A visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum for the Raffles exhibition

I saw these ads last Thursday, and recalled reading about how there is to be an exhibition of Sir Stamford Raffles, regarded as the founder of modern Singapore, as part of the Singapore Bicentennial which marks the 200th anniversary of his arrival in Singapore. The eyebrow-raising posters reminded me that the exhibition was to showcase ‘another side of Raffles’, one different and less flattering than the usual narrative we learned about in school.

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But why, though? I don’t understand holding an exhibition on somebody considered a giant in Singapore’s history just to slag him off? Okay maybe not to slag him off but to point out shit he’s done, along with the good, and as the poster says, for us to make up our own mind about things he did, 200 years ago. But why hold an exhibition just to do that? Is he, and for what reason, suddenly on trial in the court of public opinion suddenly after 200 years?

Is it something to do with, or inspired by, the white supremacy or white privilege discussions going on that are on trend for some time now? They are long overdue and I’m glad they are talked about now, and I hope it’s not just talk but will lead to actual equality for the ordinary regular folk of the world, as vague as that sounds. For better or worse I don’t follow them, though. Not ‘woke’ enough and too busy and blissfully ignorant being sheep I guess, working to earn a living and worrying about my future and living my life simply (working hard. Treating others how I expect them to treat me, with kindness and respect. Ignoring and avoiding assholes and other toxic people. Simple things like that.)

I’m not for or against Raffles but just curious about the point of the exhibition. It’s not like anyone among the public worship him or particularly care about him and put him on a pedestal. Well yes, but just a statue, like any country’s more noted historical figures.

Not to disrespect the dead but I think for most of us he’s just a name in history textbooks, and on some touristy places and things. Do members of the public take history all that seriously, anyway? I don’t think so. I certainly don’t. I think most of us know that history is written according to the writer, the victor, the ruler. So yeah, while partaking in the subject, it’s “wow that’s interesting… so fascinating…“, but once I’m done reading, it’s ‘ok, whatever‘. Back to other things.

I wonder if museums in, say, England hold similar exhibitions for, say, Winston Churchill where they present the bad things he is said to have done along with the good. I have read about some seriously appalling things Churchill had allegedly done, this man said to be regarded by many there as the greatest Briton ever.

I think I’m just annoyed mostly because the posters worked on me. Just two days later on my first day off from work, I went to the venue, the Asian Civilisations Museum. This was yesterday.

THE NEOCLASSICAL BUILDING

I’m so glad I went. It’s such a beautiful building and the museum inside is very well done. I found it very interesting and am now keen to make time to visit our other museums.

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Coming from Raffles Place MRT station, I could soon see the museum which was located on the north bank of the Singapore River. Many times I have crossed Cavenagh Bridge and walked past the beauty, and finally I was going inside. I don’t remember when was the last time, if ever, I had gone in.

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Previously the Empress Place Building, it was completed in 1867. Originally planned to be used as a courthouse, it housed instead government offices until the late 1980s. It was gazetted as a national monument in 1992.

I haven’t visited a museum in years, and the more recent visits were all on holidays overseas, like to Italy or Thailand. Well, last December I did pop into the National Museum here for a couple of hours but that was for a specific and small exhibition organised by the Embassy of Italy. I did not take the time to explore the rest of the museum after that.

When tourist friends and acquaintances visited Singapore, none so far had wanted to visit museums and for many years neither did I think to suggest it to them. I think that was due to me bringing an Italian former friend to a museum here a long time ago, with such pride because I love our National Museum, but the rude bugger was snickering and rolling his eyes at a lot of the stuff we consider old here. That was probably 20 years ago but his assholic behavior probably traumatised me or something because no more museum suggestions to tourist friends since then.

EXPENSIVE

I think I read some years ago that our museums are now free for Singaporeans and permanent residents. I must be mistaken. Imagine my surprise when I was asked to pay S$12 for the exhibition, and my partner Bert who was with me and who is neither Singaporean nor a permanent resident, was to pay S$20. Fortunately the kind lady at the reception, seeing our hesitance, gave us a tip that between 1pm and 5pm there would be a flat rate of $5 for each of us, a special promotion for that day. So we decided to come back a while later for that discount. In the meantime we took a stroll around the beautiful historical area which turned out to be such a pleasure, being a Saturday near the business district area. Very few people around and therefore very pleasant.

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Check out the prices for the exhibition without discounts above. Both Bert and I are working adults with no kids to support and we already balk at the prices. Firstly, how the heck are locals, especially from low-income groups, supposed to be interested to explore our museums when the entrance fee of particular exhibitions are expensive. I myself was drawn to visit one after many years only because of that particular Raffles exhibition. If one is prejudiced enough to say that low-income folks are not interested in museums and other cultural stuff anyway because we are not educated enough, well the high entry fee would dissuade even those with interest from visiting.

And what about low-wage foreign workers like our hundreds of thousands of domestic helpers and construction workers. Why can’t we share our museums with them, by having the museums promoted to them and made accessible to them with free entry or a small token fee of a couple of dollars. These people help to build our country, too. Anyone from any economic background, let alone the poor, would appreciate affordable places to visit on an off day, whether interested in art or culture in the first place or not, when forced to work in a foreign land just to send money home to families because there is no work in their home country.

