advertising
Nestled along the banks of the iconic Singapore River, The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is an iconic landmark in the Civic District. Beyond its historical architecture, which was once home to the former Empress Place Building, it houses stunning artefacts that explore the artistic heritage of Asia. With over 13 permanent galleries, it may be overwhelming for a first-timer. We spoke to Richard Lingner, Assistant Director of Editorial & Interpretation, who showed us his top lesser-known picks at the museum. 

The curators tell us more

The Chinese and English Instructor
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar

The Chinese and English Instructor

WHO Clement Onn. Principal Curator, Asian Export Art and Peranakan at Asian Civilisations Museum

Can you give us a brief introduction of the artefact? 

Phrase books like these helped Chinese merchants and
compradors (agents for foreigners) deal with the
increasing presence of English-speaking foreigners in
Guangzhou and other port cities in the 19th century. The
different volumes are organised by topics. There are
situational dialogues useful in commercial exchanges.
Negotiations over hiring, chartering, renting, inventory
checking, and so forth are listed in detail.

The text was written by Tang Tingshu, a comprador in
Guangzhou. He compiled it in response to the frequently
asked questions that arose during his time working with
foreign traders at Jardine, Matheson and Co., the largest
foreign trading company in Asia. They traded in opium,
cotton, tea, silk, and a variety of other goods.

What insight can this give about maritime trade in the region?

We are living and working in a technologically advanced, modern, and globalised society. When we think about international business and dealing with business partners who might not speak a common language, we have the convenience of smart technology today that could instantaneously translate an email or a social media post at a high degree of comprehensibility. Nonetheless, a good interpreter or someone who is well versed in the required languages is still extremely important to build relationships, eliminate ambiguity and to deal with matters that could be lost in translation. These phrase books are extremely practical, and they gave a sense of how people communicated for business in the mid-19th century. Such business scenes would be very similar during 19th and early 20th century Singapore.

Vessantara Jataka scroll
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar

Vessantara Jataka scroll

WHO Conan Cheong. Curator, Southeast Asia at
Asian Civilisations Museum

Can you give us a brief introduction of the artefact? 

This 31-metre-long cloth scroll tells the story of the Buddha’s former life as the generous Prince Vessantara, and was carried in processions with dancing and music during the Bun Phra Wet festival celebrated by Thai-Lao people in Ubon Ratchathani, Northeast Thailand. We rotate this scroll every six months, so come back regularly to see the story unravel!

Can you tell us more about the artist who painted the scroll? 

Sopha Pangchat shows his deep understanding of Buddhist doctrine in this painting, identifying for the viewer the locations and characters depicted, and even the words they are saying – just like a comic book! The bright colours and abundance of details, like the exotic birds and animals in the forest, were used by the artist to draw his viewers into the story. Artists in Northeast Thailand are still producing these scrolls today.

Why is it an important addition to the gallery?

Buddhism is a living tradition, and the Buddhist doctrine is practised in a multitude of ways all over the world. This scroll, commissioned and donated to make merit by six families in Ubon Ratchathani province in Northeast Thailand to the temple in Ban Tha Pho Sri, is an important example of the very particular way that the Thai-Lao people continue to retell the story of Prince Vessantara, which is known to Buddhists all over the world. We hope it gives visitors a different perspective on what Buddhist art can be. 

Advertising
Prayer chart
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar

Prayer chart

WHO Noorashikin Zulkifli. Senior Curator, Islamic Art 

Can you give us a brief introduction of the artefact? 

Prayers five times a day is a pillar of Islam for all believers. Yet this chart features six clockfaces and seven rows in the timetable. The sixth clockface only applies during the holy month of Ramadan. Drawing from the hadith (prophetic traditions), this time is known as imsak in Malay and serves as a signal for Muslims to stop eating and drinking in preparation for the day’s fast ahead. Set at some time before dawn prayers, the interval is usually calculated as the time it would take to recite 50 Qur’anic verses. The handwritten timetable lists all five prayer times and imsak. The seventh time in the last row is known as syuruk which marks the start of sunrise and the end of dawn prayers.

What can visitors learn about the Muslim community in Singapore through this chart?

