This exhibition presents the rich variety of objects from Java and Sumatra collected by Sir Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), the British colonial official who founded modern Singapore. Raffles remains a controversial figure – and has been seen as both a committed imperialist and progressive reformer over the decades.
From theatrical puppets and masks to musical instruments and sculpture, this display of his collection explores 19th-century Javanese society and the island's earlier Hindu-Buddhist traditions. Collected in groups (a practice previously only used in natural history), these objects reveal how Raffles understood – and misunderstood – Southeast Asian cultures. The show also investigates how and why he assembled his collection and touches on ongoing research at the Museum, which aims to shed more light on collecting and colonialism in this part of the world.
Most of Raffles' Sumatran collection and official and personal papers were lost when his ship sank not long into its return voyage to England in 1824. While not much is known about his collecting practices while in Sumatra because of this, the objects on display in this exhibition provide a vital record of the art and court culture of Java from the seventh to early 19th centuries.