Future of the past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2003, 12:00am

AFTER FIVE YEARS of extensive renovation costing S$83 million (HK$365.2 million), the colonial Empress Place Building in Singapore begins its new life as the Asian Civilisations Museum - a showcase of the diverse cultures that shaped the multi-racial city state.

'The content of the ACM reflects who we are and where we came from. From the founding of modern Singapore to this day, we are the product of the confluence of the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Islamic and Western civilisations,' says Tommy Koh, chairman of the National Heritage Board. 'It is important for Singaporeans to understand China and India because they are rising economies and great civilisations from which we have much to learn. And in the post 9/11 world, it is also imperative for all of us to have a better understanding of Islam, the Islamic civilisation and its roots in Asia.'

The heritage board opened the original Asian Civilisations Museum in 1997 at an old school building on nearby Armenian Street. But as the modest collection grew, it became clear bigger premises were needed, says Kenson Kwok, director of the museum.

Located not far from the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay complex, the new museum forms part of an 'arts belt', which will include an arts centre due to open in the Old Parliament House building early next year. Meanwhile, the Armenian Street premises will be transformed into the museum's Peranakan wing, dedicated to the culture of descendants of 15th-century Chinese settlers who married local Malays.

Empress Place was built between 1864 and 1867 as a courthouse and throughout much of the past century housed almost the entire government bureaucracy. After a first round of renovations, it opened in the early 1990s as an exhibition centre and hosted five blockbuster art shows on Chinese history before dwindling crowds and structural problems, including severe damp and termite infestation, forced its closure in 1995.

With large rooms and high ceilings, the colonial building provides three times the space of the previous premises, and also permits the presentation of larger artefacts in conceptual settings. Among these are a three-storey structure that displays the gable of a Batak granary from Indonesia, using special lighting effects to represent its interior, and a late 17th-early-18th-century gateway from western Uttar Pradesh or eastern Rajasthan in India. According to Kwok, 80 per cent of the artefacts on display have never been presented before.

The museum's collection of 1,300 objects are spread out in 10 galleries, but curators have chosen to deviate from the traditional chronological presentation. 'Our storylines are thematic and this approach is carried through in the interactive components we have built into the galleries,' Kwok explains. 'A big challenge for all museums these days is how to widen their outreach and how to get different segments of the population to come to the museum. A museum is aimed at the whole community.'

Mixing low-tech and hi-tech, the museum uses different interactive approaches, from a touch-screen TV featuring a virtual host who will speak on demand, to 'living storages' where artefacts are placed in 'drawers displays' that the public can open and close at will.

The museum has also set discovery zones within the galleries to help visitors understand the complex history of Southeast Asia. For example, they can play a game to learn about the good and evil characters of the Hindu epic Ramayana or trace the life of Buddha in a comic strip. And by pressing buttons on a panel, they can hear what different gamelan instruments sound like.

The display includes ancient artefacts such as a rare eighth-century Koran folio from North Africa written in Kufic-Abbasid, and more contemporary items such as the Roi Nuoc water puppets from Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian galleries contain the museum's oldest and most extensive collection, arranged around themes such as Hindu Buddhist kingdoms, the Malay world and tribal Southeast Asia. Among the highlights is a large hourglass-shaped drum from East Java featuring intricate bronze casting, one of only three in the world.

The quest for knowledge and calligraphy are among the themes in the West Asia/Islamic civilisation galleries, while the China gallery focuses on the imperial system, the Confucianist patriarchy and religions. The display features a group of 'blanc de chine' porcelain from the 17th-18th centuries, one of the world's largest collections of this type of ware. There is also a section of an enormous Tibetan tanka, a scroll painting, with applique silk Buddhist figures dating from the late 17th century. A rare seated Kushana Buddha from Uttar Pradesh is a highlight of the South Asia galleries.

Koh sees the opening of the museum as a milestone in Singapore's quest to deepen its cultural roots and broaden its cultural sensibilities. 'It is important for Singaporeans to understand Southeast Asia because we are an integral part of the region and the region is part of us,' Koh says.

Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place, Singapore. Adults S$3, concessions S$1.50. For further info: www.nhb.gov.sg/acm