Asian Civilisations Museum: Welcoming new wings

Asian Civilisations Museum opens two new wings and has a 24-hour celebration of its first phase of revamp

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The newly revamped Asian Civilisations Museum boasts two new wings and expanded galleries, including a 9th-century Tang Shipwreck collection featuring Tang dynasty ceramics, gold and silver objects.

The Asian Civilisations Museum opens two new wings on Saturday, with an invitation to the public to get intimate with its new spaces and collection.

The museum, in a first, will keep its doors open for 24 hours, with round-the-clock programmes, including an outdoor barbecue, late-night tours and a sleepover in an events room overlooking the river, to celebrate the unveiling of the first phase of its revamp.

The $25-million makeover of the historic Empress Place building began in the third quarter of last year. The aim is to increase the exhibition space and make the place more inviting.

The 148-year-old building was last renovated in 2003, when the museum moved into the space.

The new titanium-clad Riverfront wing and Kwek Hong Png wing add more than 1,300 sq m of space to the museum, making for a total of more than 15,000 sq m. Both are designed by GreenhilLi, a home-grown architectural firm founded by Mr Nigel Greenhill and Ms Li Sau Kei.

On the contemporary material and design of the new wings, the museum's director, Dr Alan Chong, says it is in keeping with the prevailing architectural philosophy towards building extensions for heritage monuments.


    WHERE: 1 Empress Place

    WHEN: 10am to 7pm (Saturday to Thursday), 10am to 9pm (Friday)

    ADMISSION: Free for everyone till Nov 22. Thereafter, free for Singaporeans, permanent residents and children aged six and below, except special exhibitions, which are $8 for adults and $4 for students and seniors


    WHAT: The 24-hour celebration of the opening of the museum's new wings includes outdoor picnics, cultural performances, film screenings and a sleepover. After midnight, the museum's director, Dr Alan Chong, and the GreenhilLi architects will hold tours of the space and there will be a party with DJs.

    WHERE: Asian Civilisations Museum

    WHEN: Saturday, 7pm to Sunday, 7pm

    ADMISSION: Free, but the sleepover is limited to 80 people. Registration opens tomorrow at

"It makes for cleaner possibilities and you can still read the old building as an entity," he adds.

The architects say: "The architecture of the new extensions does not mimic the past, rather it represents the architecture of the 21st century, while successfully complementing and integrating with the existing building."

The renewal of the museum extends to its curatorial direction.

While it continues representing the heritage cultures of Singapore, the focus has shifted from looking at the Chinese, Indian and Malay worlds as separate entities to being interconnected and the crucible for Singapore's "unique position in the world as an intersection of many cultures", says Dr Chong.

"Singapore didn't spring out of nowhere, it emerged alongside other port cities of Asia and people have often shared religions and ideas through trade, migration and pilgrimage, so we've used this as a way of curating our new galleries."

The new galleries are no longer devoted to distinct geographies, but organised to respond to the themes of trade and the exchange of ideas, faith and belief.

This change is seen in the two galleries opening this weekend - the Khoo Teck Puat gallery, which is dedicated to the study of the famous Tang Shipwreck, and the Scholar In Chinese Culture gallery, which explores the scholar in Chinese culture and its association with Confucianist beliefs.

Here is a look at what is new, ahead of the opening.

Kwek Hong Png wing


This three-storey wing is named after business conglomerate Hong Leong Group's founder Kwek Hong Png. The charity arm of the group, Hong Leong Foundation, donated $5 million to the museum in 2012 to add a modern wing that will highlight treasures from China.

The architecture takes the form of a metallic titanium cuboid that appears to be suspended above the ground. The illusion is created by the glass atrium on the first floor.

The third floor of the wing, which features Chinese ceramics, is slated to be ready in March, when phase two of the revamp is completed.


The first floor of the wing is dedicated to contemporary art commissions that respond to objects and themes in the museum.

The museum's director, Dr Alan Chong, says: "Getting the present to look at the past is a challenge, but I think contemporary artists can help us see things that we might've missed about culture, history or society."

The space is inaugurated by the installation Grains Of Thought by Singapore artist Eng Tow, who says the two ovoid carbon-fibre sculptures, covered in acrylic paint, are meant to "draw attention to rice, life and culture" because the grains are a staple and an icon of Asia.


The gallery on the second floor of the wing looks at the role that scholars played in Chinese culture through the ages.

The museum's senior curator for China, Dr Libby Chan, says: "Scholars were not just people who could read and write well, but they also pursued painting, calligraphy, music and literature."

The gallery examines various aspects of the topic and includes sections on scholar-officials, who were picked through an examination system to run the government, and the Confucian ideals and texts that scholars studied.

