Truong Quy

Discover the diverse cultures of Southeast Asia in this region’s fascinating history museums

 

Southeast Asia’s museums are like pieces of shell inlay that form a bigger picture. Often on the small side, when combined into a system, these museums form a majestic picture of the unique cultures in this part of the world, depicting a crossroads of human history.

History museums in Southeast Asia not only display local cultural artifacts but also reveal the region’s cultural exchanges throughout the centuries. In these museums, visitors can see collections salvaged from sunken merchant ships, bronze drums, stilt houses, culinary items, spices, textile products, coins, and ceramics. These items remind us of major civilizations with rich cultural exchanges.

A vintage tricycle in the National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta (Indonesia)

Valuable attractions

While Thailand dedicated part of the Grand Palace to conveying historical information about the country, Indonesia and Singapore modernized some colonial buildings to connect to their past. Located in the city centers, these national history museums form attractive destinations for the public, housing interesting artifacts inside beautiful buildings.

The National Museum of Indonesia combines rows of houses and an entrance in a classic architectural style, with Doric columns reminiscent of the majestic Parthenon in Greece. The museum includes a whole exhibition area dedicated to Asian ceramic artifacts, including a collection of Vietnamese pottery said to be the most diverse outside of Vietnam. Here, visitors can see tangible heritages that reflect the extensive reach of ancient civilizations, such as bronze drums and stilt houses common to the Hoa Binh and Dong Son cultures and found in archaeological sites throughout Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the Vietnam National Museum of History in Hanoi, the Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City, and the Museum of Cham Culture in Danang display the research and exhibition styles inherited from leading experts from the French School of the Far East (the École Française d’Extrême-Orient). These three museums give us a good basic understanding of Vietnam in particular and Southeast Asia as a whole.

Multicolored enamel 18th century Qing dynasty teapots in the Islamic Arts Museum, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

In Hanoi, visitors can experience Vietnam’s history via valuable artifacts displayed in the National Museum of History. The Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang and the Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City preserve important artifacts from earlier regional cultures, such as Funan and Champa. Due to the spread of Indianized culture throughout the region, these history museums house massive collections of Brahman and Hindu sculptures and handicrafts. The National Museum of Cambodia houses the most prominent collection in the region. The building’s stunning architecture takes the form of a Khmer temple. Inaugurated in 1920, this museum hosts a magnificent collection of statues with mixed Hindu and Buddhist features, collected from Thailand, Southern Laos, and Cambodia to Champa and Chenla in present-day Vietnam.

The museum’s collection includes valuable relics like the remains of a bronze statue of Vishnu from Angkor that dates back to the 11th century and was mentioned in The Customs of Cambodia by Zhou Daguan, a messenger of the Yuan.

Across land and sea

Southeast Asia’s cultures developed in unique ways thanks to exchanges between India and China, interaction with Arab cultures from the Middle East, the influence of Western cultures in colonial times, and interactions with different Far Eastern cultures. The region’s vibrant social life has resulted in fascinating museum exhibits, whether in Hanoi, Phnom Penh, or Jakarta. Visiting these countries’ museums could be compared to stopping at different ports on a sailing journey through time.

The National Museum of Singapore is housed in a building dating from 1849, when it was called the Raffles Library and Museum. This has resulted in a striking mix of history and the latest technology. The museum offers charming insight into this new-found country, which is only a bit more than half a century old. However, Singapore is also a place of long-standing cultural layers and diversity at the crossroads of international trade.

While Myanmar’s National Museum features modern architecture, an old Victorian administrative building called The Secretariat, which dates from 1902, displays the heritage of Yangon, the largest port city on the west coast of the Indochinese peninsula. 

Countries on Southeast Asia’s coast or islands have dedicated plenty of museum space to artifacts that recreate the voyages of merchants and immigrants centuries ago. The National Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) attest to the cultural richness of the southern Indochinese peninsula. Standing next to Arab handicrafts are Indian silks and Chinese ceramics. Meanwhile, the center of the old city of Malacca houses some small museums that vividly depict the founding of the most famous harbor in Southeast Asia and recreate the East-West sea trade route that connected the Middle East to the Far East, India to China, and Europe to Asia from the beginning of the 15th century. These museums reveal why, centuries ago, Westerners fell in love with the coastal regions, unique forests, and “spice islands” of Southeast Asia. This region became synonymous with color and fragrance, warm sunshine, and sweet fruit.

Countries on Southeast Asia’s coast or islands have dedicated plenty of museum space to artifacts that recreate the voyages of merchants and immigrants centuries ago. The National Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) attest to the cultural richness of the southern Indochinese peninsula. Standing next to Arab handicrafts are Indian silks and Chinese ceramics. Meanwhile, the center of the old city of Malacca houses some small museums that vividly depict the founding of the most famous harbor in Southeast Asia and recreate the East-West sea trade route that connected the Middle East to the Far East, India to China, and Europe to Asia from the beginning of the 15th century. These museums reveal why, centuries ago, Westerners fell in love with the coastal regions, unique forests, and “spice islands” of Southeast Asia. This region became synonymous with color and fragrance, warm sunshine, and sweet fruit.