From shipwreck to chess: Explore Asian heritage at the new Asian Civilisations Museum

Why do we need to know our history?

Judging from its new spaces and galleries, it is clear that a key goal for the new Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is to provide visitors with plentiful opportunities to think about their heritage by highlighting the diversity of Asian cultures.

ACM will open its doors this Saturday, Nov 14, having completed the first phase of its $25-million revamp. For the first time, the museum will be having its 24hrs @ ACM event, with members of the public invited to experience its new spaces all night long.

The event could bridge the misconception that art is only for the highbrow, proving that knowing history is as essential for children as it is for adults - if not more. A pyjama party in essence, the event will feature picnics and barbecues under the stars, museum tours, music performances and more.

Here are some of the highlights of the revamped ACM:

Tang Shipwreck: Khoo Teck Puat Gallery

The Khoo Teck Puat Gallery is in the single-storey Riverfront Wing, and features artefacts found from a ninth-century shipwreck that was discovered off Belitung Island in the Java Sea in 1998. Excavations of the wreck revealed an astonishing cargo of more than 60,000 ceramics produced in China during the Tang Dynasty, as well as luxurious gold and silver objects. The ship, bound for the Middle East, provides strong evidence of the thriving trading and commercial links between China, the Middle East and Southeast Asia even a millenia ago.

Among the treasure trove of items include three blue-and-white dishes, among the oldest-known of the distinctive Chinese blue-and-white ware. While this type of porcelain is often associated with Chinese culture, they in fact have Middle Eastern roots. The blue glaze on the dishes was made with cobalt, a product which, at the time, was mined entirely in Iran and was unavailable in China. Iran and Iraq, which was part of the Abbasid Empire in the 9th century, also coveted Chinese ceramics.

Another interesting find were pitchers with tiger-shaped handles. These were splashed with green glaze to appeal specifically to the Middle East. Such green-splashed wares were widely found and imitated in the Middle East, but artists there created their own inscriptions.

The shipwreck is emblematic of ACM's focus on identifying the connections and interactions between Asian cultures throughout history.

ACM is also launching two mobile apps, one of which provides a virtual reality experience that seeks to engage visitors on a whole other level, creating a fun atmosphere that not only fosters imagination, but also allows visitors to develop a deeper understanding of what life used to be like in Asia.

For instance, one could be a member of the crew aboard the Tang ship whose wreck and items it was carrying are on display at the museum.

The Scholar in Chinese Culture Gallery

Located on Level 2 of ACM's new Kwek Hong Png Wing, "The Scholar in Chinese Culture" gallery examines how scholars represented an ideal in Chinese culture.

According to ACM, "great respect was accorded to individuals who could read classical texts, write and paint, and pursue academic studies".

Among the exhibits on display is a traditional "Go" chess set. ACM Director Dr Alan Chong explains that in Chinese culture, chess was considered one of the four accomplishments for a Chinese scholar-gentlemen, along with music, Chinese literature and Chinese painting.

The gallery also dedicates a section to examining the influence of the scholarly ideal on overseas Chinese, such as those who came to Southeast Asia. Some of these wealthy overseas Chinese were found to have turned to scholarly pursuits and wore the robes and badges of mandarins, even though they were not technically entitled.

Ancient religions of India: Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Gallery

The gallery looks at the development and spread of the ancient Indian religions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

On display at this gallery include ancient Hindu and Buddhist deities such as Hanuman, the monkey deity from the Hindu epic "Ramayana", unusually depicted as unclothed and dancing with a lively expression.

A selection of highlights and acquisitions from ACM's South Asian and Islamic art collections are also on display at the South Asia and the Islamic World gallery.

Contemporary Projects Gallery

On the first floor of the new Kwek Hong Png Wing, this gallery is dedicated to displaying contemporary art pieces that are specifically designed for the space. Its large glass windows allow the display to be illuminated by the natural light coming in from the outside.

Currently on display is "Grains of Thought" by local artist Ms Eng Tow. The installation features two floating carbon fibre sculptural forms coated with acrylic paint, and is based on the form of a humble rice grain. Ms Eng says that she was drawn to rice as it is a staple across Asian cultures.

ACM is open from 10am to 7pm daily, and until 9pm on Fridays. Admission is free until Nov 22. From Nov 23, admission is free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. All others pay $8 for adults and $4 for students and senior citizens.

24 Hrs @ ACM will be held from 7pm on Saturday, Nov 14 to 7pm on Sunday, Nov 15.

Other museum exhibits to check out this month:

1. National Gallery to house largest collection of Southeast Asian arts

The $530-million National Gallery Singapore, which has been restored from the iconic City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, will house the largest collection of Southeast Asian art in the world. As part of its opening celebrations, all visitors to the Gallery will enjoy free entry from its grand opening on Nov 24 to Dec 6.

2. How are we here? Collider at ArtScience Museum

Drawing visitors into the fascinating world of experimental particle physics, Collider will provide an up-close look at the world's greatest scientific experiment: the 27-km Large Hadron Collider, which was designed to answer the most fundamental questions we have about the universe.

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