Asian Civilizations Museum: Singapore - Poplar Travels
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Nov 23 2014

Asian Civilizations Museum: Singapore

The Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore explores ancient cultures from the region that have influenced the history of the island-country and surrounding areas. Singapore has such an interesting history as a trading port and a British colony, but the museum goes way beyond these recent developments to explore the true ancestors of the region.

Our favorite room ended up being the Singapore River Gallery. Cities are often built on the banks of rivers for obvious reasons, but Singapore’s comparatively meager waterway has an especially interesting story more than 600 years long. During the 14th and 17th centuries, the river was an important part of a Malay kingdom and was crucial to regional trading. Pottery and tools excavated from its banks show that villages thrived near the ports.

Asian Civilizations Museum

The exhibition traces the river through its use by merchants and villages for trading, and as a habitat for people who lived in houses built on stilts. We learned how its use declined, and then when Singapore was settled by the British, trade boomed once again. The labels tell a story of a river since forgotten, keeping the memory of the busy, dirty waters alive.

Now, Marina Bay is the largest reservoir in Singapore and also serves as a center for recreation. In the 1980s, extensive clean-up campaigns resulted in the ban of many boats, and by extension, certain lifestyles and trade practices. The reopening of the river, now surrounded by heritage sites and hotels, was celebrated with a mass swim and then a rubber ducky race; quite a change from the bustling trade center that it once was.

Asian Civilizations Museum

The rest of the museum was also educational. It was fun to go to a museum that explores ancient civilizations about which I know nothing. I would love to go back, because my lack of background knowledge made it tempting to read every single label, and we just didn’t have the time.

An interesting feature in this museum was the video kiosks in several of the galleries with touch screens to activate a recorded video tour. Each screen showed a person from a background that coordinated with the gallery. They were constantly moving, humming or chanting until a visitor touched the screen, launching them into an introduction. We only stopped to listen to one, but they seemed very well put together with short video segments that only continued to the next when prompted. The videos break up the monotony of reading labels and handouts, and incorporate interaction to the exhibitions.

Buddhism and Hinduism and Daoism play such monumental roles in the history of Asia. The exhibitions explored how these religions spread and combined and split again to influence cultures that are similar and yet so different in so many ways. There was also an aspect of mystery that isn’t present in the history of many other places around the world, like the United States, where life has been documented since settlement. Several labels began with “not much is known about…” making it intriguing to imagine the lost connections.

Asian Civilizations Museum

I found this image of an emaciated Buddha especially interesting. I have never seen a likeness of Buddha looking anything but happy and healthy. This depicts the period when he first sought enlightenment and shunned all earthly pleasures including food.

Learning the history of the places we travel opens windows into the culture and the background of the people who live there. Whether it is learning about the Singapore River or the ancient rulers of Asian Kingdoms long gone, the stories are like pieces of a puzzle falling together to create a more complete picture of an unfamiliar place. The Asian Civilizations Museum was a wonderful mix of local and regional history displayed in an engaging and inviting way.

Asian Civilizations Museum


Quick Tips

  • The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. except Fridays when it stays open until 9 p.m.
  • Admission is only S8 for adults; enjoy discounted admission Fridays 7 to 9 p.m.
  • Visit the Asian Civilizations Museum online for an updated exhibition schedule and more info


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Evanne Allen

Evanne co-founded Poplar Travels after quitting her job in Washington, D.C. She got itchy feet at a young age and has never lost the urge to explore the planet. A previous museum employee, she is apt to drag travel partners into several cultural institutions anywhere she goes. She wishes she could speak every language and loves meeting new people.

  • Wonderful timing. I am heading to Singapore next month and am making a shortlist of things to do – this just made the list.

    November 24, 2014 at 4:52 am
  • Very interesting! If I go to Singapur I’d like to visit this museum 🙂

    November 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm
  • I like going to museums too for exactly the same reason. It’s important to know a little of the history to understand the current country. I do try to limit my time in them though otherwise I could easily spend hours wandering and reading.

    November 26, 2014 at 3:55 am

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