There is also a portion that explores the image of the scholarly ideal for wealthy overseas Chinese, particularly merchants and traders who wanted to enhance their social status. Some turned to scholarly pursuits, while others dressed to look like scholarly officials.


Table screen: Gathering of scholars, China, mid-18th century, lacquered wood

This screen shows the refined scholarly taste during the Qianlong reign in the 18th century. The narrative scenes are carved through thick layers of red, green, and ochre lacquer.

Brush rest, China, Jingdezhen, 1506-1521 (during the Zhengde reign), porcelain

One side of this mountain-shaped brush rest carries the Arabic inscription khamah (pen), while the other side reads dan (holder). Together, these words mean "brush rest". The Zhengde Emperor (1491-1521) was greatly interested in foreign cultures. An object such as this may have been made for his use, or for any of the Muslim administrators known to have served in his court.

Armrest, China, early 18th century, cloisonne enamel on metal

Shaped as a handscroll, this armrest is decorated with a crossed pattern of flowers, a design also seen on textiles and lacquer of the same date. Patterns in cloisonne enamel are formed by wires that separate colours composed of melted glass.

Riverfront wing


The new entrance opens out onto a public terrace that leads down to the Singapore River promenade. The welcoming and prominent entry establishes the museum as a key presence along the revitalised river and a landmark on the Jubilee Walk, which winds through the Civic District and will be launched on Nov 29. The titanium-clad glass structure also opens up the museum's interiors to a view from the waterfront, making it more inviting.

On the motivation behind the change, the museum's director, Dr Alan Chong, says: "The museum needed to open itself up more. Previously, there was just one entrance and there was a wing along the river, but it was completely occupied by a restaurant and people didn't associate it with the rest of the museum."

The extension reorients the museum towards the waterfront, emphasising the building's historic relationship to its location. A former government building, it has stood at the mouth of the river since Singapore's beginnings in the 19th century as a port city.


This permanent gallery anchors the single-storey wing and its location, steps away from the waterfront, resonates with the Tang Shipwreck collection on display. The shipwreck was found off Belitung Island in the Java Sea in 1998 with an impressive cargo of 60,000 pieces of ceramics produced in China during the Tang dynasty, as well as gold and silver objects. The collection was acquired with the help of the estate of Khoo Teck Puat, in honour of the late business tycoon. More than 500 pieces of the cargo will be on display.

The museum's curator of South-east Asia, Dr Stephen Murphy, says the shipwreck points to how Singapore sits within a region that "lay at the heart of a global trading network in the ninth century" and how its success as a hub of global trade today "has ancient roots".

He adds: "The collection itself is one of the most important worldwide, with regard to Tang ceramics and global trade in the ninth century, and it is now accessible to the public and scholars for many generations to come."

Adding to the experience of the gallery are the many circular skylights that bathe the precious artefacts with daylight and allow their exquisite craftsmanship to shine. The Tang Shipwreck can also be experienced through a virtual-reality mobile app that allows the user to step into the shoes of a member of the ship's crew or those of a marine archaeologist recovering the cargo. The app can be downloaded for free from Saturday from the App Store and Google Play.


The two new food-and-beverage outlets, operated by the Prive Group, will allow the museum to widen its appeal as a lifestyle destination. The cafe, Prive, offers affordable all-day dining including items such as eggs benedict ($16) and seafood laksa ($15), while Empress, which opens at the end of the month, is a fine-dining Cantonese restaurant with an outdoor bar.


Square dish with swastika, southern China, around 830s, gold

This dish is one of a pair that may have been made as saucers for lobed drinking bowls. The central design of blossoms and leaves forms a swastika, a Buddhist symbol of good fortune that also appears on bronze mirrors and ceramics. The pair of dishes are the only known Tang examples with this design.

Ewer, China, probably Gongxian kilns, around 830s, stoneware

This large ewer is one of the finest ceramics found in the Tang Shipwreck. The incised lozenge motif with leafy fronds is an Iranian design seen on other objects in the wreck, which suggests that much of the cargo was destined for the Gulf.

Ewer with feline-shaped handle, China, probably Gongxian kilns, around 830s, stoneware

The handle of this pitcher is a tiger playfully peering into the vessel. The spout is formed as a dragon's head. Chinese kilns produced white vessels that were splashed with green glaze. Several colours could be used for this technique, but green examples appealed specially to the Islamic Middle East.

Wine flask, southern China, around 830s, silver, partly gilded


Complete with a handle and cover, this is the only known example of a silver wine flask dating to the Tang dynasty. The ornate decoration includes a pair of mandarin ducks, a symbol of marital bliss. The silver was once entirely gilded.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline Asian Civilisations Museum: Welcoming new wings. Subscribe