Singapore's Tang treasures travel to the US

Artefacts salvaged from a ninth-century Arab shipwreck go on show at a New York museum next month

Singapore-owned artefacts from a 1,200-year-old Arab dhow wrecked in South-east Asian waters will be exhibited for the first time in the United States.

The showcase from March 7 to June 4 at the Asia Society Museum in New York comes five years after a plan to exhibit the shipwreck artefacts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington foundered on controversy over how it had been excavated.

The Asia Society Museum, headed by the former director of the Singapore Art Museum, Mr Tan Boon Hui, will pull out its own Tang-era treasures to accompany the ceramics from the shipwreck. The exhibition, titled Secrets Of The Sea: A Tang Shipwreck And Early Trade In Asia, is jointly organised by the New York museum and Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum.

Singapore is sending 76 items from the cargo of the ship, which sank in the ninth century. On display will be Chinese ceramics - bowls, vases, jars - that were either cargo for sale or used for storage, as well as some gold plates and a decorated bronze mirror.

 Ewer, China, probably Gongxian kilns, around 830s, stoneware.
Items on display: Ewer, China, probably Gongxian kilns, around 830s, stoneware.

Similar items are on view at the Asian Civilisations Museum's Khoo Teck Puat Gallery. The entire hoard, acquired by Sentosa Leisure Group in 2005 for a reported US$32 million, numbers a staggering 60,000 items, mainly ceramic crockery and pottery.

The artefacts "highlight ancient Asia's early advances into industrial production for the export market", says Asian Civilisations Museum director Kennie Ting.

The 1998 discovery of the ship off Indonesia's Belitung Island thrilled scholars of the past. An Arab ship en route to Asia to sell a cargo of China-made items meant there had been a maritime trade route that eclipsed the land-based Silk Route of lore.

Last year, a similar ancient shipwreck was discovered in Thai waters, but the Belitung cargo is still the largest of its kind.

After the shipwreck was acquired by Singapore, the Smithsonian partnered the Singapore Tourism Board, National Heritage Board and Asian Civilisations Museum in curating an exhibition of 400 items from the cargo. This was displayed at Marina Bay Sands' ArtScience Museum in 2011.

Items on display: Storage jar, China, Guangdong province, around 830s, stoneware.

In December 2011, some months before the exhibition was to travel to the Smithsonian, the Washington-based museum declined to host the show. Academics in the state-funded institution had protested that the treasures were recovered by a commercial salvager - albeit legally - and sold for profit.

The contention was that buying and selling commercially recovered artefacts violate the spirit of a 2001 Unesco convention on protecting maritime heritage. Singapore,the US and Indonesia have not subscribed to that convention.

The privately funded Asia Society Museum will thus be the first American institute to host artefacts from the Belitung wreck. It is an important event for those who study the past and the Asian Civilisations Museum is launching a new catalogue of the shipwreck, featuring some of the research done on the Belitung cargo.

Related academic events will be organised at New York University (NYU) and Columbia University.

Items on display: Bronze mirror, China, around 830s, bronze.

On March 4, there will be a one-day symposium on the shipwreck, organised at NYU by the New York Centre for Global Asia and NYU's Institute of Fine Arts, and supported by the NYU Centre for the Humanities.

On April 22, a similar event will be held at the Tang Centre for Early China at Columbia University.

Among the items heading to New York is a blue-and-white stoneware dish made in China. However, scholars say the cobalt-blue pigments used had to have been first imported from the Middle East.

Items on display: Stemcup, China, probably Gongxian kilns, around 830s, stoneware. PHOTOS: ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

Asia Society Museum's Mr Tan says: "The Belitung ship shows that globalisation is a very old concept in Asia and the colonial powers didn't invent it. Hundreds of years before the Portuguese came looking for spices, we had two great empires, the Tang dynasty in China and the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle East, exchanging ideas."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore's Tang treasures travel to the US'. Print Edition | Subscribe