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Different perspectives on Java and the Malay world

Jan 30. 2019
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To mark the bicentennial of the founding of modern Singapore, the Asian Civilisations Museum in the city state is presenting an exhibition “Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman” until April 28.

It offers visitors a multi-layered picture of Sir Stamford Raffles, a British official with the East India Company who is known for establishing modern Singapore as a British trading port.

The exhibition illustrates many roles Raffles played during his time in Singapore, while also understanding the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Java and the Malay World. Co-curated with the British Museum, this special exhibition showcases some 240 masterpieces from 14 internationally renowned partner institutions and private collectors. Brought together for the first time, many of these cultural objects and artworks are mentioned or depicted in Raffles’ book “The History of Java”. Other artworks fill in gaps of what he did not collect, allowing the exhibition to present a fuller picture of the region’s history.

“This reexamination of Raffles’ view of 19th-century Southeast Asia, particularly Java, not only allows us to consider the implications of colonial methods of collecting, categorising, organising, and presentation of knowledge, but also provides an opportunity to represent – with relevance for today’s contemporary audience – the cultural and artistic richness of 19th-century Java and the Malay World,” says Kennie Ting, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

“Through this showcase, which concludes ACM’s Year of Southeast Asia, we hope to inspire visitors to reconsider what they know of the region, and how Singapore is connected to it, beyond Raffles and events leading to 1819. Reading recent comments on Raffles, it might be interesting for visitors to note that this exhibition assesses Raffles from many angles. In doing so, ultimately it allows them to decide for themselves who and what Raffles represents.” 

Raffles’ personal collection of mostly Javanese and Sumatran objects reveal what he saw as reflective of Javanese culture and history. From traditional masks, theatre puppets, and gamelan musical instruments, to small Hindu-Buddhist sculptures, weapons, textiles, and depictions of Javanese locals, plants, and animals, the objects reveal the way Raffles chose and collected items that he considered indicative of civilisation – according to European standards of the time – and their value for global trade. These were Raffles’ justifications that the Javanese had the potential to benefit from British colonial rule.

The exhibition also reveals that British colonial intervention was just one part of the complex landscape of Southeast Asian politics of the time – royal regalia, important court documents and letters displayed in the exhibition recount the extent of Raffles’ involvement in the politics of sultanates. More importantly, these objects also shed light on the aspirations and agency of local rulers, whose viewpoints provide a more nuanced view of events. The unstable dynamics of this period saw upheavals, conflicts, and invasions, and with them the trade of cultural masterpieces.

Raffles’ presence in Southeast Asia has had long lasting impact. Differing power structures in Java as a result of Raffles’ involvement in the 19th century, are still felt in the Special Region of Yogyakarta, the only place in Indonesia where royal families continue to hold political power.

Through Raffles’ involvement in the Johor-Riau-Lingga sultanate’s succession dispute, the British and the Dutch entered into a tug-of-war over possession of the sultanate’s royal regalia. Eventually, Raffles entered into an agreement with one of the intended heirs, in order to set up a British trading port in Singapore.

“Every object tells a story. This show at the Asian Civilisations Museum demonstrates how objects can reveal new narratives for events, individuals and regions like Southeast Asia. For the first time, this exhibition brings together objects collected by Sir Stamford Raffles from private and public collections from across the world. We are offered a new insight into the very complex history of Java and the Malay world, and invite visitors to come and make up their own minds about this complex character,” says British Museum chairman, Sir Richard Lambert.

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