Rare Collection of Historical Maps of Asia in exhibition by National Library Board and the Embassy of France

10 Dec 2021

Over 60 cartographic treasures from collections across Europe, America, and Asia have been curated under one roof in Singapore for the first time. The National Library Board’s (NLB) latest exhibition – Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography – comes after two years of collaboration with the Embassy of France in Singapore and French co-curators Professor Pierre Singaravélou and Dr Fabrice Argounès, sourcing rare maps and artefacts from institutions and private collections all over the world. Drawing on the expertise of NLB’s French counterparts, who were curators of the 2018 “The World Seen from Asia” exhibition at the National Museum of Asian Arts Guimet in Paris, Mapping the World takes a uniquely Asian lens to present different mapping traditions, lesser-known stories of Asian cartographic history and their views of the world.

Organised in partnership with the Embassy of France in Singapore, Mapping the World will run for five months from 11 December 2021 to 8 May 2022, at the Level 10 Gallery at the National Library Building.  Patrons can also look forward to free tours, talks, and map-making workshops, and a new book featuring selected materials from the exhibition.

NLB’s Chief Executive Officer Mr Ng Cher Pong said: "Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography and its accompanying book open the conversation for more to understand how people from different civilisations and cultures perceived the world. This in turn helps us to appreciate the cartographic legacies which continue to shape our contemporary geographical understandings and worldviews. We greatly appreciate the partnership with the Embassy of France in Singapore, and the cultural cooperation across nations, institutions and individuals that made this exhibition possible. This is part of NLB’s LAB25 vision to collaborate with partners and the community to reimagine the role of libraries and archives, to inspire discovery, learning, and connections with one another."

The exhibition is held in association with vOilah! 2021 France Singapore Festival, as the finale of the festival, with the support of Temasek and Tikehau Capital.

Mr Marc Abensour, Ambassador of France to Singapore, said, "The Embassy of France in Singapore is particularly proud to be partner of the exhibition ‘Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography’ which is the finale programme of the 2021 edition of the vOilah! France Singapore Festival. A result of a very fruitful collaboration between the National Library Board and two French curators, Mr Pierre Singaravélou and Mr Fabrice Argounès, this exhibition perfectly illustrates the cultural cooperation agreement which was signed in November 2019 by our two Ministers for Culture, and which is focusing on the development of co-creations, co-productions and co-curations between France and Singapore. It will give the opportunity to appreciate for the first time in Singapore cartographic treasures and iconographic representations from the National Museum of Asian Arts Guimet, the National Library of France and the French School of Far-East Studies as well as from a French private collection that are as visually stunning as they are valuable insights into the past.”

The exhibition comprises four sections:

  1. Worlds Apart explores the varied mapping traditions of Asia. It features diverse world views, understandings of the universe, and concepts of both physical and spiritual geography.
  2. Empires, Kingdoms and Cities casts a spotlight on maps of political territories and seats of power, as well as centres of religious influence, sacred places, and holy cities.
  3. Mapping Journeys is an interactive display of works that map various trade routes and travel itineraries, including expeditions of political significance.
  4. Cartographic Encounters will showcase remarkable maps that arose from such cultural influences and knowledge exchange. This includes the Jesuits’ map-making endeavours in China from the late 16th to early 18th century and their legacy. 

Exhibition highlights include:

  • Map of the World from Kitab surat al-ard, 15th century – Bibliothèque nationale de France. This world map depicts the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe, with the Islamic world in the centre. It is derived from the book Kitab surat al-ard (Book of the Configuration of the Land) written in the 10th century by Arab traveller and geographer Ibn Hawqal.
  • Fan with Map of China and Map of Beijing, 19th century – Private Collection, France.
  • This traditional paper fan features a map on both its front and back leaves, offering an intimate overview of the geography of the Qing Empire and its imperial capital Beijing. The front map is based on a map (1767) of the Qing empire originally made for Emperor Qianlong (r.1736 – 1796).
  • Cloth Painting of the Pilgrimage Centre of Shatrunjaya, c. 1880 – Indian Heritage Centre. This Shatrunjaya pata presents a bird’s-eye view of the Jain pilgrimage site’s religious architecture. Located on the peak of a mountain in Gujarat, Shatrunjaya is home to over 1,000 shrines and 150 temples where worship has been practised since the 10th century.
  • Plate with Map of Japan, Edo Period, 1830-1843 – MacLean Collection, Illinois, USA.
    Map plates were a unique product of the Arita kilns in Kyushu, Japan during the second quarter of the 19th century. They featured new designs reflecting current topics and native decorative styles instead of common Chinese motifs.

Please refer to Annex A for a list of exhibition highlights.

Exhibition programmes
Admission to the exhibition is free. Visitors can look forward to regular guided tours of the exhibition in English and Chinese, talks by subject experts, school learning journeys, and a children’s workshop. Members of the public can sign up for these programmes via Eventbrite (https://go.gov.sg/mtwprogs). Safe management measures will apply for entry to the exhibition and all exhibition programmes, including Vaccinated Differentiated Measures (VDS).[1] Please refer to Annex B for more information on the exhibition programmes.

Exhibition publication
The new Mapping the World book will also be launched on 10 December 2021, featuring selected material from the exhibition. In the book published by NLB, co-curators Pierre Singaravélou and Fabrice Argounès explore the region’s diverse histories, worldviews, as well as cultural and artistic exchanges through the lens of cartography. The book will be available from December for loan at selected public libraries, via the Libby app (https://go.gov.sg/mtw-epub), and on BookSG (https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/printheritage). The details are available via our catalogue (https://catalogue.nlb.gov.sg) or the NLB Mobile app.

Roving display – Story of a Map: The Tale of Buddha
Throughout history, different cultures have used maps for navigation, to outline the location of kingdoms, and sometimes, even to tell stories. Story of A Map is an interactive display which explores a unique Thai historical map that tells the story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama and his journey to becoming the Buddha. Story of a Map will travel to the following locations:

  • 20 December 2021 – 25 January 2022: Ang Mo Kio Public Library
  • 26 January – 31 March 2022: Cheng Sang Public Library
  • 1 April – 1 May 2022: Jurong West Public Library

Lobby display at the National Library Building – Spiritual Journeys: The Traiphum Map of Thailand
Spiritual Journeys delves into the world of a rare indigenous Thai map found in the Traiphum Manuscript, a Thai Buddhist illustrated text on cosmology dating to 1776. Containing a mixture of geographical and spiritual locations and stories, the Traiphum map offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of Thai cartography and its intersections with Theravada Buddhism.

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[1] Please refer to NLB’s website for the 5 categories of people who are able to enter NLB’s facilities from 1 December 2021, and the exhibition’s website for updates https://exhibitions.nlb.gov.sg/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/mappingtheworld/.

About National Library Board
The National Library Board (NLB) nurtures Readers for Life, Learning Communities and a Knowledgeable Nation by promoting reading, learning and history through its network of 27 public libraries, the National Library and the National Archives of Singapore. NLB also forges strategic partnerships that encourage awareness, appreciation and greater discovery of Singapore’s history through its rich collections on Singapore and the region.

NLB achieves excellence through innovation, focusing on citizen engagement and co-creation, resource and digital innovation. This creates learning opportunities, greater access to library resources, services and archival collections, as well as a continual development of innovative library spaces. Established on 1 September 1995 as a statutory board, NLB is under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

For more information, please visit the NLB website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.