As someone interested in the history, culture and religion of southeast Asia’s diverse countries, this museum, organized as an art museum, was my personal paradise. This space is an art and history museum all in one. During my visit, one of the special exhibitions even highlighted an interactive exhibit about Chinese ink and a special exhibit about scrolls. This post is a summary of the types of information included in the different museum galleries so that you know what to expect if you choose to visit for yourself.

The exterior of the Asian Civilizations Museum.

Ancient Religions 1

The Ancient Religions 1 gallery focuses primarily on the origins of Buddhism and Hinduism in southeast Asian regions. It seeks to answer common, larger questions around the themes of existence, death, and the afterlife.

Buddhism and Hinduism are similar religions, the earliest existences of which can be found in the Indus Valley (2600 – 1900 B.C.). They share common beliefs, such as that of reincarnation and release from the physical world, and common practices, such as that of meditation. Both Buddhist and Hindu mythology share the ideas of god as a pillar of the universe and lifestyles of simplicity and abstinence.

Certain motifs are common in both Buddhist and Hindu art. Many of the common symbols come from nature, but figures are common in both religions also. For example, Garuda is the winged vessel of Vishnu in Hinduism, but is an auspicious deity in Buddhist mythology.

Some of the various statues and sculptures found in the Ancient Religions 1 gallery.

The stupa is one of the principle architectural monuments in Buddhist structures and serves as a spiritual center of the religious community. The reliefs on the stupas are images to aid followers of Buddhism in the contemplation of enlightenment.

Earlier forms of Buddhist art use symbols to represent the figure of the Buddha himself, such as the wheel or the bodhi tree. This type of representation is called “aniconic” because there is no “icon,” or human image. Symbols continue to be used, but representations of the Buddha’s body began appearing in the 2nd century in the art of Northern India.

The earliest figures and representations in Buddhism appeared in the Gandhara state (northern Pakistan/northeastern Afghanistan) and the Manthura state (south of Delhi) in the 1st century. Buddhism moved from India/Central Asia into China as early as the Han Dynasty, but was initially viewed as a foreign religion quite different from the local Confucian and Daoist beliefs. Acceptance of Buddhism as aided by translation of sacred religious texts into the Chinese language.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism spread into the southeast Asian countries by the 4th century. Religious leaders found support from local rulers and the regency in Ankor claimed semi-divine status. Local deities were transitioned to form connections to Hindu figures, and early southeast Asian art exhibits strong influence from India.

Ancient Religions 2

This gallery, Ancient Religions 2, continues to trace the growth of Buddhism and Hinduism throughout Asia. It also introduces Jainism, India’s third great religion and one that never gained popularity outside India. As Buddhist and Hindu beliefs spread, they were combined with existing systems involving nature and ancestral worship. Over time, the art styles of each region held less Indian influence and gained more individuality.

This gallery explores the abstract ideas of religion, including the concepts of divinity and superhumanism, and how those concepts can be portrayed artistically. In some cases, the deities are portrayed in human form so as to make them relatable. In other cases, symbolism is used to explain the representation of the god or goddess in question.

Buddhism is the most common religion in Sri Lanka. The style of the art in Sri Lankan Buddhism centers suggests early contact with monasteries in India. However, a distinct local style developed over time. As Sri Lanka is an important stop on Asian maritime trade routes, this art eventually influenced forms of Buddhism across southeast Asia.

Depictions of various deities sourced from across Southeast Asia.

Hindu art is strongly represented in this gallery, as sculptures were often designed to fit into the overall architecture of a temple. This is similar with Buddhist and Jainist architecture as well. In Hindu temples, a deity resides in the center surrounded by a consort and subjects. Often, the images depicted in the sculptures relate to fertility and creation.

Jainism is primarily an Indian religion, which has been practiced continuously since the 6th century B.C. It was created in response to the caste system and the ritual sacrifice of animals in India. The goal of Jainism is to escape eternal rebirth (reincarnation) and to attain enlightenment by performing good works, refraining from injuring living beings, and gaining knowledge. Buddhism and Jainism share similar ideologies, including resistance to desires. The mythologies of both religions are also similar.