This prayer chart came from a mosque in Kampung Wak Sumang in Punggol. The mosque was demolished in 1995 as Kampung Wak Sumang made way for redevelopment. It is said to be one of the older settlements in Singapore, already in existence when the British arrived in 1819. One of the typical naming forms for a kampung (settlement) is to name it after its founder – in this case, Wak Sumang, purportedly a Javanese warrior. This highlights the heterogeneous ethnic makeup of the community simply known as Malays today, who form the majority of Muslims in Singapore.

The handwritten chart also highlights the role of Arabic script in Malay Muslim life in Singapore. Outside of the religious sphere, Malay Muslims had adopted and adapted the Arabic script for writing Malay (called Jawi). This was the main script for over 500 years until the mainstream switch to the Romanised alphabet in mid-twentieth century. Jawi is much less used nowadays and is perceived to be relegated to the religious sphere. 

Hampatong Guardian figure dressed in Western military uniform
Photograph: Daniel Iskandar

Hampatong Guardian figure dressed in Western military uniform

WHO Muhammad Faisal Husni. Assistant Curator, Island Southeast Asia

Can you briefly tell us about the artefact? 

Many Dayak communities erect wooden figures at the entrances of their homes and down paths, namely those leading from their villages to the rivers. These figures are often called hampatong. They may prevent ills such as sickness and evil spirits from entering a community. This particular hampatong may have been made by a craftsman from a Ngaju community.

What is unique about this figure compared to others from Borneo during this time period? 

Hampatong sculptures are carved to often represent ancestors or even protective guardians. Some may even be in animal forms. Yet even within this diversity of shapes a hampatong may take, this particular ironwood hampatong is still somewhat unique. It had been carved wearing what appears to be a Dutch military uniform, accessorized with a cap, machete and even a pocket watch.

Though not the only western colonial influence in Borneo, Dutch colonial enterprises and control had had a notable presence in the Island’s history even up till the mid 20th century. Thus, this would have most likely been the lived reality of this hampatong’s anonymous maker. And while it is difficult to be certain as to why the craftsman had decided on this image, one possibility is to appropriate the symbolic power of the Dutch and using it for the protection and benefit of their own community.

And perched right on the top ,and holding a cup, is a monkey- like figure. Images of monkeys appear often on the different hampatong. While interpretations on their significance to the different Dayak communities may vary, they may be viewed as protective guardians or as auspicious symbols.

Advertising
Bowl with resist floral design
Photograph: Asian Civilisations Museum

Bowl with resist floral design

WHO Conan Cheong. Curator, Southeast Asia 

Can you briefly tell us about this artefact? 

This bowl was used for drinking tea during the Song Dynasty in China, when the “whipped tea” method was all the rage – tea cakes are ground into a fine powder, then stirred in boiling water with a whisk. Tea connoisseurs believed that the white tea froth produced by this method was best appreciated in black-glazed tea bowls like this one. Imported into Japan and valued in tea ceremonies, they became known as “tenmoku bowls”.

What makes the design of this bowl unique?

The motif of birds and branches on this bowl was created using a resist method. Cut-paper patterns are laid onto a layer of wet black glaze on the bowl, before being fired in the kiln. When the paper burns away upon being fired, the oxides in the ash leaves behind a lighter pattern in the black glaze. The Jizhou kilns in Jiangxi province, as well as the Jian kilns in Fujian province, were known for these types of decorative innovations in glazing tea bowls in the 12th and 13th centuries.

What is the importance of ceramics in China? 

It is difficult to summarise the importance of such a large and varied tradition of ceramic-making in China – perhaps of particular relevance to ACM’s focus on cross-cultural exchange in art is the worldwide demand for Chinese ceramics dating to the Tang dynasty or earlier, and the way every culture encountering Chinese ceramics has left their mark on it in their own way. The Tang Shipwreck in ACM’s collection, for example, with 60,000 Chinese ceramics most likely bound for the Middle East on a shipwreck found off the coast of Java, contained several ceramics influenced by Middle Eastern tastes and motifs. Our collection of export ceramics likewise displays such a variety of tastes, from Southeast Asia to Europe, Japan to the Middle East, that the message is really one of how diversity illuminates art.

Explore Singapore's museums

Advertising
Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising