The Story Behind Raffles in Southeast Asia | In Conversation with Kennie Ting, Jane Portal, and Alexandra Green



Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman


© Asian Civilisations Museum

The Johor-Riau-Lingga royal regalia.
© Asian Civilisations Museum


February 1, 2019 - April 28, 2019

Sir Stamford Raffles was an official with the British East India Company stationed in Southeast Asia between 1805 and 1824. He is known for establishing Singapore as a British port, as the author of The History of Java, and as a collector of natural history and cultural materials. Opinions of Raffles have changed over time. He has been viewed as a scholarly expert on the region, a progressive reformer, a committed imperialist, and even a plagiarizer. 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.

The presentation of this exhibition is a collaboration between the British Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.


Asian Civilisations Museum

Kennie Ting


Courtesy of Subject

Please elaborate on the process and relationship between the Asian Civilisations Museum and the British Museum that brought this exhibition on the legacy of Sir Stamford Raffles to fruition? What was the specific thematic impetus underpinning the selection of objects for the show?

Actually, the two entities independently decided to do Raffles exhibitions this year. As Alexandra [Green, Henry Ginsburg curator for Southeast Asia at The British Museum] mentioned earlier, the British Museum was going to do a small scale exhibition, and we had always known that we wanted to do an exhibition on Raffles in Java this year. Two years ago, I went to meet with Jane Portal, and we talked about the possibility of doing this together — that was really it. Since then, it’s been a process of deciding how each of us would curate our portions of the show. We decided then that it was very important for the core of the exhibition to be the Raffles collection at the British Museum, and then have select loans from institutions in the Netherlands, in Indonesia and here in Singapore to complete that picture. We always knew the essential core was going to be the Raffles collection — things that Raffles himself personally collected.

Can you describe the significance of the holdings from Singapore's old Raffles Museum and Library presented in this exhibition?

Yes. There are a few select pieces in this exhibition from Singapore’s Raffles library and museum collection, but the bulk of this material is just next door in our permanent gallery called Ancestors and Rituals, which is dedicated to ethnographic traditions in Southeast Asia. It features the Raffles library and museum collection to a large degree.

What is the role of museums within the national education scheme of contemporary Singapore?

We feature in the social studies textbooks. I believe it's primary through grade five students that come through the museum to learn about India and China. More than 30,000 students come every year with their teachers. My audience team creates wonderful and curated self-facilitated packets that guide students through the museum. These packets allow for pre-museum visit activities, during museum visit activities and post-museum visit activities. Of course, we hope very much to continue to expand and partner with schools to bring more students to the museum, but I would say I'm quite pleased with the number of students who come through already.

From Malay Manuscripts, to Port Cities, to Khmer sculptural highlights from the Museé Guimet, and now this present collaboration on Raffles' place in history with the British Museum, the Asian Civilisations Museum has been spreading its wings as a museum of global stature with a cavalcade of lavish joint projects with prestigious museums in other nations. What does the future hold in store for the ACM?

This past year, culminating with the present Raffles exhibition has been our ‘Year of Southeast Asia.’ We have dedicated this entire year to exploring the history and the heritage of Southeast Asia with a specific focus on the rich variety of cultural heritage here. We launched our new permanent galleries with a strong focus on Southeast Asia, and this current exhibition looks at Java and the Malay world. We also emphasize reexamining colonial history to make a point in some way that, whether we like it or not, the history remains. It's important to reassess and to represent that part of our past for a contemporary audience.

Our exhibitions go in seasons because we have to represent all of Asia, so in the next year, we will focus on Chinese art. Starting this June, we’ll present a series of exhibitions that are centered on aspects of Chinese art and culture, whether it is historical or contemporary art, turn of the century art and so forth. We have explored the same kinds of questions, looking at Chinese cultural heritage and identity from a contemporary perspective. One of the main roles we play here is to make a point that history and art, and especially antiquities, have relevance to the present.


Exhibition Highlights

The character Raden Astra Miruda, son of the king of Janggala.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

© Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

The bodhisattva Manjusri.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles.
© National Museum of Singapore

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The comic character Sabda Palon, one of Damarwulan’s servants.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The character Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

A head of the Buddha from Borobudur.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

© Asian Civilisations Museum

Ritual Fan | Riau-Lingga Archipelago, before 1913
Gold, silver, 51 x 27.7 cm
© National Museum of Indonesia

A white monkey, probably Hanuman, identified as Monyet Fugganga
Central Java, Late 1700s—early 1800s
Hide, horn, pigment, and gold leaf, 74.5 x 21 cm
Donated by Rev. William Charles Raffles Flint, executor of Lady Raffles’ estate
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Trade Textile
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Dish | Pinggan
© Asian Civilisations Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum


The British Museum

Jane Portal

Keeper of the Department of Asia


Alexandra Green

Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia

Alexandra Green The British Museum

The Raffles holdings of the British Museum are amongst the earliest gatherings of artifacts from Island Southeast Asia with known collection dates. Can you describe the scope and significance of the British Museum's Raffles Collection?