By the 7th century, Hinduism and Buddhism had begun to firmly spread and adapt to environments in Southeast Asia. Religious art and architecture began to take on a local flavor, moving away from Indian stylistic choices. Local rulers began to patronize these religions rather than ancient, indigenous ones. Elite figures in society became donors of temples and stupas, and kings began to find close association with Vishnu, the Hindu deity.

Examples of Buddha and Ganesha statues, which are common Buddhist and Hindu symbols, respectively, in Southeast Asia.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the transcendence of kingdoms and dynasties across southeast Asia led to the blending of ideas through religions. The kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia primarily worshipped Shiva, while the Vietnamese Champa culture worshipped both Hindu and Buddhist deities over a period of 11 centuries. The kingdoms of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Lan Na in modern-day Thailand were all Buddhist, as was Bagan in modern-day Myanmar. The Majapahit kingdom developed its own Buddhist and Hindu traditions in the Malay Peninsula.

Today, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos are all Theravada Buddhist countries, though traces of Hinduism are still visible. The Majapahit kingdom is now primarily Muslim, and only Bali in Indonesia remains primarily Hindu. Additional information about the history of religion in Bangladesh, Tibet, Nepal, China, are present in the Ancient Religions 2 gallery, told through the preservation of artistic works.

Ancestors and Rituals

Many societies continue to revere and worship their ancestors, who are thought to ensure fertility for future generations. Many rituals and traditions relate to fertility of the land, the people, and the animals in communities around the world. Traditional societies in Southeast Asia, including wet rice kingdoms, coastal centers, and remote communities, are the main focus of this gallery.

The only remaining example of the former Hindu/Buddhist kingdoms in Southeast Asia is in Bali, for reasons unknown. Many of the other regions of Southeast Asia were targeted by western traders searching for spices – black pepper from Kerala, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, nutmeg and cloves from the Maluku Islands – which introduced foreign influence into traditional communities.

A traditional mask.

The Batak community in northern Sumatra, Indonesia is focused on clan groups, often led by respected elders and priests. The culture there is one of animism and ancestor worship, and neighboring communities once feared the Bataks as headhunters and sorcerers. The Batak peoples traded with coastal merchants, but were not influenced by western cultures until they were absorbed by the Dutch East Indies in the 19th century. Today, many of the Batak have converted to Christianity, although some have become Muslim. Today, this minority ethnic group is composed of approximately 6 million people across Indonesia.

The Nias people trace their ancestry to the Gomo district of Central Nias, and island off the western coast of Sumatra. Their traditional society was hierarchical, anchored on a balance of power. The main power in a given village lies with the village chief, and ancestor religion was key to traditional religion. While headhunting, slavery and cannibalism were once practiced by the Nias people, these practices were stopped around the 19th century due to the influence of western Christian missionaries. Today, the Nias people are primarily Christian.

The Dayak people are indigenous to the island of Borneo, although this umbrella term refers to over 50 ethnic groups on both the Indonesian and Malaysian sides of the island. Artworks in these communities were inspired by ancestors and creation myths, but were also influenced by outside cultures. Ritual life often required human sacrifice to ensure fertility, and headhunting was a common practice between enemy tribes. The severed heads were used to ritual purposes.

A unique sculpture within the Ancestors and Rituals gallery.

Shields in Southeast Asia were important objects which were passed down through the generations and used in both warfare and ritualistic dance. The decoration of these shields could indicate power and status while invoking ancestral protection. Some societies also used grave markers to honor the dead and protect the living.

Textiles are prominently featured in ritual traditions. They include ceremonial costumes, wall hangings, and dividers of sacred spaces. The colors and patterns in these textiles have specific significance. Sometimes, the meanings of the motifs and designs are only known to the makers. Often, the techniques for making these textiles are complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Mostly, the makers of the textiles were women.

Lacquer and silver were also used extensively throughout Southeast Asia. Often, these materials were used as the foundation for Buddhist objects, gifts for guests at social gatherings, and to indicate wealth and social status.

A wide view of the Ancestors and Rituals gallery.

Stone tools and pottery are often the only remains of the more ancient Southeast Asia communities. Pottery was often the most common object buried with the dead, although other objects found at burial sites included bronze, clay figurines, and weapons. Bronze technologies were employed to make weapons, jewelry, and drums. In the Red River Delta in Vietnam, bronze drums are still used even today.

