[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]rendan Moore can never resist making a disclaimer when he introduces the British Museum’s famed Unlucky Mummy. “Don’t get too close,” says the curator of the museum’s department of international engagement. “The British Museum can’t be held legally responsible for anything that might occur while you’re in there.”
In town last month for the opening of the Treasures Of The World exhibition from the British Museum, now on show at the National Museum of Singapore, he is quick to clarify that there is no factual basis for any of the rumours of misfortunes that have swirled around this artefact ever since it was acquired by the British Museum. Besides claims of mysterious deaths of people who have come into contact with it, one of the most oft-circulated tales suggests that the object was placed on board the ill-fated Titanic before re-appearing in the museum after the ship sank.
In fact, as Moore points out, it is not even a mummy but, rather, a mummy-board – the innermost covering of a mummy.
“Still, the fact that I’ve been talking about this non-stop shows just how enduring these stories are, and how they contribute to our understanding of the world,” he says. Moore has curated largescale exhibitions for museums and galleries in China, South Korea, Canada, Spain, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. He has also worked on two television series about the museum for UK’s Channel 4 and the BBC.
Indeed, while the 239 artefacts, antiquities and works of art that comprise this blockbuster exhibition span the ages and hail from disparate corners of the globe, together, they provide an “overview of human achievement over two million years”, he says.
Iconic artefacts on display include two 11th-century chess pieces discovered on the Hebridean Island of Lewis, Scotland; ancient jewellery from the Royal Cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq; and items collected by Sir Stamford Raffles during his time in South-east Asia, including a batik cloth that is believed to be the earliest recorded piece of batik.
“Treasures,” Moore says, “can be dazzling, beautiful objects made of precious materials. But splendour, beauty and luxury are not the only defi nitions of treasure.” Picking out an ivory figure of Saint Joseph that was produced in a Manila workshop in the 17th century, he notes that the ivory originated from Africa or India, was carved in Philippines by a skilled Chinese craftsman, then exported by the Spanish to the new colonies in South America.
He says: “This single object tells the story of empire, conquest, global trade, religious belief and artistic technique. This surely is the real meaning of treasure – an object rich in narrative and a repository of human memory and knowledge.”
Although the British Museum has faced controversies over acquisitions of certain artefacts – for instance, the Greek government has been embroiled in a decades-long dispute over the return of the Elgin Marbles, stone sculptures that originated from the Parthenon in Athens – Moore clarifies that “there are no claims on any of the artefacts here (in Singapore)”.
Still, he acknowledges that disputed artefacts is “an issue for museums around the world”. However, the British Museum has a bigger purpose to fulfil. “Objects that we’ve been acquiring over the last 260 years represent the entire world,” says Moore. “We are the custodians and work hard to make them accessible to a wide audience. That is why we focus on providing loans around the world.”
This travelling exhibition features several unique pieces – the result of two years of negotiations between the museums. For example, it is the first time the ivory figure of Saint Joseph has been displayed. There are also two silk paintings from the Dunhuang Caves in China, which are kept in air-conditioned storage most of the time.
Szan Tan, senior curator at the National Museum of Singapore, says: “I looked at the collection as a whole, both visually and thematically, and considered if locals would appreciate the whole picture.”
Tan also included two pieces by Singaporean artists – W-White On 2P Waves by Anthony Poon and Blue Vessel by Iskandar Jalil – in the exhibition. They are displayed in the Modern World section of contemporary art, alongside international artworks from the British Museum. Says Tan of them: “It is about making a statement to get our audience to think about what would be a treasure for a Singapore collection.”
Interestingly, for an exhibition that essentially covers the history of humankind, the curator’s parting thoughts are rather personal. Says Moore: “I hope that visitors view this exhibition in the context of the National Museum galleries that tell the story of Singapore, and look to see how it fits into the wider sense of the world and the ways in which all human beings, all cultures throughout history, are connected in human life.”
Treasures Of The World from the British Museum will be held at the National Museum of Singapore till May 29.