A multifaceted look at Raffles and his legacy
Co-curated by Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and The British Museum, Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman (held from 1 February to 28 April 2019) illuminated the different sides of this famously enigmatic figure and his role in the region.
In this special exhibition, visitors saw some 240 objects that showed aspects of Southeast Asian history that most intrigued Raffles and the British – but also some parts that they missed, or refused to acknowledge. This was the first time that pivotal objects pictured and discussed in Raffles’ The History of Java (which became an important 19th-century reference to Java for Western world) are brought together from different parts of the world in one venue.
Through displays of sculpture, architectural and natural history drawings, wayang puppets and masks, gamelan instruments, krises, and royal regalia of Indonesian sultans, this exhibition showcased the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Java and the Malay World.
The first main intent for visitors to this exhibition was to objectively address the figure of Raffles – presenting him as a complex and multifaceted personality, rather than the mythical, one-dimensional "founder figure" most Singaporeans "know" him as. Raffles was a scholar and avid collector of natural and cultural heritage, but also a ruthless statesman and colonial opportunist. The exhibition hoped to inspire visitors to look beyond the conventional origin story of modern Singapore; to place this story against larger historical and geopolitical developments.
The second, equally important intent, was to showcase the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Java and the Malay World. The exhibition took the visitor on a tour of the great empires of Java – from the 9th century, when the great Hindu-Buddhist monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan were built, through to the 18th and early 19th centuries, to explore the origins of today's still-thriving central Javanese royal courts of Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Mangkunegaran, and Pakualaman.
The tour ended off in the lands of the former Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate, allowing the visitor to delve deeper into Singapore's own roots in the Malay world.
The presentation of this exhibition is a collaboration between the British Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum.
The exhibition features the historic Raffles Collection at the British Museum, which consists of mostly Javanese and Sumatran objects Raffles personally collected during his time in the region. The exhibition also features objects from the following lending institutions and collectors:
- The British Library, United Kingdom
- Royal Asiatic Society, United Kingdom
- National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta
- Museum Batik Danar Hadi, Surakarta
- National Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands
- Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, Netherlands
- Leiden University Libraries, Netherlands
- Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Singapore
- National Museum of Singapore
- National Archives of Singapore
- National Gallery Singapore
- Dr Farish A. Noor, Singapore