Oriental Museum, Durham University visits Malaysia and Singapore with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Gillian Ramsay, Assistant Curator at the Oriental Museum, Durham University travelled to Malaysia and Singapore in October 2022 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant. Here is the report from Gillian’s visit.

Originally, I was awarded the grant to undertake a project in Japan looking at the representation of the indigenous Ainu community in museums on the northern island of Hokkaido, and the main island of Honshu. The project would have fed into a future collecting project to acquire works by Ainu craftspeople which would have formed the core of an exhibition produced in collaboration with the craftspeople and colleagues at museums in Japan.

Unfortunately, this trip was cancelled due to the pandemic and with Japan’s long standing pandemic restrictions it became clear that the project was unlikely to happen in the near future. Following reopening in the UK Durham University’s (DU) priorities had also shifted to have a greater focus on partnerships based in Southeast Asia. As a result, ICOM UK kindly allowed me to use the funding for a project focusing on the legacy of the Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald and his connections with Durham and institutions in Malaysia and Singapore.

As Commissioner General for Southeast Asia, MacDonald was a driving force behind self-rule and the formation of the commonwealth. An accomplished diplomat and writer he was also an avid collector of Chinese ceramics which are the focus for this project.

The main focus of the trip was to meet with colleagues at the Museum of Asian Art, University of Malaya (UM) and the National University of Singapore Museum (NUS) to discuss developing a 5-year collaborative project focusing on our shared donor and Chancellor, the Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald. I was able to meet with Mr Abd Aziz Rashid, Curator Museum of Asian Art, UM to discuss taking the project forward. This meeting proved incredibly fruitful.

In addition to the main MacDonald project centred around his Chinese ceramic collection, I hope to develop a complementary strand focusing on his role as a supporter of young artists by building a collection of works by emerging Malaysian and Singaporean artists working now. During the visit I met with representatives at 8 galleries across both cities. The Cult Gallery, The Back Room Gallery and Taksu in Kuala Lumpur, and the Mulan Gallery, Fost Gallery, Gajah Gallery, Art Porters and Taksu in Singapore.

Through these visits, I developed a much deeper understanding of the art scene in Malaysia and Singapore and have compiled a list based on their recommendations on who to collect for the museum.

Successes and challenges

During the trip I meet with our long-standing collaborator, Mr Abd Aziz Rashid, Museum of Asian Art, UM and eight galleries exhibiting emerging artists from the region, and collected new works for the museum. Additionally, while in Singapore I visited the Asian Civilisations Museum, the National Museum of Singapore and the National Gallery of Singapore.

My primary success was in restarting the MacDonald Project which has been on hold throughout the pandemic. During the meeting Mr Aziz and I set out the aims, objectives and outcomes of the project, including:

  • A joint touring exhibition to Malaysia, Singapore and Durham, with additional possible venues in China, India and Canada;
  • Joint online database which would finally reunite the collection virtually;
  • Bi-lingual catalogue of ceramics collection;
  • Conference for the launch of the catalogue in KL;
  • Online exhibition of touring show.


Prior to my visit, DU had been in talks to organise a visit from the DU Vice Chancellor (VC) to UM. The talks had stalled, but less than 24 hours after my visit they confirmed that the UM VC would meet the DU VC and they would formally sign the Memorandum of Understanding between the two universities. One of the main strands of this new MOU will be the MacDonald Project.

The main challenge was in securing a meeting at NUS. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet with anyone, however the DU International Officer have now been able to establish contact with the Senior Curator and I can start communicating with her remotely.

Benefits of undertaking this international visit

By undertaking this trip I have gained experience of leading on a major international partnership, developing relationships with international colleagues and experts from the very start. Since returning I have begun creating budgets and timetables to assist with delivery and fund raising and as my management were very happy with what I was able to achieve during the visit they have recommended that I continue to take the lead and act as the main point of contact with all partners. This will provide me with substantial project/budget management and partnership experience.

Visiting the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore was incredibly useful in terms of seeing how similar objects to those at the Oriental Museum have been displayed and interpreted. The National Museum of Singapore provided me with a background understanding of the history, culture and politics of the nation ahead of my meetings.

The National Gallery of Singapore also proved invaluable as it acted as an introduction to the art of the region as well as provided a better understanding of how previous generations of Singaporean and Malaysian artists experimented and pushed the boundaries, which in turn have influenced the young artists working today which we hope to collect from.

My advice for anyone else planning to undertake an international visit

My primary advice would be to start contacting possible partners 3 to 4 months in advance. By planning so far ahead I was able to group my appointments by area so I could get round as many places as possible. It also gave me time to build up an online connection with the people I was going to meet so they had a better understanding of what I needed from them during my visit. They were then able to send me information on possible artists, which in turn allowed me to whittle down the list of artists I wanted to discuss – saving myself and them time.

I would also say plan for any eventuality and be flexible. When my initial project looked impossible I re-evaluated, looking to where my organisations new priorities lay and formulated how I could improve my own knowledge, experience and international contacts in order to support and deliver these priorities.

Next steps

Since the visit I have created a briefing document and budget for Mr Aziz to share with senior management at UM, as well as briefing documents for the DU VC ahead of her visit. Now that the MOU has been signed, I can start working the curator at NUS and Mr Aziz to begin planning the next phase of the project. Firstly, members of NUS will visit DU in early 2023 then we will hold a workshop in KL/Singapore later in the year with the partners from all 3 Universities to formalise the project’s aims, objectives, and outcomes. We will also have a chance to view the MacDonald collection at UM and NUS so we can start developing ideas for the touring exhibition.

In order to attend in person, I will start looking for funding to cover the travel and accommodation costs for myself, the Senior Curator and Head of Museums. In regards to the secondary project focusing on collecting works of emerging Malaysian and Singaporean artists I have been in contact with each of the galleries to ask for additional information on the artists I am interested in acquiring for the collection. I plan to apply to the Art Fund in order to secure funding to undertake this collecting along with an additional trip to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to meet with the artists in person and record their stories, their process and what inspires them. The resulting collection will then go on display at the Oriental Museum, Durham University in 2025.

Impact of the visit for all of the organisations involved

The curatorial team at DU has been collaborating with our colleagues at UM for almost 7 years, yet no official Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) had ever been formalised between the two universities. Since my visit UM has signed an MOU with DU, placing the MacDonald Project as one of the core strands of this new relationship. 

This visit provided me with an opportunity to me to take on a more senior role in international partnership development and I have been given support from my management to continue to take the lead on this project and act as the main point of contact between all partners.

“We are truly grateful to ICOM UK and Art Fund for their generous support.  This has played a key role in helping us to develop knowledge-exchange partnerships with our colleagues in South East Asia, which will be instrumental in underpinning future co-curated research and exhibition projects.”

Craig Barclay, Head of Museums, Galleries & Exhibitions, Oriental Museum, Durham University

“During Gillian’s visit we discussed our future activities related to the MacDonald project including the preparation of digital database, tour exhibition and publication of the collection which is kept in University Malaya, National University Singapore and Durham University. We agreed to set up a team and working schedule for the creation and delivery of the project.

Gillian’s visit was very timely. It gave me the opportunity to create a display of MacDonald material ahead of the VC’s visit and the signing of the MOU. During the visit on the 1st of November I was also able to tell them about the project and what we wanted to achieve. The UM International Office were very impressed and hope this project will fit nicely into the UM internationalization and art and heritage conservation activities.“

Abd Aziz Rashid, Curator Museum of Asian Art, University of Malaya