Monday, July 18, 2011

Virtual Ethnography 101: Asian Civilization Museum (A Visit to the Past and My Heritage)

As part of the weekly exercises of my graduate students in Anthropology 225: Philippine Society and Culture, I wanted my students to explore places and write ethnography using the method of participation-observation.

I am posting in my blog with the writer's consent selected ethnography penned creatively by my students to contribute to the emerging sub-discipline of anthropology called 'Virtual Ethnography'.

Basically, virtually ethnography is also referred to as Webnography. We cannot deny the fact that with increasing use of technology and the Internet, there is now a demand for online spaces on various ethnographic accounts.

Ethnography by Cluadette Uy

Being interested in knowing about the history and cultures as I am, I am in a perfect place right now. Living in Singapore allows me to interact with different people from nations around the world. In fact, I need not look beyond the walls of my office, where the workforce represents more than 40 nations. Naturally, it has the usual mix of Singapore’s Chinese, Indians and Malays, but there are also Malaysians, Indonesians, Thai, Burmese, Americans, Latin Americans and Europeans to name but a few.

Singapore being an eclectic mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians and many other minorities, it becomes all the more becomes very important to know the history and culture of different nations. Maybe this is why Singapore put so much stock into their museums and encourage its people and visitors to go. Also, the staff on hand can also just be volunteers (of which there are many), which requires them to study and undergo rigorous training so that they can work at the museums. Singapore has multiple museums such as the Singapore Art Museum, Pernakan Museum, Asian Civilizations Museum, National Museum of Singapore to just name a few where they preserve the different artifacts of the past and present.

Now, many associate museums as being stuffy. However, for me, museums holds the secrets to our past and secrets are much valued. Now, imagine, in addition to the usual objects open for viewing and some write‐up about these items, there being an interactive application for an exhibit in a museum, where modern technologies helps museum administrators tell the ancient stories of man. One such museum is the Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM) in Singapore. Walking amongst other visitors, I look around and see what was on exhibit that fine Friday night.

As I was walking along the hallowed halls of the museum with discreet staff aiding visitors and also, guarding the museums treasures, I noticed interactive TV screens where you can learn more about a particular topic pertaining to the exhibit. In a particular exhibit area showcasing the jewelries of different Southeast Asian communities, they had put them up with holographic images so as to give the visitor a view of how they were worn before. Also, they had provided some areas where you can listen to any audio recording pertaining to the exhibits as well. There were also areas where you can “participate” as they have provided spaces for presenting a particular theme such as the living area of the West Asian communities. In addition to these, they even had an iPhone application available for download for one
of the exhibits. Specifically this was for the Chinese terracotta warriors. It enables you to follow the exhibit, providing more background and even some role playing on the events that might have occurred during the time. This makes a tour more enjoyable and you can do away with a tour guide.

Now moving on to the exhibits themselves… I was pleasantly surprised that there was the exhibit on the Chinese terracotta warriors. I headed straight for this as I only had an hour and a half before the museum closes. It was a fairly small exhibit however. Looking at the intricate warriors and at the various other items from China, I was very impressed with the intricate detail of the warriors and the other items on display.

The Terracotta Army was built by the first Emperor of Qin in 210‐209 BC, where its construction started when the emperor was 13 years old. It is now part of the funeral compound of the emperor where its purpose was to help rule another empire with Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. As such, they are also sometimes referred to as "Qin's Armies." The figures of the infantrymen were different from each other and the level of detail is so fantastic that there were even rumors that these were actually real men of the army who was buried with the Emperor! Imagine that! Other items on display were some objects found in the tomb of the Terracotta Army such as a bell, the horse drawn chariot of the Emperor, as well suits of armor!

It’s incredible that these survived until present day, but of course, not without the scars of battle. Some infantrymen look beheaded as the figures were built separately and not as one whole figure. Paints of the figures/items have been chipped off. However, this does not in any devaluate the Terracotta Army, in fact it brings, more pride since these were created when there was no modern technology to help in building these. Being a 2nd generation Chinese Filipino, I am proud of my Chinese heritage, where the Chinese is known for its advancements even in the centuries that have passed.

This does not diminish the fact that I was born and raised in the Philippines and I quickly looked for the rest of the museum’s offerings in the other galleries. The ACM divided the remaining areas into West Asia, North East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and of course a specific gallery for Singapore exhibits. Heading quickly over to the Southeast Asian section, I was looking for any exhibits of the Philippines. Sadly there was none! There included the aristocratic art of Khmer sculptures, Javanese temple sculpture, Buddhist art from Burma and Thailand, Sinicised temple art of Vietnam. There were also Pernakan gold, Malaysian textiles, tribal ornaments and theatrical masks. Squelching my disappointment of not being able to see any Philippine items on exhibit in a Singaporean museum, I notice the commonalties and influences of the other regions in our way of dress, jewelry, textiles based on what I remember of the Philippine history, especially looking at the Malay exhibits of textiles, tools and weapons! I distinctively remember thinking, “oh hey, that’s what I saw in my history books before!”

However, no matter how many things may be common with other nations, looking at how rich our Philippine ancestry has become with many influences, Philippines has forged its own identity. And maybe one day, there will be special and permanent exhibits showcasing the Philippine heritage in one of the pioneer museums specializing in pan‐Asian cultures, civilizations and history. And, I shall look forward to that day.

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