First posted at HNN.
I was back in Singapore a little while ago, and took the opportunity to revisit an old obsession of mine. Some of you may recall that two years ago, I previewed a marvellous collection of Tang treasure from a shipwreck found near Belitung, an island off the coast of Indonesia. I was fascinated then by how a find like this gets shaped into history, and thought that curators of this material would likely try to find a way to, as I wrote, “inscribe Singapore into a wider and more ancient world history, and to give historical credence to a position that is crucial to Singapore’s self-image today: as a global maritime entrepot, and the lodestone on which Southeast Asia turns”. That has come pretty much into total fruition at the Singapore ArtScience Museum’s new exhibition, entitled Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. It’s even made it to the Lonely Planet.
The exhibition is curated jointly by Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum and the Smithsonian Museums of Asian Art in Washington DC. Together, they’ve done a magnificent job of restoring and presenting their material. All the artefacts have been restored to all possible brilliance, except for the few which have been left in their original coral-encrusted form. The first gallery is cast in shadowy, warm wooden hues, redolent of the hull of a ship. We then move gradually into colder underwater colours—deep blues, turquoises, aquamarine. The exhibition saves the true treasures for the last few rooms—the solid gold, silver and green-splashed porcelain wares, submerged in near pitch blackness and illuminated as though by search spotlights. They have become beautiful, mysterious icons of the Belitung wreck. One emerges from the exhibition, blinking owlishly, into the bright lights of the inevitable souvenir shop.