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Port and Pottery Rediscovering Ancient and Contemporary Ceramics of Malacca

Date Event : 1st November 2023 - 31th December 2023


The old coastal settlement of Malacca was a famed entrepôt during the 15th and 16th centuries. From a humble fishing village, it rose to prominence to become the greatest emporium in Asia and was of global significance. Conventional history marks 1400 as the year Malacca was founded by Parameswara, a Palembang royalty, who developed Malacca to become a trading port. Chinese merchants pioneered foreign trading bases and soon Arab, Indian, and Persian traders arrived too. Some eighty-four languages were once spoken in Malacca, a testament to the diversity of traders and workers it attracted from across the globe. The earliest records of Malacca were made by Chinese chroniclers during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). European interests in Malacca, and the spice markets of the East, saw the Portuguese take over the town in 1511. The Portuguese apothecary, colonial administrator and diplomat Tomé Pires (born c.1468), who wrote a landmark book (between 1512-1515) on Asian trade, the “Suma Oriental que trata do Mar Roxo até aos Chins” (An Account of the East, from the Red Sea to China) said "Whoever is lord of Malacca shall have his hands on the throat of Venice." The traded goods that passed through Malacca included spices, food, sandalwood, camphor, gold, tin, cloth, perfumes, weapons, opium, silk, satin, ornaments, incense, cotton, lacquer and ceramics.

In 2019, as a result of land reclamation along the Malacca coastline, two locations off the Malacca River were discovered to have concentrations of ancient ceramics, and the materials were soon recovered. These artifacts, hardened in the kilns of East (mainly China) and Southeast Asia, survived the ravages of time. They were once containers for traded goods, everyday use items and were also traded products. Ceramics were used to store and transport water, fruits, salted meat, ginger, rice, honey, oil, pickles, wine and fish sauce, among other things. Among the items recovered from the coast and on display in this exhibition are regionally produced earthenware cooking pots, glazed stoneware bowls produced during the Yuan (1271-1368 CE) to Ming (1368-1644 CE) Dynasties, Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain plates, Chinese and Southeast Asian stoneware storage jars and bottles, Burmese (Myanmar) Martaban stoneware jars and celadon plates from China, Thailand and Myanmar. Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 CE) porcelain used by the common people of the time, which are mainly provincial blue and white Chinese dishes and bowls with simplified decoration, were the most recovered artifacts.

Apart from the ceramics recovered from the shores of Malacca, on display are a small selection of ceramics used or kept by Malacca’s Baba Nyonya, Malacca Portuguese and Malacca Chetty communities. A selection of ceramics excavated from shipwrecks in the Straits of Melaka and the South China Sea are also displayed. These were part and parcel of the ongoing dynamic maritime trade in Malacca and Southeast Asia.


En. Abdul Aziz Abdul Rashid (past Head and Curator of the Museum of Asian Art) mooted the idea for this exhibition, offered his expertise, and space for the recovered ceramic artefacts to be catalogued. In developing the collection, I was supported by the Department of National Heritage, thanks to the then Commissioner of Heritage, Tn. Hj. Mesran bin Mohd Yusop and the Director of the Archaeology Section, En. Ruzairy bin Arbi. Tuan Mohamad Muda bin Bahadin, the current Deputy Director General of the Department of National Heritage and En. Zaharudin bin Abu, the current Director of the Archaeology Section encouraged the development of this exhibition. The collaboration of the Melaka Museums Corporation (PERZIM) for the loan of recovered ceramic artefacts in their care is appreciated. Ms. Junko Mori and Ms. Ong Mei Ching led the exercise to catalogue the artefacts with such passion and dedication. I thank Mr. Martin Theseira (Malacca Portuguese community), Mr. Cedric Tan Chai Cheng (Malacca Baba Nyonya community) and Mr. T. Sithambaram Pillay (Malacca Chetty community) for the loan of their ceramics. The hard work by the Museum of Asian Art team in the production of this exhibition is much appreciated. Land reclamation along Malacca’s coast has had negative impacts on the environment, coastal livelihoods and material and cultural heritage. It is envisioned that this exhibition will serve to raise public awareness on the rich maritime history, culture and heritage of the state and the urgency to develop Malacca’s coasts sustainably. Dato’ Dr Dionysius S.K. Sharma November 2023

Last Update: 15/11/2023