Make art not war

Everyone needs a little rejigging every now and then—even museums. Keeping things fresh, the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) has undergone a major reshuffle of its prized collection, to introduce three new permanent galleries for all to enjoy. A move away from its previous organisation by geographical region, the new direction focuses on a thematic curation, with a bigger focus on art. The three new galleries hence spotlight Christian Art, Islamic Art and Ancestors and Rituals, under an umbrella theme of Faith and Belief.

If you’re surprised to find a Christian Art gallery in a museum about Southeast Asian art, don’t be. Christianity came to Asia as early as the 7th Century, but took its time spreading its influence. Inside the gallery, scope out historical cross-cultural pieces from artists who probed the boundaries of their own beliefs for the sake of art. For example, an ivory carving Virgin and Child is speculated to have been carved by a Chinese artist, due to the surprising three folds of flesh under the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus’ faces—a characteristic trait of many Buddhist artworks.

Christian Art gallery

Other Asian-Western works include prints from an Islamic artist who incorporated Christian imageries after his travels abroad, and an ornate writing desk owned by a Portuguese family which pairs oriental motifs with a Christian altar. Apart from it being the first permanent museum space in the world dedicated to showcasing Christian works of art across Asia, the gallery stands out for its bold curation to demonstrate how religious tolerance can encourage the birth of a new art form.

The second highlight of the new galleries is the Islamic Art gallery, showcasing both non-secular and secular everyday objects that relate Southeast Asia to the wider Islamic world. Diverging from conventional narratives that tend to talk about Islamic art chronologically, the new gallery dives into the philosophy of Islamic art as opposed to the history. Some key pieces to look out for include the al-Buraq, a Philippines-made, mythical-looking wooden sculpture of the legendary creature that carried the prophet Muhammad to the heavens. There’s also an elegant calligraphy crane composed of Arabic text from the Quran, and a shirt from Mughal India with the entire Quran written on it from front to back—a work of protection.


Back outside at the Ancestors and Rituals space, learn about the centuries-old beliefs of traditional societies and some of the most remote communities in Southeast Asia. The pieces—which range from various effigies of mythical creatures as protectors, to a rare wood carving of an ancestor figure, passed down through generations of a village from the 19th Century—include some of ACM’s oldest collections originally found in the old Raffles Library and Museum.

Southeast Asia in the World is open from Dec 1 at the Asian Civilisations Museum. More information available here.