This seems to be a hands-down good thing for the Asian Civilisations Museum – 12 replicas of the looted zodiac heads from the Beijing summer palace have been donated by Jackie Chan (click here for the news). 1) Jackie Chan, probably the most famous Asian face in the world, is now indelibly linked to ACM, giving it more global prominence, and 2) the 12 looted heads (some are still missing) are still a source of controversy and intrigue, and should therefore draw more visitors.
In 1860, at the end of the 2nd Opium War, French and British soldiers looted the Old Summer Palace, taking away, amongst many other artefacts, 12 bronze heads of the Chinese zodiac creatures that were set in a garden. While the palace was set alight, the goodies taken were to add insult to Chinese injury. The 12 heads were then separated, before some were eventually returned to China and some still missing. The 2 recently returned ones – rat and rabbit – received lots of press in 2013 when a French company returned them to a Beijing Museum (see article here).
Now back to Jackie Chan’s heads. As far as I can tell from news reports, NONE of these replicas are made based on the actual moulds taken from the 12 originals (and furthermore, this is not even possible simply because some of the originals are still missing and therefore no moulds could have been made from these). According to Taiwanese artist Apen who made the new heads, “We created and designed new ones” (click here for this confirmation that the new heads are nothing like the old ones), thereby admitting that the donations are not just ‘new’ in terms of age, but also ‘design’. ‘Replicas’ by definition are not merely lookalikes – they are exact copies of the real things (sometimes in actual size, sometimes as scaled-down accurate models).
For the different news agencies to call JC’s donations “Bronze replicas of all the zodiac statues” is to grossly misrepresent them (which is an understatement, to say the least). NONE of the 12 new heads are made as exact copies of the originals, so they do not deserve to be called ‘replicas’. So the ‘replicas’ on display ‘replicate’ what exactly? The Taiwanese artist’s creative imagination??
Museums are ‘shrines’ to authentic artefacts. All that are displayed in good museums should be certified bona fide, and therefore give visitors the impression that they are staring at actual objects linked to actual historical events. In the case of these 12 heads, I can understand that if 11 replicas were made to complement the donation of a sole authentic one (so as to put the one real artefact into context); but ALL TWELVE are NEW designs… What aspects of ‘reality’ would you see, then, if you are staring at things that are 100% ‘unreal’?
“Asian Civilisations Museum director Alan Chong says: The exhibition combines the past and present, and raises issues of nationalism, identity and culture. We hope the zodiac will delight visitors as they discover aspects of history.” I do not contest that the 12 heads would draw extra visitors to ACM and that these will learn more about an important aspect of Chinese history. But if ‘discovering aspects of history’ is paramount for ACM, it should in that case make fakes of any and all important Asian artefacts and display them, right? Why bother to spend taxpayers’ money to buy anything authentic then, when ‘replicas’ (or any new thing that may look nothing like the original) will do?
Dr Chong, you may have ‘re-branded’ the Halloween debacle at ACM to save some face for a venerable institution, but the news of this donation of so-called ‘replicas’ will reach museum-lovers all over the world and do no good to ACM’s name. Furthermore, Dr Chong is Chief Curatorial Director for the whole of the Singapore’s National Heritage Board and all its museums; is this a green light for other government-funded museums to display anything they like in their museums, real or otherwise?
And now the piece de resistance – Singapore museums could have said consistently and clearly ‘we, on principle, do not accept donations of ‘replicas’ of anything old. Now that the floodgate has opened, how can the National Heritage Board decline future donations of ‘replicas’?? I hope the trade-off – being associated with Jackie Chan’s fading fame – will make it worth ACM’s while for taking this large gamble.
**On a side-note, once these replicas have been ‘accessioned’ into the national collection, they will belong to Singapore in perpetuity. Resources – paid for with taxpayers’ money – will have to be spent housing and caring for them FOREVER. Considering that these heads are BRAND NEW objects that have no physical relevance to actual artefacts, what is the justification of spending taxpayers’ money on their storage, security and conservation FOREVER? Some bean-counter at a Ministry and/or internal/external auditor should be very interested in the short-mid-long term repercussions of this donation.
As a stat board, NHB should make an official statement about its stand on 1) whether with this donation, it signals the acceptance of donations of ‘new’ things that are loosely-modelled after old ones, 2) giving tax breaks for such donations – does Jackie (or any of his Singapore proxies) get a tax-write-off for this donation, and if so, what is the valuation for this donation (and who made that valuation)?, and 3) what would be the estimated cost to the Singapore taxpayer on the future care of these 12 heads? While we wait for answers, let me go look for ‘replicas’ in my collection that ACM may be interested in…