Comparison between NUS Lee Kong Chian, NUS shard gallery, National Museum and Fort Canning

1. Compare the museum displays you have seen (NUS Lee Kong Chian; NUS shard gallery; National Museum; Fort Canning) during our field trips. Which did you find most informative? Which one made the most efficient use of resources?

I find the National Museum most informative. The National Museum, in particular the History Gallery, has the largest display area among the four museum displays. Taking up 2,800 square meters, this gallery has far more exhibits compared to the rest. The large number of exhibits facilitates visitors to get a fuller picture of the past by combining the understanding gained through the different exhibits.

Additionally, the explanation that accompanies each artifact is clear. The information is conveyed in a novel manner which captivates the interest of visitors. The History Gallery made use of high tech gadgets like the PDA (called The Companion) and allows every visitor to have a “personal tour guide” while viewing the exhibits. The Companion explains the artifacts to the visitors and replaces the typical explanations found at the side of the exhibits. This delivery method is useful for people who like to know more about the exhibits but find reading large amount of text troublesome. Also, the explanations at the side of the exhibits results in a more cluttered look in the museum which might weaken the messages that the museum wants to bring across. Also, the virtual tour guide speaks clearly and captivates the attention of the visitors by allowing them to enjoy audio content as well.

This is unlike the other museum displays, like NUS Lee Kong Chian and the Fort Canning, where the explanations are accompanied at the side of the exhibits and hence might be not as interactive as the history gallery. The NUS Shard Museum, due to the fact that it is still in the forming stage, is the least informative as the explanations are not set up yet.

Other than that, the way the exhibits are displayed also aids in understanding of the exhibition. Firstly, the dim atmosphere with lights shining only on the exhibits will focus the visitors’ attention on the exhibits. This will direct the visitors’ attentions to the exhibits. Secondly, there is a clear path for the visitors to follow. In this way, visitors will not stray away from the path and can view the exhibits the way the curators want it to be viewed, resulting in a better understanding of the exhibits. Lastly, the museum is separated into events and individual storylines for the visitors to choose depending on their personal preferences. Also, adding storylines to the exhibits will allow the visitors to make better sense of the exhibits as they view the exhibits from different perspectives.

However, that being said, the Companion of the History gallery is not without its bad points. If the visitors only want to listen to certain parts of the explanations, the PDA is unable to do so, and the visitors have to listen to the whole explanation again, unlike text, where the visitors can choose which parts to read. Also, for the History museum, there are certain sections where the visitors are forced to stand and listen to a long narration while only seeing a few exhibits. This is unlike text, where the visitors can quickly skim through to get a rough understanding of the exhibits. Hence, this results in visitors taking a long time before completing the whole exhibition.

Next, I find that the Archeological Excavation Site in Fort Canning made the most efficient use of resources. With a small space, the exhibition has the excavation site as its “central exhibit” and all the exhibits around complementing it. Perhaps due to the nature that it is an outdoor museum gallery, it allows the excavation feeling to be felt more clearly and impresses upon the visitors the difficult excavation process. This shows the visitors that the artifacts which are displayed in the history museums and the fort canning gallery are truly found underground. With the excavation site as the main focus, the exhibits in the walkway are highlights of the exhibits dug up. The exhibition provides food for thought for visitors as they realize the importance of excavation in uncovering our history.

Nonetheless, the Fort Canning gallery is in prime land, near the CBD in Singapore. This also translates to high opportunity cost for the government. Hence, care must be taken to maintain the gallery and the excavation site to ensure that the land is well-used. Perhaps more publicity could be done to promote the excavation site. It makes the conservation more worth it is more visited.

The other galleries can be made more efficient too. Perhaps due to the fact that the Shard gallery is not yet completed, it seems less impactful and not fully utilizing the space and resources it has. Nonetheless, it has certain good aspects to it. For instance, there is an exhibit of the shards on the ground that is covered by the glass panels. This shows efficient use of resources as it makes good use of the space in the room. The shards are arranged in chronological order and allow the visitors to see the transitions of the pottery across the years. However, more improvement can be made in explaining the shards as there are no explanations at the side or near the shards. I would suggest putting the explanations on the ground as well, drawing arrows out to indicate the years.

Perhaps, we can learn from the National Museum by adding in videos and music at the background. One of the exhibits of the Singapore History Gallery is on women in Singapore in the 1960s. Songs popular at that time are played in the background. There is also a video showing the interview with one of the ladies who donated her items to the museum. This adds in more variety to the artifacts displayed. Adding audio elements also enrich the museum visiting experience for the visitors. To make it more appealing to the visitors, a storyline of the exhibits can be introduced to the displays.

The Lee Kong Chian museum has a bigger space as compared to the Shard gallery. However, the displays were not interactive and there was no obvious theme underlying the exhibitions. Given that there is quite a large space allocated to the LKC museum, it is quite a waste of resources.

It is important that we constantly evaluate the displays of all museums, as museums are important public sites for authentication of culture and heritage in a country. What is presented (and what is not) can affect how a society sees itself and its ways of dealing with issues like ideology, embedded bias or representation of gender. Hence, periodic critique of the displays will ensure that there are no discrepancies in what we want to present and what is presented, at the same time ensuring that the museums remain informative and efficient in its running.

2. Compare the different types of historical (i.e. written) sources for the study of Asian maritime trade in the 9th century. What are the main problems with each type of source (Chinese, Malay, Arab, Indian, others)?