Christian Art

The Christian religion came overland to southeast Asia from the Middle East as early as the 7th century. It wasn’t until the 16th century that European traders brought missionaries on their trading voyages. Trading port cities such as Manila, Goa, and Nagasaki became significant bases for Christian missions, and the Dutch Protestants centered in Jakarta (then Batavia) in the 17th century.

New works of art emerged as Christianity spread across southeast Asia. Christian Asian art is a unique combination of Asian artistic traditions and European imagery. The media are typically of Asian origin, while the ideas and subjects depicted come from Western ideology. Christian art in southeast Asia is symbolic of Western-Asian cross-cultural exchange.

A chest of drawers depicting a Christian scene and an alter inside.

Christian art is typically regarded as western. However, Christian Asian art bridges culture and religions, as both the intended audiences and the artists themselves were not always Christian. For example, many Asian rulers collected Christian art but did not themselves convert to the religion. The artists usually worked in the media in which they were comfortable, which is why many pieces of Christian art also exhibit elements of Eastern religions.

Christianity was first established in southern India, possibly as early as the 7th century. Goa, India fell to Portuguese rule in the 16th century and became known as the “Rome of the East.” Portuguese St. Francis Xavier traveled through Asia in the 17th century, gaining converts in India, Malacca, Japan, and the Straits of Singapore by threading local customs into his teachings. Similar work was done in the Philippines by Spanish Catholics. Today, there are overwhelming Catholic populations in the Philippines and Timor-Leste and growing populations in Singapore.

The ban against Christianity in Japan, beginning in 1643, lasted nearly 300 years. Some Christians there continued to worship in secret, and a sect of “Hidden Christians” emerged in the 20th century. Before the ban, though, European culture was popular in Japan as a result of the work of the Jesuit missionaries there.

A depiction of the Vatican using mother-of-pearl.

By the 20th century, Europeans used the concept of conversion as a metric for modernity (and a greater state of control). Female missionaries fought for the empowerment of local women, using education as a strategy for conversion. Local families enrolled their children in mission schools in the hopes that their children would receive a decent education and greater opportunities after graduation.

Ivory was considered a precious material for Christian Asian art, and many artistic works were carved in Asia/Africa and exported back to Europe, especially in the 16th – 18th centuries. Because of the environmental stewardship and conservation issues associated with this material, museums and churches today would not and do not support the creation of artistic works using ivory.

Islamic Art

This art gallery explores artistic traditions in primarily Islamic regions and how art forms in those regions were born from the adoption of a new way of life. This gallery also explores the artistic traditions of Islamic expansion into Southeast Asian communities. After all, southeast Asia is home to one-forth of the world’s Muslim population, especially on the Malay Peninsula.

Large-scale Islamic conversion began in the 13th century and was well-established by the 15th century. Today, Muslim majorities can be found in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam, while minorities exist in Singapore, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar.

Examples of Islamic wall art and tiles.

Many Muslim communities in Southeast Asia adopted the Arabic script to visually identify with the global Muslim community. Muslim artists drew inspiration from other religions, such as Hindusim, Buddhism, and animism. They were also inspired visually from nature, creating patterns and motifs from natural and raw materials which were then transferred to alternative media, such textiles and metals.

Islamic art encompasses ceremonial objects as well as mundane ones. It is not defined by religious affiliation, but rather by the cultures where Muslims make up the majority or most influential segment of the local society. Central to Islamic ideology is the belief in the indivisible oneness of God, an ideology which forbids the artistic imitation of living beings and thereby challenges the role of God as the sole creator. Images such as these may also lead to idolatry. One of the strategies to overcome this ideology includes the depiction of humans in highly abstract form.

Arabesque and geometric patterns are extremely common in Islamic art. They are typically related to motifs based on leaves and stems – interconnected patterns that can be expanded to decorate surfaces of varying size and media. For geometric patterns of circles and squares, only a ruler was necessary. For complex patterns, artists relied upon astronomy and mathematics for intricate, layered arrangements. Depending upon the locale, Islamic art draws from earlier artistic traditions.

Tablets and writing materials sporting geometric patterns.

