The Oriental Museum is home to one half of the important Chinese ceramic collections of the British politician and diplomat Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald, a key figure in the transition from Empire to Commonwealth for the UK and in an important figure in Cold War diplomacy between the UK, China and Southeast Asia.
MacDonald gifted the other half of his collection to the University of Malaya (UM). This element of the collection was in turn split in two and half given to National University of Singapore upon its creation. As such, MacDonald’s collections are foundational for the Oriental Museum, National University of Singapore Museum and the Asian Art Museum of University of Malaya.
MacDonald also gifted a range of South Asian and Southeast Asian material to all three museums and used his diplomatic influence to persuade the governments of India and Cambodia to also donate to collections to the National University of Singapore Museum.
Since 2017, curators at the Oriental Museum have been working with researchers and curators in the UK and Malaysia to research and share the story of MacDonald’s collecting and its role in his international diplomacy. Teams from Durham travelled to Kuala Lumpur in 2018 and 2019 to work with colleagues from University of Malaya, National Museum of Malaysia and the Museums Department of Malaysia to deliver workshops for museum professionals from across Malaysia and to discuss further co-operation.
The aim is to ‘reunite’ this important collection digitally, via exhibitions and physical catalogues. The project will strengthen the relationship between Durham University and our partners in Malaysia, Singapore and China as well as making a significant contribution to the understanding of the role of art in international diplomacy and beginnings of decolonisation in the 20th century.