Malcolm MacDonald was one of Britain’s most respected Cold War diplomats. He served in Singapore as Commissioner General for Southeast Asia before conducting diplomacy with India and China. An unconventional diplomat, he was equally eccentric as an art collector. As a young man, Malcolm began collecting European porcelains and paintings inspired by a trip to Paris. Moving to Singapore in 1946 opened his eyes to a new world of Asian art. Later in life, he remarked “I like Beauty, I love Beauty, I worship Beauty in all its earthly forms”. His many donations to collections across the world are testament to that love of beauty. He gave objects to museums in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, as well as to Durham in the UK.
This talk explores Malcolm’s donations, particularly those at the Oriental Museum of Durham University, looking at the objects themselves and the personal stories they reveal. He collected Chinese ceramics, antiques, contemporary art, and examples of indigenous craftsmanship from across Southeast Asia. Some highlights include Brunei silver work, clothing, and other everyday objects from Borneo, and high-status diplomatic gifts from Laos and Cambodia. His collection of imperial Chinese ceramics is one of the most significant in the UK. Today these objects continue to be used in teaching at Durham University, inspiring new generations with Malcolm’s love for Asian art.
About the speaker
Alexander Shaw is a final-stage PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, UK. His thesis explores the history of the British secret intelligence community in Singapore during the early Cold War. Alexander’s other research interests include the links between art collecting and international diplomacy in Britain’s relationships with Southeast and East Asia. He is the editor and co-author of Malcolm MacDonald’s posthumous memoir, The Pleasures and Pains of Collecting
, and curator of the exhibition Beauty and Diplomacy: The Malcolm MacDonald Collections
at the Durham Oriental Museum (2017). Alexander has written academic articles on topics as varied as British oil interests in Iran, counterinsurgency operations in Borneo, and Malcolm MacDonald’s collecting passions.
Image: Xylophone from the Cambodian Royal gamelan given to MacDonald by King Sihanouk. Courtesy of Durham Oriental Museum.
Jointly organised by