Since becoming director of the Asian Civilisations Museum on Sept 1, Kennie Ting — the institution’s youngest ever head honcho — has striven to make Asian antiquities attractive again.

When Kennie Ting began putting together his first book, The Romance of the Grand Tour — 100 Years of Travel in South East Asia — in 2013, he had little knowledge that it would land him a job as director of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) three years later, nor that it would be the starting point for a new exhibition that opens on Nov 4.

Through archival maps, prints and postcards, and contemporary photos taken by Ting himself, the book takes readers on a journey across the region and back in time, covering 12 vibrant port cities: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), Hanoi, Malacca, Manila, Penang, Phnom Penh, Rangoon (Yangon), Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Singapore and Surabaya.

Ting, a sociologist and keen history buff, spent a year travelling, chronicling his expeditions on his blog, dreamofacity.com. Were it not for a friend who suggested he immortalise his works in print, the book might never have seen the light of day.

The idea for his expeditions stemmed from a deeper desire to understand the region. “Growing up in Singapore, I felt that I didn’t really learn much about Southeast Asia in school. So, I thought that the best way to learn was to travel around the region. I started in mid-2012, and in each city I would obsessively take photos of the historic architecture, the streetscapes and so on.”

Along the way, Ting’s voyage became one of self-discovery. “My journeys were quite focused on port cities and their links to trade and travel, and that gave me a better understanding of who I was as a Singaporean and what Singapore is today: a cosmopolitan, East-meets-West type of Asian port city.”

Ting had previously spent eight years at the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts in arts and heritage development. He left in 2010 to further his studies in London’s Goldsmiths College, but more importantly, to find his way. “The course that I did was [a Master’s in] World Cities and Urban Life. Through that, I realised that I was very interested in the history and heritage of cities.”

After graduating in 2011, Ting spent a year “hanging around” New York City, working on a personal photography project:100 Ways To See… A Street, an experiment in visual art/street photography and urbanism in which he attempted to capture different aspects of a streetscape in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he lived at the time. The idea was to showcase the inherent complexities of urban life.

On his return to Singapore, Ting wanted to pursue this train of thought in a way that was meaningful. He landed a job as director of policy and development at the National Heritage Board (NHB), where a meeting with Alan Chong, the then-director of the ACM, proved fruitful. The two hit it off, discovering that they shared a similar vision of what the ACM should be: an institution that explored the role of trade and the culture of port cities.

Close tie
In 2014, Chong asked Ting to be his successor. He agreed, and spent the next two years being intimately involved with the ACM. In 2015, Ting was made the NHB’s group director of museums and development — inadvertently becoming Chong’s boss — but continued his strong involvement with the ACM. Today, he still maintains the group director portfolio alongside his role as ACM director.

Asked how different the roles are, Ting says: “My role as group director [has more to do] with funding, branding and coordination, whereas here [ACM] I’m involved in the acquisition of pieces that go into the collections, as well as the way we shape exhibitions.”

Previously, the ACM’s permanent galleries were organised by region: East Asia, West Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. That model was abolished when the galleries were renovated in 2015, in time for SG50. In its new guise, the galleries are arranged along two broad curatorial themes that draw upon Singapore’s very essence as a cosmopolitan port city at the crossroads of global world cultures.

In a way, the exhibits now manifest the themes explored in Ting’s book. The ground floor galleries are devoted to maritime trade and the kinds of luxury goods that were produced as a result of that trade. “In the centre of the ground floor galleries, we focus on East Asian trade going to Europe, with a few key port cities as highlights. For example, Nagasaki during the Portuguese and Dutch era (1500s to 1800s), and Canton (Guangzhou) from the 1700s to the 1800s, with a very strong focus on ceramics.

“Then we have a section where we look at (trade relations between) China and the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia, and China and India. Another gallery looks at the Indian subcontinent and what was exported from there to the rest of the world — furniture, textiles and so on. Every piece in that collection — from the Tang Shipwreck collection to the China and India trade collection — are all cross-cultural. They’re neither Chinese, Indian nor European. I feel strongly that that’s what Singapore is all about.”

Meanwhile, the second floor explores the crossroads of religions, faiths and peoples. Visitors will encounter exhibits of the world’s major religions, how they entered or spread across Asia, how they evolved and adapted, and how they incorporated local traditions and forms of craftsmanship along the way. “In one of the galleries that opened in September, we explore Buddhist art from India, Nepal, China and Southeast Asia, with some Hindu pieces in between, just to show how the aesthetic form of the religion changed, and also to show the interaction between Buddhism and Hinduism.

“The point we’re trying to make is that no world religion has ever existed on its own. Religions and civilisations have always interacted and mutually informed and enriched each other. The cross-cultural pieces that we’ve been acquiring in the last five years have been key to the (vision of the) new ACM.”

Multicultural manifesto
This credo seems especially pertinent given the current state of world affairs: faltering black-white relations in the US; the jihadist manifesto of terrorist groups such as ISIS, and the subsequent atrocities they commit; and, closer to home, hate-spewing characters like blogger Amos Yee. As Ting writes on his blog: “I believe that in a world that is becoming increasingly xenophobic and intolerant, it is even more important for a museum such as the ACM to emphasise that civilisations have never existed in monolithic, hermetically-sealed boxes.”

Among Ting’s favourite pieces is a Gandharan head of a Bodhisattva that dates to the fourth century CE. Beautifully sculpted from terracotta and standing an impressive 85cm tall, the piece greets visitors as they enter the Ancient Religions gallery on the second floor. “The piece is from Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan/ Afghanistan, the same region as that of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001). It’s important to remind people that there are pieces of cultural heritage that are being destroyed. Just because we’re in Singapore, it doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to what’s happening in the world.”

