What happened 200 years before Singapore’s founding
The National Museum of Singapore’s latest exhibition, An Old New World: From the East Indies to the Founding of Singapore, 1600s – 1819, offers visitors an immersive experience. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore)

What happened 200 years before Singapore’s founding

Singapore’s past has been much talked about this year as we commemorate the Singapore Bicentennial. Yet the 200 years prior to Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival in Singapore in 1819 has perhaps received less airtime than the 200 years after. Telling the lesser-known story is the National Museum of Singapore’s latest exhibition, An Old New World: From the East Indies to the Founding of Singapore, 1600s – 1819.

The exhibition aims to help visitors better understand Singapore’s founding by looking through the lens of international events that shaped the region’s history.

Visitors start their journey in the East Indies, which comprised Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in the early 17th century. They make their way through six thematic zones, including topics such as the European entry into the region and the type of trade that took place here. Their destination – the establishment of the British East India Company trading settlement in Singapore in 1819.

The museum’s curatorial lead Daniel Tham says: “The themes look at the impact of the arrival of the English and Dutch East India Companies from the 17th century, and how their perspective of the East Indies as a ‘new world’ contrasted with the local perspective of the region being an ‘old world’ that had already been thriving economically and culturally.”

The rich and deep story is told in the exhibition with more than 220 artefacts, including 75 loans from institutional and private collections, as well as from the families of Raffles and William Farquhar, the first British Resident and Commandant of colonial Singapore. Here are five highlights from the exhibition not to be missed:

Multimedia opening show

It pays to linger at the start of the exhibition and catch the 5min animated short film, Meeting of the Worlds in full. Projected on a large wraparound screen, the immersive film dramatises the arrival of the first fleet of English and Dutch ships in a culturally vibrant and prosperous Aceh in the 17th century.

Pair of terrestrial and celestial globes

The pair of terrestrial and celestial globes was the largest produced in 1800 by J & W Cary, the leading map publisher and globe maker of that time. The terrestrial globe details the discoveries made by explorers Captain James Cook and Captain George Vancouver while the celestial globe marks positions of the constellations in the skies as seen from land. The globes reflect how much people in the early-19th century understood of the world. 

Painting of Singapore from Government Hill

The painting is likely based on one by British painter Augustus Earle, who passed through Singapore in 1828. It presents a panoramic view of Singapore from Government Hill, otherwise known as Fort Canning Hill today, and it also offers a rare view of what Singapore looked like in its early development as a trading settlement and port.

Ceremonial keris presented to Stamford Raffles

The ceremonial keris was presented by the Raja of Buleleng in Bali to Raffles when he served as the Lieutenant-Governor of Java from 1811 to 1816. The dagger was part of the 30 tonnes of curiosities and treasures that Raffles brought back with him to England in 1816.

Raffles’ silver tea urn

Tea drinking was an indispensable part of life for the British in the 19th century and the tea urn was an emblem of respectability among the British upper and middle classes. Raffles brought his silver tea urn with him on his voyage to the East Indies in 1817.

Details on An Old New World here.

(Photos by: National Museum of Singapore)

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