Based upon the high regard that Islamic peoples hold for reading and writing, the written work – calligraphy – is regarded as one of the highest forms of expression. Illustration, illumination and bookbinding of the Quran represented advancements of book-related arts. The high status of calligraphy in the Islamic world gave calligraphers positions of high esteem. They could create works not only on paper and parchment, but also on stone, metals, and textiles. Many were often employed by royal and aristocratic families, not only for Islamic text, but also histories, literature, and scientific works.

Trade and the Exchange of Ideas

The Straits of Malacca lie in a critical position between the East and West and have boasted bustling port cities since the 13th century. Records from various Southeast Asian records mention a port called “Termasek,” located at current-day Singapore. Products for trade included oils and spices, horns and hardwoods, and aromatics. Additional trade included ceramics and textiles.

The role of women was important to the development of the local marketplace. Traders took local wives, who acted both as spouses and local business partners, creating ethnically-mixed communities. These local marketplaces generated enormous wealth in the Malacca Strait. Many types of currency were used in Southeast Asia, but until the 16th century, trade was commonly done using the barter system.

Several shapes and sizes of stoneware jars and vessels.

Stoneware jars were often used a vessels for water and wine, oil and foods. While made for practical purposes, many of them were still decorated. Ceramics such as these were frequently repurposed as heirlooms or ritualistic materials. Chinese blue-white porcelain was coveted, especially in Islamic courts. However, blue glaze is considered to be shared between Iran and China, known as “Islamic Blue” and “Ming blue-and-white porcelain,” respectively. Vietnam was also known for its porcelain production, especially during the 14th century when a change of power in China halted Chinese porcelain production.

Kendis, water vessels, used for drinking water as well as washing, are common throughout Southeast Asia. They were often produced in China, but became popular in Europe around the 17th century. Kraak, a different type of blue-and-white porcelain developed in China during the late 16th century, was shipped throughout the world in great quantities. A new form of blue-and-white porcelain was also developed specifically for the Japanese tea ceremony in the late 16th century. However, this production ceased in 1644 with the collapse of the Ming Dynasty.

One of the blue-and-white ceramic pieces housed in the museum.

Europeans often ordered luxuries from China and commissioned the creation of specific ceramic pieces. In addition to porcelain, however, the Chinese also produced works of silver. In the 19th century, Spanish silver from Mexico encouraged Chinese silver production. American and European consumers were fond of practical objects at first, while later preferring elaborate vessels and ornate sculptures.

Many of the most expensive and elaborate objects were collected by local rulers, regardless of location. Ebony became a coveted material, as did mother-of-pearl and ivory. Lacquer, the result of a tree resin indigenous to China and Japan, was applied to wood, basketry, and metal to make objects full of strength and beauty.

Indian textiles influenced textile development throughout the entirety of Southeast Asia, beginning in the 13th century. Local artisans used the Indian textiles as the basis for their own textile production, adopting Indian patterns and techniques. By the 19th century, Indonesian artisans had perfected the creation of batik, and this new fabric replaced the majority of imported Indian cloth in the market.

An ornate fan.

Tang Shipwreck

The Tang Shipwreck was discovered in 1998 by local fishermen on the edge of the Java Sea, just off Belitung Island. More than 60,000 ceramics, originating in China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.), were found on the ship, suggesting evidence of early commerce between China and the Middle Eastern nations. The shipwreck suggest that the Malay Peninsula has been central to global trade for the past thousand years.

Very little perishable material – such as wood, textiles, and paper – survived the shipwreck. However, large segments of the ship’s keel were recovered, which allowed archaeologists to determine the method of the ship’s construction. The ship, Middle Eastern in origin, traversed the more efficient sea route that rivaled the overland Silk Road. The most direct route from the Middle East to China is through the Straits of Malacca. However, the location of the shipwreck, in the Java Sea, is a bit off-track from this course.

Some of the many bowls recovered in the Tang Shipwreck.

The wrecked ship was constructed entirely from wood without the use of nails. Instead, planks were sewn together with coconut husk ropes and sealed with lime for waterproofing. The wood was sourced in Africa. Archaeologists believe that the ship was bound for Basra (present-day Iraq).

