Human history in 239 objects from the British Museum

Treasures Of The World, which opens at the National Museum of Singapore tomorrow, includes artefacts from ancient civilisations spanning Africa, Oceania and the Americas

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.


  • 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 or from the museum's visitor services counter

    Info: or call 6332-3659

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

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."

•To watch British Museum curator Brendan Moore talk about the significance of this exhibition, go to

Special programmes

Treasures: A Journey Around The World by Brendan Moore, curator, department of international engagement, British Museum

What: Moore's lecture will consider how these objects have helped to shape the way we understand the past and present and prompt us to look at the enduring themes of life and death that connect people across cultures.

He has worked on a number of major international museum projects, including the development of the award-winning Enlightenment Gallery in the British Museum and two television series about the institution for Channel 4 and the BBC.

When: Tomorrow, 2 to 3pm

Where: The Salon, Level 1, National Museum of Singapore

Admission: $16 a person

Collectors Of Asia At The British Museum 1753-2015 by Jane Portal, keeper of the department of Asia, British Museum

What: Since its founding in 1753, the British Museum has collected and displayed works from across Asia, both old and new.

This talk introduces collectors who have contributed to the renowned Asian collection, helping the British Museum realise its mission to collect, research and display the various cultures of the world.

When: Sunday, 2 to 3pm

Where: The Salon, Level 1, National Museum of Singapore

Admission: $16 a person

Curator's Tour led by Szan Tan, senior curator, National Museum of Singapore

What: A curator with the National Museum of Singapore since 1997, Singaporean Tan walks visitors through this exhibition to tell fascinating back stories behind some of the exhibition highlights as well as the Asia and Singapore connections.

When: Dec 18 and Jan 15, 7.30 to 8.30pm

Where: Special Exhibition Galleries, Basement, National Museum of Singapore

Admission: $20 a person

Shades Of Grey I - A Basic Portrait Sketching Workshop by Singapore artist Tang Ling Nah

What: Taking reference from selected portraits from the Treasures Of the World exhibition, artist Tang introduces participants to the genre of portraiture and shows them the basics of sketching using pencil on paper.

Tang, who usually works with charcoal and paper, has presented several large-scale charcoal drawings in the past exploring monuments and the human body.

Best suited for visitors aged 16 years and above.

When: Jan 9, Feb 13, March 12 and April, 9. 30 to 5pm

Where: Special Exhibition Galleries, Basement, National Museum of Singapore

Admission: $40 a person (inclusive of materials)

A Charmed Life - Jewellery- Making Workshop by My Vintage Jewel Box

What: Learn how to make your own gold brass pendant using traditional jewellery-making techniques in this two-hour workshop which takes you though the full creation process - from designing on paper to fashioning a finished product.

The workshop will be led by Ryn Tang, a Singaporean artist who has been crafting jewellery since 2009.

Best suited for visitors aged 13 years and above.

When: March 26, April 30, 3 to 5pm

Where: Seminar Rooms, Level 2, National Museum of Singapore

Admission: $52 a person

• Tickets are available from Sistic ( Prices do not include admission to the exhibition. For more details, call 6332-3659 or 6332-5642

Exhibition highlights

Ceremonial tunic

Hammamet, Tunisia

AD 1900-1950

Embroidery is largely an urban craft in North Africa.

It reflects the historical influences which have shaped the cultural development of the region. The influx of immigrant Jews, Andalusians from Spain, Turks and Armenians has contributed to the dynamism and evolution of diverse styles, designs and forms of dress.

This exquisite knee-length tunic is worn by women on ceremonial occasions over a white lace blouse and pantaloons.

It is from the coastal town of Hammamet in northern Tunisia and has a black wool base cloth embroidered with floral designs in gold-dipped silver thread and sequins.

The deep neck is richly decorated with a thick horseshoe-shaped plait of gold braid bound with blue silk thread.

Welcome Figure

Vancouver Island, Canada

Kwakwaka'wakw people, 19th century AD

The Kwakwaka'wakw people of Vancouver Island, located east of New Zealand, made giant anthropomorphic figures to welcome guests at special gift-giving ceremonies called potlatches.

These gatherings were held to celebrate important events in people's lives, including birth and marriage, and also to honour the dead.

At potlatches, tall sculptures are made to emphasise the wealth and importance of the chief, and are usually depicted with both arms raised in a gesture of welcome.

Here, however, one hand is placed over the chest while the other hangs loosely at the figure's side.

