Sunday, April 15, 2012

Curating Nation Talk Series: Guerrilla Archaeologists and the Singapore Story (12 April 2012, NUS Museum)

Curating Nation Talk Series: Guerrilla Archaeologists and the Singapore Story, 12-April-2012, 6.30pm, NUS MUSEUM
From the introductory text:
"Most people think Singapore and archaeology are boring subjects, but the combination of the two can be exciting. Since Singapore has no laws covering archaeology, it is possible and sometimes necessary to go about the exploration for new sites in unorthodox ways. The term "underground" can mean something different in Singapore than it does in normal archaeological contexts! In this talk Prof John Miksic will provide an account of the history of archaeology in Singapore since 1984, and its connection with museums."


Prof. John Miksic grew up in western New York State, where he found stone arrowheads made by the Iroquois on his grandfather's farm. In 1967 he participated in his first archaeological expedition, to northern Canada to study Inuit. The next year he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Malaysia, whereupon he was entranced by the archaeological potential of this region.

Here are some of my notes on this talk by the archaelogist John Miksic, who has been excavating archaeological artifacts in Singapore for longer than I have been alive. The talk was conducted at the NUS Museum with about 100 people who had signed up to attend and there was a great Q&A after it, and a walk-through the Sherd Gallery where there is also a new video installation.

[List of key points]

  • There are usually three reasons for doing archaeology:
    1 - to preserve memory and create identity, saving minds and memories
    2 - to prevent injustices or falsifications of the past (it can be used for political purposes or it may come about in the course of colonialism)
    3 - because of the financial value, and the question of defining its context or value
  • Archaeological sites of interest in Singapore are generally concentrated in the town area, with a clear boundary.
  • It is suggested that Fort Canning "was preserved because we found artifacts" there. It has now been turned into a "Heritage theme park" - we were shown a series of images such as the "Myriad of Activities" signboard which emphasizes the diversity of activities at Fort Canning Hill, and the "Mural of Stone", featuring stories of the Singapore River, carved in Bali in a Borobodur style. There are two main walks on Fort Canning, one being the 19th Century Walk and the other being the 14th Century Walk.
  • "It is not endangered, so we are not going to dig it up." - in the case of Padang and other sites, it was opportunism that allowed them to do archaeological studies, being proactive to ask for permission to do the study. But the government was agreeable to allow the museum to carry out digs before excavation began for construction work. In places like the Old Parliament Building, intact artifacts were also found below the floor board.
  • There was sand under the padding, all the way to Kampong Glam. This pure white sand corroborates with Sri Tri Buana's encounter with the pure white sandy beach, which Indra Bopal answered, was the land called Temasik.
  • It is often said that the origins of Singapore's history starts in 1819. In an ST interview with the writers of a encyclopedic book about Singapore called the "Singapore Epic", the writers or editors were commented that they did not want to cover events before 1819 because it would allegedly confuse people and dilute the discussion on Singapore's History. But the real question should actually be: is it identity if it doesn't sell? What tourists want is shallow, simplified content, it is not necessary to think so hard or go so deep into things. But doesn't identity exist for the sake of the ones who have that identity, and not for the benefit or consumption of others?
  • The example of Singapore's influence - Singapore, Michigan: There was once a city in the US called Singapore, Michigan. It was called Singapore because Singapore's reputation had travelled far and wide, although this city was eventually subsumed into Chicago and no longer exists. The essence of Singapore which that town in US wanted to embody by taking on the name of Singapore was: let's become rich by trading!
  • The reputation of the island has also travelled across the seas in the stories of the oft-overlooked Wang Dayuan. The 14th century Chinese traveller wrote of the settlement of Dan Ma Xi from the Malay word Temasik (in 1330) and wrote of both Malay and Chinese residents on the island. Some were said to have been sailors suffering from Malaria who had been left behind on the islands because they were too sick to travel - in the end they ended up living on the island for longer stretches of time and had small settlements similar to the sites of Indonesia sites at Padang Lawas and Kota Cina. (Wang Dayuan's account also talks of the Dragon's Tooth or Long Ya Men (which incidentally has since been reconstructed in fiberglass as an attraction).
  • These and other early records suggest that the current site of Singapore was actually the first place in Southeast asia where Chinese people had resided.
  • Singapore's "history" must be seen within the greater context of time - archaeology provides tangible proof that the "history" or Story of Singapore begins way before 1819.

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