Human history in 239 objects from the British Museum

Minister Grace Fu looks at a stone handaxe that is about 800,000 years old. It is the oldest artefact presented in the exhibition.
PHOTO: National Museum of Singapore

The oldest exhibit in the Treasures Of The World From The British Museum exhibition is a prehistoric stone axe from Tanzania no larger than the palm of your hand.

More than 800,000 years old, the yellowish, teardrop-shaped tool was fashioned from quartzite, a hard crystal that required considerable technological skills to shape.

The maker would have had to knock off flakes to create the thin, edges with a consistent angle for cutting and slicing.

This object, which reveals the capabilities of early humans in Africa, is one of the 239 exhibits featured in a new blockbuster show in the National Museum of Singapore.

The artefacts are on loan from the prestigious British Museum with two drawn from Singapore's national collection, and collectively tell a story about human civilisation and cultural achievement.

It features treasures from ancient civilisations spanning Africa, Oceania and the Middle East, as well as Europe, Asia and the Americas.

On display are several iconic artefacts from the British Museum collection, including two 11th- century chess pieces discovered on the Hebridean Island of Lewis, skilfully crafted brass plaques from the West African state of Benin, ancient jewellery from the Royal Cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq and an exquisitely painted mummy board from ancient Egypt.

Taking The Straits Times on a tour, British museum curator Brendan Moore, 51, called the show "a very visceral experience".

Individually, each object "represents the cultural and artistic achievements of the civilisation it comes from", he says.

Collectively, they explore the enduring themes of life and death that connect people across the world.

On the significance of this show, Ms Jane Portal, keeper of the Department of Asia at the British Museum, highlights the ties between Singapore and Britain, which began with the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

Although both museums have collaborated in the past, she calls the current partnership "unprecedented in its scale and ambition". 

Objects from the Singapore collection are integrated into the show. 

There is a section of artefacts from Raffles' personal collection, such as a Javanese mask and a kris and scabbard dating back to the early 19th century.

Two artworks from Singapore's national collection, Anthony Poon's W-White on 2P Waves and Iskandar Jalil's Blue Vessel, have also been included to juxtapose the nation's artistic development against global art movements in the 1980s.

Ms Angelita Teo, director of the National Museum of Singapore, calls the show "a timely reminder of the importance of the object in preserving Singapore's history, as well as a step towards the appreciation of the common values, aspirations and themes that connect us all".

The exhibition's biggest draws, no doubt, will be its exotic antiquities from around the world.

One of them is a mummy of an adolescent boy from Egypt, dating from between AD 100 and 120.

Inserted into the bandages over the face is a portrait of the subject, who was a young man with dark hair.

Another is an imposing bust of the Roman emperor Hadrian (ruled AD 117-138) found in his famous country residence near Tivoli.

Shown in the battle dress of a general, the bust evokes his role as the all-powerful commander-in- chief and imperial protector.

Exquisite ancient jewellery such as a string of beads with amulets said to be from Thebes, Egypt, masks and fabrics such as a gold death mask from Jerusalem and gold jewellery from ancient Mesopotamian graves, are a nod to the craftsmanship of times past.

Other noteworthy works appear on a must-not-be missed wall of artefacts that brings together different cultures and belief systems in the Indian sub-continent.

In one space, you get to see the Standing figure of Lord Buddha from ancient Gandhara in Pakistan, 16th century lion balustrades from India and a statue of the elephant god Ganesha from eastern India.

Ms Teo says: "In today's integrated world, to understand our own heritage and culture, we need to be exposed to other cultures, to better appreciate the world around us."

The exhibition also looks at how contemporary artists interpret their cultures and contexts in their artworks.

In Woman's Cloth (2001), Ghanian-born El Anatsui uses bottle tops and copper wire to create a large hanging canvas, a take on the Kente cloths, the native textiles of his homeland.

The discarded bottle tops come from several Nigerian liquor brands - a reference to Africa's colonial past. Alcohol was among the earliest things Europeans brought to Africa to exchange goods.

Pakistani artist Rashid Rana's arresting digital photomontage I Love Miniatures shows how art has evolved over time.

Tiny fragments of photographs of advertising billboards are used to create an image of the 17th-century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1569-1627), best remembered as the builder of the Taj Mahal in India.

Financial planner Mrunal Bharat Modak, 45, who plans to visit with her 12-year-old son during the school holidays, calls this "a fantastic opportunity" to understand the past.

"While our children read about ancient civilisations in textbooks, I feel they can remember, recall and understand things better when they have real encounters with artefacts.

"This is also a rare chance for all of us to see a part of the prestigious British Museum right here in Singapore," she says.

Editor Bridgette See, 40, who plans to visit with her eight-year-old son, says: "It will be like a whirlwind world tour with an impressive breadth of what the world has to offer, from past civilisations to the present."

VIEW IT/ TREASURES OF THE WORLD FROM THE BRITISH MUSEUM

Where: Exhibition Galleries (Basement), National Museum of Singapore

When: Tomorrow to May 29, 10am to 7pm daily

Admission: $14 (citizens and permanent residents), free for seniors and students (citizens and permanent residents). $20 (others). Other concessions available. Tickets from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg) or from the museum's visitor services counter

Info: www.nationalmuseum.sg or call 6332-3659

Opening tomorrow and running till May 29, the exhibition has a wide geographical reach.


This article was first published on Dec 4, 2015.
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