Performativities of Colonialism: the Raffles Museum, Singapore, 1823-1960


Ang Chin Siew

PhD defended at: 

Yet to be defended. Expected to be defended in November 2018


Substantial scholarship exists today on how museums in empire metropoles ‘created the ordered representations that contained, objectified, and reduced the colonized world for the paternalistic imperialism that characterized the 19th and early 20th centuries’ (Boast, Robin, 2011). In contrast, there is little literature on how the colonial museum – an institution with Western methodologies and praxes that was deeply involved in the West’s domination of the non-West, that Western colonizers established in colonized territories – functioned in the same process of dominance. In addition, the bulk of present scholarship continues to view collections and praxes from the collector’s perspective, and thereby, from the perspective of empire. Our understanding of the colonial museum is therefore much like understanding apartheid and segregation from the White colonizer’s viewpoint. The result is an inadequate calibration of the colonial museum as an artefact of what Pratt calls ‘the legacy of Euroimperialism, androcentrism and white supremacy in education and official culture,’ and of colonialism as the lived historical experience. We therefore know little about what it meant to be collected, objectified, excluded, or be designated a place as the primitive, the uncivilized, and uncultured Other.

My dissertation is a humanist-centred historical examination of a major colonial museum in Southeast Asia, the Raffles Museum, Singapore. It asserts that the museum, established under one of British imperialism's most active proponents, Thomas Stamford Raffles, during heightening British military fiscalism, was a British cultural technology of rule. It examines the museum's founding within Raffles's politics, British trade anxieties, and its operations under a racially-conscious colonial power’s ‘inexorable logic’ (Dening, Greg, 1994). It reveals that Raffles's founding of civic institutions was a move to establish long-term control over Southeast Asian trade and resources. This included colonising Southeast Asia with Chinese and a precocious One Road, One Belt vision. It also demonstrates that the museum's spaces were used for the construction of a European coloniser self, while its methods were constructed by a colonial belief in a difference in abilities between master and subject races. Likewise, the museum was utilised by the British as a supply centre for artefacts for British museums. Thus, while the dissertation is about the museum, it is as much about the power that constructed the museum and was exercised through it.

The submission to Nanyang Technological University includes four illustrations of Stamford Raffles, John Crawfurd, the Raffles Museum and the squatter huts on its premises, as well as a photograph of an indigenous collector. These have been left out of this submission due to copyright, which allows use only in the thesis. I am more than happy to apply for a new copyright if desired.