During the 9th century, a variety of cultures and societies were involved in the Asian maritime trade. The overall picture of the situation then is difficult to paint as each culture had a different method and agenda in documenting their history. Thus, I will now evaluate/review the unique challenges in using the different sources from the different cultures to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each type of source.

Amongst all the sources, the Chinese historical writings provided the most detailed source for history before the tenth century. This wide variety of records includes their dynastic histories, encyclopedias and travels and topographies.

However, most of these are second-hand records. This is especially true for official histories, which were recorded by civil servants after the end of a dynasty. The recounts that envoys brought back from foreign land could be misinterpreted by the civil servants, leading to errors in historical records. As the records were written by the ruling dynasty, there could also be possible political agenda in selecting or omitting certain information beneficial to the ruling dynasty. In addition, the envoys themselves sometimes reported about events or information which was second hand. Another main group of travelers at that time was the Buddhist monks who were on their way to India to further study Buddhism. The monks focused on religion ideologies rather than geographical observations. I-ching, a Tang dynasty monk, even excluded the recording of those states where Buddhism was not in favour. Thus, historians need to verify the factual accuracies of the travels and topographies.

Finally, a major problem to interpreting Chinese sources is the nature of the Chinese language. The language consists of only about 400 different monosyllables, which is not sufficient to accurately reproduce all the sounds in South East Asian languages. The Chinese language uses tones to differentiate the homophones, but this could not be used in the translation of the Malay names. Historians face a greater problem by the fact that there is inconsistency in the usage of characters in naming a location. Words of the same sounds are used interchangeably. This results in the historians not being able to easily identify the places mentioned by the historical Chinese records.

The Arab trading ships started exploring the seas of South East Asia in the 7th century in search of spices and drugs. Like the Chinese sources, Arab sources must be used with caution as much of it is second hand information which Arab authors received from sailors and merchants in the ports of Persian Gulf. An example is the text “An Account of China and India” by Abu Zaid, who had never been to India and China but interrogated the sailors and merchants from those parts to get his information.

As most of the Arab voyagers are merchants and not explorers, the majority of the accounts tell of trade routes and products rather than the lands or people of foreign land. At the same time, the Arab sailors often embellish their stories with imaginative tales of monsters and mystical adventures which lead to famous tales like Ajaib al Hind (The wonders of India) and The Thousand and One Nights. Although these tales sound incredible, the detail in which the local environment was described suggests that they were derive from the authentic experiences of travelers and should not be completely disregarded by historians.

Arabs are famous for the maps they drew up for the maritime trade. However, the maps were distorted by sailors’ description of the sea. The information recorded in the official Arab maps, although detailed, was also just hearsay. Topographers plagiarized each other’s works and hence do not contribute much new knowledge to Arab knowledge of South East Asia. It is hard to decipher the authenticity of the Arab sources because Arab authors often copy and edit historical sources.

Another difficulty arose due to the nature of the Arabic language. Their vowels are denoted by a series of dots (known as diacritical points), and several consonants are identified only through these points. This is a potential source of copying error. For example, the Arabic version of Tioman, appears in different manuscripts as Tiyumah or Tanumah.
During the 9th century, Indian literature did not focus on historical and geographical writing hence there is a lack of such information about foreign countries. Although the Indian sailors reached South East Asia in very early times, knowledge about the foreign lands was not accurately recorded.

Like the Arab sources, the knowledge gained about foreign lands by the Indians was passed down through tales. However, the Indians were only focused on the pursuit of wealth through trading and thus slanted towards places where there were more opportunities for Indians to obtain wealth. In particular, they mentioned the Malay Peninsula, the Suvarnadvipa (the Golden Island) which was featured in their traditional folklore as an eastern Eldorado. Hence, there was not much emphasis on the lands and new people met, but more of the voyages and the potential wealth awaiting them. Many tales were recorded in Brhatkatha,(a compilation of the Indian tales) and stories about the sea routes were also captured in tales of shipwreck, for instance the one sufferance by Princess Gunavati from Kedah to India. Exaggerations and myths about the voyages make studying the tales difficult for the historians.

There are also difficulties in locating the exact places mentioned in the Indian historical texts. For example, despite the many references to Suvarnadvipa, there is no precise description available. Suvarnadvipa has been linked to Lower Burma, or even the whole of Sumatra. It appears that the Indian themselves do not know anything more about Suvarnadvipa than it as a fabled Eldorado beyond the sea. As such, identifying the exact location is difficult for historians.

History to Malays, until recently, has been an entertainment. It focuses neither on the accuracy nor completeness but places emphasis on the legends, fantasy and the plots of history. There was also a tradition for historical material to be passed down for centuries by word of mouth. This gives rise to large inaccuracies and loss of information. As compared to the other three, Malay sources have a lack of indigenous written sources other than the inscriptions found on the stones in Sumatra and Java. The inscriptions speak of the Srivijaya reign and some of the rules that they have set for the people. The inscriptions were curved on the stones most probably as they were meant to survive a long period of time.

As most of the sources were not meant for academic purposes, it is hard to avoid a political slant and we cannot expect their recordings to be complete and accurately. It is hence important to bear in mind who the sources were made for at the time they were written and what objectives the sources fulfilled to better study them.

Wheatley, Paul. 1961. The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the Historical Geography of the Malay Peninsula before A.D. 1500. Kular Lumpur: University of Malaya Press

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