Led by director Kennie Ting, the museum marked the shift towards decorative art with the opening of its new Fashion and Textiles, and Jewellery galleries last April

Step inside Kennie Ting’s office at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and at first glance, it looks just like any other workspace with rows of books on the shelves and stacks of documents on his desk. But what got our attention is the rack of clothes by the door, where the ACM director’s personal collection of batik shirts by Indonesian big names Danar Hadi and Iwan Tirta, and traditional Chinese tangzhuang tops (including a modern interpretation by veteran Singapore designer Laichan), hang alongside three-piece Western suits.

Clearly, his eye for beautiful things steeped in Asian heritage would explain why Ting is the best person tasked to lead the museum’s shift towards Asian antiquities and decorative art. “The focus of the ACM collection has always been on cross-cultural or hybrid art, bringing together elements of East and West, and East and East, while anchoring Singapore’s place within the context of Asia,” shares Ting, who is also director of the Peranakan Museum.

And a closer look at the collection, which has its roots in the colonial Raffles Library and Museum and now one of the most comprehensive in the region, would reveal why ACM’s new positioning as Singapore’s national museum of decorative art makes sense. “A lot of the new collections are decorative art, including furniture, porcelain, fashion, textiles and jewellery. Even our most important collection, the Tang Shipwreck, comprises decorative works,” Ting explains.

“So let’s call a spade a spade: we are a decorative art museum. There’s very little understanding about decorative art from the perspective of Asia. As the only dedicated pan-Asian museum, we are well placed and need to seize this advantage particularly since the world is turning towards Asia,” says Ting, noting the lack of an Asian equivalent to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, with each dedicated to the decorative art, fashion and design in their respective continents.

Two years before Ting joined ACM in 2016, the museum had embarked on a revamp that has seen the unveiling of two new wings in an extension to the historic building at Empress Place, a move from a geographical approach to a thematic one, and new galleries on the first and second floors that explore the connections between trade and commerce, as well as religions and faiths throughout Asia.

This multi-year refresh of its permanent galleries culminated in the opening of two new galleries focusing on Fashion and Textiles, and Jewellery in April, right before circuit breaker measures were introduced in Singapore in light of Covid-19. (And as Singapore exits the circuit breaker in phases from June 1, the museum remains closed until further notice.)

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While ACM is traditionally seen as the antiquities museum, Ting highlights the need to step into the contemporary space. That was why the museum staged the blockbuster Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture exhibition last year, presenting a dialogue between historical and contemporary Chinese design. The Chinese couturier was directly inspired by the museum’s Peranakan wedding dress collection when she created her own contemporary series of wedding gowns. This revelation of “how the diaspora here has influenced an important Chinese contemporary designer was surprising to museum visitors”. The museum's first fashion-focused exhibition was recently named the Best Design Exhibition at the annual Global Fine Art Awards, which honours innovation and excellence in exhibition design, historical context, educational value and public appeal. 

During the course of the museum’s shift, Ting says the emphasis is not only on history but also beauty and aesthetics. “As a decorative art museum, this emphasis on arts and crafts becomes very important. And looking at the Asian aspect of decorative art is understanding the craft, the techniques, the motifs, the materials, the patterns, the societies, and the ways of thinking that go into making these pieces.”

Collectively themed Materials and Design, the new third-floor galleries, along with a refreshed Ceramics gallery, feature over 300 precious and finely crafted masterpieces that tell stories of Asian identities, histories and cultures. Titled Fashion Revolution: Chinese Dress from the Late Qing to 1976, the first display in the new Fashion and Textiles gallery explores the evolution and modernisation of Chinese dress and silhouette, from the elaborate dragon robes and the early styles of the iconic qipao to the Mao suit popularised during the Cultural Revolution.

The display also includes the more modern, but lesser-known, ensembles of the Republican era (1912-1945), where blouses showed distinctive innovations—they were hip-length, with three-quarter flared sleeves and rounded hem, while the accompanying skirts were decorated with early machine embroidery.

Over at the new Jewellery gallery, the spotlight is on the valued objects of Southeast Asian island communities spanning the Neolithic period to the 20th century. The highlights—and also a strength of the ACM collection, according to Ting—are the eight full jewellery ensembles, including headdresses, bangles and belts, meant to be worn together from head to toe.

“Southeast Asia has very strong traditions of such crafts. Even though these were island, previously described as ‘tribal’, communities, they were not backward at all in terms of what they could produce. These jewellery also tells the story of these communities, which many don’t really know about, and this should not be the case because we are in Southeast Asia,” laments Ting.

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Meanwhile, the Ceramics gallery looks at the innovations in porcelain and ceramic-making, from the Neolithic period through the Qing dynasty, with choice picks from the museum’s considerable collection, including the white Dehua porcelain, popularly known as blanc de chine.

With the revamp behind him, Ting has a full line-up of upcoming exhibitions, barring delays due to the Covid-19 situation. A collaboration with Beijing’s Palace Museum that looks at the arts and crafts of the Ming dynasty during the eras of emperors Yongle (1360-1424) and Wanli (1563-1620) is in the works for the third quarter. This is followed by a double bill of traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo period, juxtaposed with imagery from Singaporean celebrity photographer Russel Wong on the geiko and maiko communities in Kyoto.

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In the second half of 2021, the museum will stage another couture show featuring an Indian designer, but not before casting the spotlight on Singapore with #SGFashionNow, in partnership with the Textile and Fashion Federation and Lasalle College of the Arts.

And for those who might have forgotten about ACM in the years when its permanent galleries were under renovation, Ting hopes to woo back visitors—while cultivating new audiences—with cutting-edge exhibition design. “It’s impossible to step into ACM and not get a good shot on your phone or camera because again, it’s about visual communication. I think young people these days are much more attuned with visual communication. Most people think that just because you communicate on Instagram, it’s very shallow. But I find that it’s extremely sophisticated. You cannot underestimate the importance of a visual.”