Monday, May 4, 2009

A walk through the museum

We thought it was about time we explored the Asian Civilisations museum, one of those places that had been on our list of places to visit in Singapore but that we never got to while we were actually living there.

The museum is housed in a beautiful colonial building, known as the Empress Place Building. It over looks the river in the very spot Sir Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore in 1819. Originally intended to be the courthouse it became instead the government office block in Raffles time and remained so, housing the Registry of Births and Deaths, the Citizenship Registry and the Immigration offices right up until the late 1980's.

The museum specialises in the material history and ancestory of the different ethnic groups in Singapore. There are 11 large galleries with high ceilings and muted lighting that showcase over 1300 artefacts from the civilisations of China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia.

We began in the Singapore River gallery, a room that cleverly overlooks the very area in its photos and stories and there are a lot of stories told in the gallery. There were so many tales of life throughout the long history of the busy trading port it was impossible to read them all but the smattering we did gave us a vibrant, multicultural picture of a river alive with trade and commerce since the 14th century which, albeit in sometimes very different mediums, still very much describes what Singapore is like today.

The three Southeast Asia galleries cover more than 2,500 years of the history of the areas diverse people. A huge carved bronze drum dominates the entrance, glass cabinets hold religious and spiritual artefacts and buddha statues sit serenely in quiet alcoves. The Cambodian pieces, to us now, instantly distinguishable from similar Thai or Laotian objects.

Upstairs the world of Southeast Asian performing arts is on show with a large Javanese gamelan orchestra set up on a centre platform. Masks and puppets from both Indonesia and Cambodia line the surrounding walls and Gamelan music ripples out of a life size audio visual of performing dancers and musicians.

In the corner stands a small stilted Toraja house complete with arc shaped roof and the distinct Toraja patterns carved into panels either side of the doorway. This room, my favourite, instantly took me back to my childhood in Sulawesi and a trip to Tana Toraja a place I would one day like to take my family. Gamelan music alone has this power of teleportation as does the smell of street cooked satay (even though I have been a vegetarian now for 3 decades)and the sight of steep stepped rice paddys.

We spent a few hours exploring the galleries and could have stayed longer had our feet not been aching so much from the hard tiled floor that we were both doing impressions clumsy South East Asian dancers. Time to duck back into the MRT before the post work rush begins.

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