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Museum Musings: Raffles In Southeast Asia at the Asian Civilisations Museum

Raffles in Southeast Asia_Revisiting the Scholar and the Statesman. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum (1)

What do we really know about Sir Stamford Raffles and his role in 19th-century Southeast Asia beyond what we’ve read in our social studies textbooks? What was the larger global and regional geo-political context in the lead-up to the so-called “founding” of modern Singapore? 

Co-curated by Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and The British Museum, as part of the Singapore Bicentennial commemoration in 2019, gear up for the all new exhibition Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman. Through displays of sculpture, architectural and natural history drawings, wayang puppets and masks, gamelan instruments, krises, and royal regalia of Indonesian sultans, this special exhibition illuminates the different sides of this famously enigmatic figure and his role in the region and seeks to showcase the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Java and the Malay World.

Says Kennie Ting,  director of the Asian Civilisations Museum: “There are two main intents for this exhibition. The first is 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. He was a scholar and avid collector of natural and cultural heritage, but also a ruthless statesman and colonial opportunist. We hope to inspire visitors to look beyond the conventional origin story of modern Singapore; to place this story against larger historical and geopolitical developments in the region.”

He continues: “The second, equally important, intent is to showcase the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Java and the Malay World. The exhibition takes the visitor on a virtual 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 ends 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.”

Over 240 objects featured will show what aspects of Southeast Asian history most intrigued Raffles and the British – but also some parts that they missed, or refused to acknowledge. This will also be 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 the Western world) are brought together from different parts of the world in one venue. Objects featured include items from 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 institutions and collectors such as The British Library, the Royal Asiatic Society, the National Museum of Indonesia, the Museum Batik Danar Hadi, Surakarta, the National Museum of World Cultures, Netherlands, the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, Netherlands and more. 

Says Jane Portal, Keeper of the Department of Asia at the British Museum: “Sir Stamford Raffles played many roles. He sought to understand the region through his collection of natural history and cultural materials and promoted Southeast Asian cultures to the British. Together with the ACM, we are excited to present a balanced perspective of Raffles that develops a fuller picture of the history of the region to the diverse audiences of Singapore and Southeast Asia.”

In keeping with the Asian Civilisations Museum’s mission to explore encounters and connections, this exhibition presents a complex, multi-layered picture of Raffles while showcasing the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Java and the Malay world. See Raffles as you’ve never known him, and come discover the truth behind the man viewed as a scholarly expert on the region, a progressive reformer, a committed imperialist, and even a plagiariser.

Raffles in Southeast Asia runs from 1st February to 28th April 2019 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Admission is free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. For more information, please visit


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