An exhibition in Singapore showcases a grand pagoda journey


By AGENCY

In Singapore, the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) lead conservator Leon Sim is seen working on a historic wooden model pagoda for the museum's exhibition 'Pagoda Odyssey 1915 From Shanghai To San Francisco'. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News Network

More than 80 wooden model pagodas from before 1915, newly acquired for Singapore’s National Collection, are being given the international star treatment as they arrive in Singapore.

Lead conservator Leon Sim, who inspected the models in San Francisco, says the models are first acclimatised to local museum humidity levels for days, notch by notch, from 42 to 55 per cent.

Then, for six months, they are cared for by no fewer than seven conservators, who have dedicated an estimated 700 man-hours to readying the models for the public eye.

These historic pagodas debut in Singapore as part of a year-long blockbuster show, Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai To San Francisco, which opens at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) on May 31.

In preparation for the opening, Sim was busy overseeing his team to ensure these century-old models looked their best from every angle.

The 84 models in the exhibition were first hand-crafted as a set by orphans in Jesuit-run crafts-training workshop Tushanwan in Shanghai. Of these, three are loans from The Field Museum in Chicago, while the other 81 are now part of Singapore’s National Collection.

The century-old model pagodas arrived at the Heritage Conservation Centre in Singapore in relatively good condition, but conservators still had to address damage and structural problems for six months. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News NetworkThe century-old model pagodas arrived at the Heritage Conservation Centre in Singapore in relatively good condition, but conservators still had to address damage and structural problems for six months. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News Network

In 1915, the entire set travelled to San Francisco for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, offering many of its 18 million visitors a glimpse into the diverse range of Chinese pagoda architectural styles.

Based on actual pagodas around China – some of which have been destroyed – the 84 models have been reunited for the first time in more than a century. The global odyssey these pagodas undertook, with its many twists and turns, is the subject of the show.

When asked, ACM did not reveal the cost or exact provenance of the model pagodas, but they had changed hands among multiple owners after arriving in the United States.

As century-old artefacts, they are in relatively good condition, says Sim, assistant curator of organic objects at the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC). His team had documented the conditions of these 1:50 scale pagodas when they arrived at the Jurong Port Road facility in November 2023.

Sim says the structures were built using only finger joints and could be easily dismantled and reassembled. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News NetworkSim says the structures were built using only finger joints and could be easily dismantled and reassembled. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News Network

A coating of shellac – a resin made from insect exoskeleton – has kept much of the wood in good condition, says Sim, who holds a master’s in cultural materials conservation from the University of Melbourne.

He expresses surprise that these craftsmen thought like conservators too. This was reflected in their choice of materials that could withstand being shipped across the world.

Still, as he ambles around 11 of the models in his laboratory, Sim points out pagodas which have visibly tilted off-centre, chipped-off animal carvings on the eaves and the inevitable wood shrinkage. Some of the more complex towers, he says, would require more than 80 hours of conservation work to ready them for exhibition.

The Pagoda Of The Six Harmonies model – based on a pagoda in Hangzhou built between 1156 and 1165, which still stands – was one such challenge.

“Initially, we didn’t think the roof needed work – we thought it just needed a bit of cleaning,” says Sim.

At the top of the Pavilion Of The Brilliant Mountain model, wood-carved dragon heads are crafted to resemble ceramics. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News Network At the top of the Pavilion Of The Brilliant Mountain model, wood-carved dragon heads are crafted to resemble ceramics. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News Network

He had to re-assess the conservation process when the show’s curators said the model would grace the lobby of the ACM and be viewed from all angles.

While the layman might think that conservators would heavily intervene to get the pagodas to an optimal state, Mr Sim says conservators abide by a principle of minimal intervention. When applying materials, reversibility is also prized: “Whatever we put up, has to be able to be taken down.”

The key, Sim says, is that they “try to make sure that what was lost doesn’t create a distraction to the visitor”.

It is an important guiding principle, as part of the exhibition’s story is about the exquisite craftsmanship behind these model pagodas drawn from different regions and historical periods.

As one of the few people who could get up close to the pagodas and study their interiors and hidden faces, Sim remarks on a few things that might not be immediately obvious to the casual visitor.

First, the construction technique of the model pagodas – the tallest being 2.2m – was a surprise to him.

'Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai To San Francisco' reunites a set of 84 hand-carved model pagodas for the first time in over a century. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News Network 'Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai To San Francisco' reunites a set of 84 hand-carved model pagodas for the first time in over a century. Photo: The Straits Times/Asia News Network

“The interesting thing is that they used only finger joints – no adhesives, nails and screws. We assume that they were meant to travel for exhibition, to be dismantled and then reassembled on site.”

The model of the Pagoda Of The Kaiyuan Monastery, based on China’s tallest surviving pagoda built in Hebei between 1001 and 1055, also hides a rich inner life.

“The pagodas don’t just look fancy on the outside, the interiors are decorated as well. You can see staircases on the inside, but when the pagodas are all put together, you wouldn’t be able to see them.”

At the top of the Pavilion Of The Brilliant Mountain – its original 33.38m-tall structure located in Shandong dates back to the Ming Dynasty and is still standing – is a small detail that might be missed on a cursory look. Sim marvels at how the craftsmen had made the dragon heads on the roof – made of wood – look like ceramics.

The museum has invited Singaporean architectural photographer Darren Soh to stage a complementary display featuring photographs of religious landmarks in Singapore.

A virtual-reality fantasy experience titled Journey Into The Pagoda will also take audiences on a voyage through the Pagoda Of The Six Harmonies.

Kevin Lam, curator of Chinese Art at ACM, says of the model pagodas’ historical importance: “The story of these pagodas underscores an exceptional exchange between two port cities – that is, San Francisco and Shanghai. Crafted in Shanghai, these pagodas embarked on a journey across the Pacific to be showcased in San Francisco, symbolising the first formal cultural exchange between the United States and China.”

Despite some embellishments to the model pagodas, Lam notes the “high level of accuracy” of the model pagodas, considering the scarcity of research on pagodas and the tumultuous politics of the early 20th century.

“As both a creative endeavour and a historically accurate undertaking, the Tushanwan models serve as an architectural archive, preserving the essence of these pagodas as they stood at the dawn of the century.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Pagoda Odyssey 1915: From Shanghai To San Francisco exhibition is showing at the Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place in Singapore from May 31, 2024, to June 1, 2025.

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