This ambiguity possibly suggests that this figure had a different function.

Stone handaxe

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

Lower Palaeolithic, about 800,000 years old


The oldest artefact in the exhibition and a masterpiece of the stone toolmaker's art, this axe is made from quartzite with amethyst banding.

Using another stone as a hammer, the maker would have used considerable force and accuracy to knock off flakes to create the thin, symmetrical shape with edges with a consistent angle suitable for cutting and slicing.

This reveals also the capabilities of the human brain and how it evolved over the centuries.

First made in Africa, handaxes spread to South Asia, the Middle East and Europe about one million years ago. No other item is known to have been made for such a long time and to have such a wide geographical reach.

Ceremonial crown and breast plate


Around AD 1850-1890

The paisley-shaped pendants on the front of this opulent crown are embellished with images of Buddhist deities. Its size suggests that it may have been made for a child, perhaps a prince.

In Nepal, the practice of worshipping a pre-pubescent girl from the Newari community as a living goddess or kumari is closely related to royal legitimacy.

In times past, the kings of Nepal received her blessing during an annual festival.

Figures of Buddha

Seated Buddha (above, left)

Burma (Myanmar)

18th or early 19th century AD

Standing figure of the Buddha (above, right)

Found at Sambas, Borneo; probably from Java, Indonesia

8th or 9th century AD

Such Buddha artworks, often portrayed seated, standing or reclining, were made for veneration.

The seated Buddha figure is made of gilded lacquer, seated in the padmasana or lotus position, with both soles upturned and his right hand touching the earth.

His gesture indicates the moment when the Buddha called on the Earth Goddess to witness his good deeds.

To produce this hollowed figure, a clay core is shaped and covered with lacquer and left to dry.

Once the core has been removed, the image is coated with refined lacquer before being polished and gilded.

The standing figure in silver with a bronze base is in the posture of discussion or teaching (vitarkamudra), and his left is held under his robes.

Discovered at Sambas in Western Borneo, this is one of the earliest known sculptures from this area of South-east Asia and points to ties with India. Its material suggests it was made for a wealthy patron.

Two brass plaques 

Benin, Nigeria, 16th century AD


Benin, the capital of Edo State in southern Nigeria, is famous for its brass castings, particularly its relief plaques.

These two plaques were probably produced in matching pairs to clad the wooden pillars of the royal palace.

They are dominated by the imposing figure of the Oba, or the king of Benin, serving as a visual record of life during those times.


Mer Island, Torres Strait Islands, Australia

Early to mid-19th century AD

This dance mask or le op was collected on Mer Island in the Torres Strait Islands. Traditionally, each island carried out mortuary ceremonies around three months after the death of a relative.

Masks worn during these ceremonies were understood to act as gateways to the spirit world.

Imagery included human and animal features, as well as bird motifs and other specific clan designs.

Today, traditions are being revived across the Torres Strait Islands and masks incorporating both traditional motifs and contemporary imagery are being produced and worn during festivals and community celebrations.

Bronze figure of Hanuman 

South India

19th century AD

This bronze figure depicts the monkey king Hanuman, one of the most popular Hindu deities in India.

Known for his great strength and military acumen, Hanuman has been worshipped by wrestlers, fighters and military elites for centuries.

His most notable quality is his devotion to Rama - an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu - whose wife Sita he helps rescue from the demon Ravana. Here, Hanuman is seen holding a mountain of medicinal herbs.

According to a story in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, Hanuman was sent on a mission to the Himalayas to collect a magic plant to save the life of Rama's brother Lakshmana.

Unable to decide which should be picked, he uprooted the entire mountain and carried it back to the battlefield on the island of Lanka where Lakshmana lay wounded.

Beaded collar

Matmar, Egypt

22nd dynasty, around 945-715 BC

This intricate collar was discovered during excavations at the provincial cemetery of Matmar, in Middle Egypt.

Composed of beads and amulets made of a glazed composition called faience, it was found in the grave of a young child.

The amulets, arranged in four rows, are in the form of small figures of goddesses, each standing within a shrine and holding a sceptre in the form of the papyrus plant.

As with all such amulets, this was intended to bring divine protection to the wearer, not only in life, but after death too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2015, with the headline 'Special programmes Exhibition highlights Stone handaxe Beaded collar Mask Human history in 239 objects Ceremonial tunic Two brass plaques Ceremonial crown and breast plate Bronze figure of Hanuman Welcome Figure Figures of Buddha'. Subscribe