And secondly, I remember visiting the Vatican Museums in Rome, which are MASSIVE!, as in MASSIVELY HUGE!, and just about some of the most important and most revered museums IN THE WORLD, for obvious reasons. How much do they charge? According to their Prices and Tickets page, €17.00 for the whole museum complex and the Sistine Chapel, which is like Singapore $26.00. Compare that to the Singapore $20.00 for the Asian Civilisations Museum here for foreigners’ entry. It’s very expensive.

EXHIBITION: “REVISITING THE SCHOLAR AND STATESMAN, RAFFLES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA”

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A portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles greeted the visitor at the entrance of the exhibition. He was 36 when he sat for this portrait in 1817 at the end of his governorship in Java. He was born on 6 July 1781, off the coast of Jamaica on board a ship under the command of his father Benjamin Raffles. At 14 he became a clerk of the East India Company in London, and in 1805 at the age of 24 he was posted to Penang to serve as assistant-secretary.

If you have any interest to learn about the guy, two sites to start with that have short basic summaries of a page each are Encyclopedia.com  and Britannica.com.

The exhibition, which has been running since 1st February and lasts till 28 April, is in collaboration with the British Museum in London. It consists mostly of Javanese and Sumatran objects he personally collected.

The ‘less flattering’ bits highlighted about Raffles vary in severity. For example, at the beginning at his portrait, the guided tour I was on talked about how a sculpture had been painted differently (the actual sculpture the depiction was based on was featured beside the painting), for example, the position of its left arm was different, and so ‘artistic license’ had been taken. That made me go, ‘Huh?‘. Even today when it comes to artistic license, it is taken liberally, like when films based on books are made. Some purists of the book may get angry, and then discussions on the alleged transgressions may be had. So to me it seems like such a stretch to highlight the painting of the statue. UNLESS of course, if according to the religion, Buddhist statues MUST strictly be represented only in a certain way, and the artist failed to do so, then yes I would agree it was wrong.

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A seriously shocking and horrifying thing Raffles had done that I took away with me from the exhibition was when the British invaded Java in 1811.

Reading more about it when I got home, I came across a review of a book called ‘Raffles and the British Invasion of Java’ by Tim Hannigan which included how the British army of 10,000 redcoats and Indian sepoys conquered the Dutch colony.

…They would remain there for five turbulent years. (The) history-cum-biography explores the bloody battles and furious controversies that marked British rule in Java, and reveals the future founder of Singapore, Thomas Stamford Raffles – long celebrated as a hero, a liberal and a visionary – in a shocking new light, showing how he crushed dissent, looted palaces and incited massacres to further his own insatiable ambitions. The book features the dramatic Battle of Batavia, the sinister British expedition to Palembang, the 1812 sacking and looting of Yogyakarta, and various fights between soldiers and civilians, buffaloes and tigers, and Englishmen and Javanese.

Yep, definitely didn’t know that about the guy.

A review of the same book from Toko Buku also said that it:

tells the story of how the British attempted to bring the full force of European colonialism to a tropical island where Muslim sultans claimed descent from Hindu gods.

…Major histories only give the period a few paragraphs at most.

The whole book starts out with the assertion, often heard even by educated Indonesians, that they would’ve been better off if they had been colonized by the British and not the Dutch. …(It) reveals Raffles – long celebrated as a hero, a liberal and a visionary, ‘the last colonialist it’s OK to like’ –in a shocking new light. Indeed, Raffles made for a very strange sort of hero.

This history features the dramatic Battle of Batavia, the sinister British expedition to Palembang, a series of bloody battles between soldiers and civilians, fights between Englishmen and Javanese and a gut-wrenching duel between a buffalo and tiger. The crux of the literary narrative is the clash and deep irreconcilable abyss between nascent European colonialism and the old courtly culture of Java. In an effort to impress the people of Java with the might of British power, Raffles attacked, wrecked, cowed and humiliated Java’s most powerful and influential native court.

Not only did the British break the power of the venerable Javanese kraton, but introduced opium to Java on a large scale, entrenched the position of Chinese middlemen, set up a strong sense of racial separation between the rulers and their subjects and created the concept of extracting maximum agricultural wealth from the island. One of the most enduring myths about Raffles during the strange half-decade that he spent on Java was that he hated slavery. Actually, the man was not an abolitionist and allowed the trade of slaves under the age of 14 and even kept 77 slaves in his own home.

GUIDED TOUR

I was on a guided tour with another 15 or so visitors. It lasted an hour and I thoroughly enjoyed it (and not because it was free-of-charge, haha). From now on when I visit other museums and galleries I will try to time visits to guided tours, if details are available online. The tour I had here was wonderful because my volunteer guide was good and engaging. She wasn’t just rattling off facts in a monotone, but it was more like friendly banter, more like sharing juicy gossipy tidbits with a group of friends. It was fun (despite being distracted by noisy kids at some points) and made the exhibits she touched on come alive a bit, and far more interesting when reading and squinting at their captions in tiny letters later after the tour had ended.

I’m sorry I didn’t catch my guide’s name. I wish I did. She was a middle-aged Chinese lady. My tour was the 1.30 pm one yesterday, Saturday the 30th.

SOME PHOTOS

To close off this post, here are some photos from the exhibition. Sorry some of the text aren’t clear. I’m just terrible with photography, with any camera but especially with phone cameras.

 

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