The ship contained a multitude of storage jars as well as a few gold and silver objects. The purpose of the more valuable objects is still unknown. The storage jars contained ceramic bowls (130 bowls per jar), spices, and liquids. About 57,500 pieces of ceramic were recovered from the shipwreck, 95% of which were bowls, fired in the kilns of Changsha (South China, Tang Dynasty). In this case, the ceramic pieces were made around the year 830.

Recovered items from the Tang Shipwreck: gold and ceramics.

The excavation of the underwater Tang Shipwreck site was done commercially to ameliorate the threat of imminent looting. The excavation was not done with a highly specialized team, and thus the documentation of the historical data was not as thorough and detailed as it would have been if the team was of strictly archaeological origin.

Approximately 900 pieces of greenware were found on the ship, and 200 of these were from the Yue kilns in the Zhejiang province of China. In addition to the ceramics, twenty-nine Chinese mirrors were recovered from the shipwreck.

Living with Ink

Living With Ink (8 Nov 2019 – 26 Apr 2020) is the special exhibition dedicated to the collection of Dr. Tan Tsze Chor, one of Singapore’s many successful businessmen. He became known as “The Pepper King” because he acquired his fortune through the sales of local products – pepper and coffee. In additional to his business, Dr. Tan also appreciated art and made his own calligraphies. Throughout his lifetime, he acquired an impressive collection of over 130 works. Tan’s Xiang Xue Zhuang Collection represents the art world of Singapore and Malaya throughout the 20th century.

Some of the scrolls in the Living with Ink exhibit, which contribute to the peaceful atmosphere in the exhibit.

In a traditional Chinese scroll painting, there are typically three parts: the painting itself; a colophon (beautiful writing) written in calligraphy; and at least one seal or stamp. In the past, artists were often inspired by poetry and would sometimes transcribe the poem directly onto the painting. The essential tools for Chinese paintings and calligraphy become known as the “Four Treasures” and could be found in every artist or scholar’s studio. These objects include a brush, inkstone, inkstick, and paper.

In Chinese, a brush is called a maobi, which translates in English directly to “writing tool made of animal hair.” Brushes like this have been used in China since approximately 300 B.C. The type of brush varies with its intended purpose. Different brushes are used to create varying types of brush strokes and effects. Firmer brushes are intended for neat and detailed paintings, while soft or mixed brushes are more suitable for casual and abstract designs.

Some of the many scrolls on exhibit.

Before paper was invented, Chinese paintings and calligraphy were done on silk. Due to the expensive cost of the material, such works were only available to the wealthier families. Paper was not invented by the Chinese until around 105 A.D., although some archaeologists believe that they have found evidence of the existence of paper as early 200 years before that time.

The use of seals in China dates back to ancient times. Seals are akin to signatures and can be found on everything from personal documents and letters to official paperwork to art. There are two types of seals: relief and intaglio. Relief seals boast characters standing above the surface and print red characters on a white background (yang). Engraved seals are, as the name suggests, characters engraved into the stone, ad print white characters against a red background (yin). Seal makers often carve characters in reverse.

Left: Some examples of scrolls with calligraphy. Right: Me, with a scroll I created at the interactive exhibit.

Chinese paintings seldom boast vibrant hues. This is because the colored inks were often created using natural minerals. However, minerals such as cinnabar and azurite, can be toxic. Inksticks are ground with water on an inkstone to produce liquid ink. The intensity of the color depends upon the ratio of ink to water used.

Visitor Information

Some helpful tips for planning your visit to the museum:

Hours

Daily: 10am to 7pm

Fridays: 10am to 9pm

Tickets

Singaporeans and Permanent Residents

  • Adults: $S12
  • Children (6 years and younger): Free
  • Students: Free
  • Seniors (60 years and older): Free

Foreign Tourists

  • Adults: $S20
  • Children (6 years and younger): Free
  • Students: $S15
  • Seniors (60 years and older): $S15

Getting There and Away

The Asian Civilizations Museum is approximately five minutes from the Raffles Place MRT Station. It is accessible by car via Fullerton Road. Public parking is available at the basement car park of the New Parliament House. The museum is also approximately 2 minutes from the Fullerton Square bus stop.

Website

https://www.nhb.gov.sg/acm/

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