Gandharan art is noted for its characteristic blend of Greek and Buddhist aesthetics, and Ting feels that the piece speaks of the ACM’s mission to explore the crossroads of cultures.

Come Nov 4, a new temporary exhibition will take Ting’s pet subject even further. Called Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia, 1500–1900, the showcase aims to bring to life the lives of traders and migrants through photographs, paintings, fashion, luxury goods, and everyday objects. “Again, it’s a storyline that’s uniquely ours. There’s no one else that can do this,” maintains Ting. “This exhibition will feature the material culture of hybrid communities in historic port cities. Starting in Singapore, we go backwards in time to explore Nagasaki, Batavia and so on and communities like the Dutch Eurasians in Batavia and the Japanese Eurasians in Nagasaki.”

While the permanent galleries are focused on works of art that were exported, Port Cities brings a human dimension to the objects on display, with five stories centred on personalities who lived in those cities. The exhibition took two years to put together. Works from more than 10 different institutions will be on show, with Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum being the main partner.

One of the most important pieces on loan from the Rijksmuseum is a portrait by Dutch artist Jacob Jansz Coeman — Pieter Cnoll, Cornelia van Nijenrode and their Daughters (circa 1665) — depicts the first chief merchant of Batavia Pieter Cnoll; his half-Dutch, half-Japanese wife, Cornelia van Nijenrode; and their two daughters. The family was part of the Batavian elite, evidenced by the image on the far right of the painting: two of the 50 servants who worked for Cnoll and his family.

A youthful approach
At 38, Ting is the youngest director to have ever helmed the ACM. His youth and effervescent personality — he speaks with rapid-fire enthusiasm and peppers the interview with gleeful peals of laughter — have imbued the museum with a newfound verve and sense of openness.

Far from ruling the roost from his ivory perch, Ting prefers to interact with his visitors. When time permits, he gives the occasional tour — both paid and free — to groups of students or VIPs. He has also instituted a monthly ritual, “Last Fridays @ ACM Riverfront”, where he welcomes anyone to sit with him on the museum’s steps — à la The Met — in the evening to chat about the museum, its exhibits (among others), over a glass of wine.

“(At The Met) in New York, you look out onto the street. But here you face the Singapore River, the city skyline and you can watch the sun set,” he says, adding that The Met is his favourite museum as well as a benchmark institution.

Ting’s Friday ritual is one of several avenues he has adopted in his pursuit of contemporaneity. “My challenge is to make antiquities sexy again — how to make the ACM feel modern and cutting-edge, despite the obvious ostensible focus on antiquities. There are a few ways: what I’ve already expressed, linking it back to the state of being Singaporean. We could also talk about how cutting-edge ceramic technology was at the time, for example. Everything produced as a result of trade was so innovative in terms of design and quality. We’re telling a history of modernity, design and innovation, and how all of that took place here in Asia.”

Despite his youth, Ting remains sceptical of using technology to bring the displays to life. “I’m suspicious when we invest in too much infrastructure, rather than content. Between doing an exhibition and putting up a digital project, I would rather do the former.” That said, he is hopeful of the prospect of working with a digital partner in future — to digitise the content of the exhibitions. However, the difficulty lies in the nature of the objects and antiquities themselves: They are three-dimensional and therefore need to be photographed or filmed from multiple angles.

The big picture
Minor challenges aside, Ting remains focused on the big picture: to explore the connections and intersections that exist between Asian civilisations, whether through trade and commerce or religious and socio- cultural links. The reason is simple: “Because nobody else is doing it in the world. It’s our very specific niche. Within these interstitial spaces — these meeting points — I think we will find new and interesting narratives about Asia, and Asia’s interactions with the rest of the world.”

Going forward, his ideal would be to hold two major exhibitions and a smaller one each year. The first would be an “expensive” showcase that features the ACM’s own content and curatorial voice, supplemented by pieces on loan. The second would be more traditional, focusing on a single major Asian civilisation. And the third would be one based purely on the ACM’s own collection.

Ultimately, Ting aims to build “a museum of international standing, [one] that has a unique curatorial voice, that draws reference from what Singapore is, yet is able to provide a narrative of universal significance. And while being a museum of antiquities, I would like the ACM to be contemporary in its outlook, relevant and cutting-edge in the way we present our programmes, while also accessible and clued in to the general zeitgeist.”

With a full schedule and his work cut out for him, Ting has little time to devote to his personal projects, such as street photography. His love for writing, however, has not dissipated, and his weekends are spent developing content for books that he has been contracted to write. He has four tomes coming out over the next two years: three of them are a trilogy of young adult fantasy novels, inspired by Malay-Javanese mythology and published by Epigram; the fourth is a coffee table book on Singapore’s pre-war heritage, published by Talisman.

There are plans for a fifth and sixth book as well, because Ting envisioned The Romance of the Grand Tour as a trilogy. “My next book in that series will be on the port cities of China and Japan, and the next one after that will focus on the port cities of the Indian subcontinent. But I haven’t found publishers for them yet because… this job happened!”

PORT CITIES: MULTICULTURAL EMPORIUMS OF ASIA,
1500-1900
Nov 4, 2016 to Feb 19, 2017
10am to 7pm (daily)
10am to 9pm (Fridays)

Besides chronicling developments in the luxury watch industry, Aaron De Silva also runs The Time Traveller SG on Instagram (@thetimetravellersg) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/thetimetravellersg)

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 752 (Oct 31) of The Edge Singapore.