Yes, we have more than 2,000 objects collected by Raffles. About 500 of them are Chinese coins found on Java, and then we have more than 350 shadow puppets. We have more than 350 drawings of Hindu and Buddhist architecture and sculpture, and then we have more than 130 masks. We also have wayang klitik, which look like shadow puppets, but they're made of wood, and then we have these three-dimensional wooden puppets and an extensive collection of what look like Chinese coins but are actually amulets made on Java in the shape of Chinese coins. Raffles didn't understand them, so he thought they were Chinese coins as well. If you go on The British Museum website, you can see the broad extent of what he collected, but those are the main bodies of material. Raffles also collected bits and pieces from Thailand, Myanmar, and Burma, as well as India. He has things from all over Southeast Asia and a few things from South Asia, but the majority of the material is from Java.

And then, of course, his collections from Sumatra sank at the beginning of February (1824), and then the next ship came at the beginning of April, so we only have a few objects. During that time, he accumulated a few more natural history drawings. It is quite interesting to see what he collected and what he didn't collect. You definitely get a very strong sense that he was collecting for very specific purposes. We don’t have many very fancy objects, made of gold or decorated with gems, but we do know of a few in other collections, so it’s clear that the most valuable things, according to western standards, were given away as gifts to help promote himself.

Could you describe the historical impact of Sir Stamford Raffles on Western ideas of ethnography and field collecting for museums?

One of the arguments I've made is that Raffles collected material in sets. I think he was definitely one of the first Europeans to do that for cultural material because again, he was trying to make a name for himself. What was happening at the time was that there was a shift within the concept of ‘cabinet of curiosity’. He wanted one of this and one of that, putting them together and thought, “Look at all the fun things being produced.” You shift into scientific thinking, and this idea of collecting in sets was initially applied to natural history material. So, Raffles was extending that and applying it to cultural material.

Anthropological museums didn't really get going until about 20 to 25 years later. The first ethnographic museum was only set up in the late 1830s, and that was in Germany if I remember correctly. So, you didn’t see anything like this in Britain until the second half of the 19th century. In his lifetime, I’m not sure he had much of an impact. These collections are obviously very important now, but at the time, I don’t think they were noticed. His material didn’t come to The British Museum until after his wife died in 1858. The theatrical material only arrived with us in 1859, and then the Hindu and Buddhist drawings didn’t arrive until quite a lot later in 1939.

The manuscripts Raffles’ collected are in the Royal Asiatic Society and were given by his widow in 1830. It’s interesting that written material, a marker of European civilization, ended up going into a collection much earlier than his anthropological collections, or even his drawings. I think part of the reason the drawings came in later is because they were working documents, considered to be utilitarian, not necessarily thought of as art. They had been scribbled on, and notes had been made, whether they were published or not in his History of Java volumes.

Part of the reason his ethnographic materials weren’t given away was that there wasn’t a lot of interest in Britain at the time. In fact, in 1858, they were offered to The British Museum for sale, and they initially rejected them. The following year, the executor of Lady Raffles’ will offered them as a donation, and then we very reluctantly said, “Yes,” wondering where we would put them because they weren’t relevant to what we did. When the executor came to the museum in the 1860s and saw how they were displayed, he was shocked. They had 350 shadow puppets piled in the bottom of this case. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for him. He was very upset about how we had displayed them. "Not to their advantage," as he said.

Between 1970 and 1993 the British Museum mounted many fine exhibitions of 'ethnographic' materials including an exhibit dedicated to the Raffles Gamelan at the now-defunct Museum of Mankind. Are there any initiatives underway to create a new museum venue in London for the lavish and extensive collections of non-Western 'ethnographic' art presently held by the British Museum?

That's a good question. We'd love to have one, but at the moment, we don't have a Southeast Asian gallery. We're planning and hoping to have one in the future. We have a few Raffles objects on display in the Enlightenment Gallery, which looks at the ideas around the formation of the British Museum in the 1750s, but we don't have a dedicated space. We have a very considerable collection of Southeast Asian things about 26,000 in three different departments. The Asian department has nearly 20,000, and the prints, drawings, coins, and metals have under 6,000, and other things are on display. It would be good to be able to show everything, but it’s a question of finding the space. We have a German director, Dr. Hartwig Fischer, and he’s embarked upon a master plan, so as a part of that, we’re hoping to have a dedicated Southeast Asian gallery.


Special thank you to our Asia correspondent, Hannah Alpert, Asian Civilisations Museum, and Leck Choon Ling of Tate Anzur.