Tok Wi at the Peranakan Museum; some of the object-descriptions tok-what??

Just visited the new exhibition museum at the Peranakan Museum, “Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars”.

Dear Maria Khoo Joseph, since you are the curator, I’d like to point out a glaring error. Yes, one pendant consists of a tiger’s claw (which is pointy and flat-ish). The other, I’m embarrassed to point out to you, is NOT a claw as the label says; it is pointy and rounded (and SO different visually from the real claw), therefore making it a canine instead.

The following are not ‘errors’, but more of of sloppy ‘curator-ship’. You seem to describe anything that is stitched ‘on-top-of’ the cloths as ‘embroidery’, which I suppose you are not wrong, strictly speaking. But as a curator dedicated to Peranakan objects, I would expect you to share a bit more info about the different types of ‘embroideries’ used on these cloths. For example, some are simply stitches stitched in-and-out of the cloth, while others are knotted before being tightened. One cloth on the lower floor was embroidered using gold/metal-twined thread – which was a bit more special than the rest of the tok wis, as this must have been costlier to do, and also gives the cloth a raised ‘relief’ while the other cloths were generally flat - but you had also (surprise, surprise) described the decorative technique simply as ‘embroidery’.

Perhaps you were simply playing to the audience; most Peranakan visitors would already know to a certain degree what they are looking at, and therefore you did not feel that you had to ‘over-analyse’ the objects. But let’s not forget many visitors – Peranakan included – are relatively clueless, and that’s why they need a curator to point out and ‘interpret’ stuff for them.

In terms of scholarship, this perhaps signals a slight difference between the exhibitions done at ACM Empress Place and Peranakan Museum (both headed by Alan Chong). At ACM, each important temporary exhibition is normally accompanied by a catalogue, where a certain degree of academic integrity is needed for something that is ‘in print’. Therefore such exhibitions at ACM give visitors a feeling of ‘strong curatorial input’ from the staff. But at PM, I don’t recall the past few temporary exhibitions being accompanied by academically-rigorous catalogues. As such, since the curators only need to write short/simple wall text, such exhibitions give visitors a feeling of ‘weak curatorial input’. If PM wants to gain a foothold as not just a great ‘local’ museum but one with an international standing, I suppose the curators should start simply with 1) getting their object-descriptions right, and 2) share more ‘in depth’ info about these how these pretty objects were made (rather than just describing them using the lowest-common-denominator).

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April 27, 2014 · 9:23 pm

National Gallery of Singapore’s new logo…YAWN……..

Here we go, a multi-million dollar gallery has rebranded itself (with a new logo at least). Click here to see it. You still looking for it? It consists of two white rectangles side-by-side, with the one on the left narrower but taller, set against a Singapore-flag red. There’s some write-up about it on FB, saying “…the Gallery’s logo is an abstract representation of the two iconic buildings housing the Gallery. Comprising two rectangular blocks which can be interpreted in every imaginable way, the logo references the movement towards abstraction, a significant development of modern art, which is a focus of the Gallery.”

To be honest, the logo will take some time to grow on me. I understand the ‘abstract’ concept, but in the long-run, will people recognise it? Appearing on printed documents and materials (including t-shirts and mugs), the two rectangles in a sea of red would likely not invoke warm-fuzzy feelings for the gallery, because I dare say the design is not one for easy recognition.

I wonder how much Woon Tai Ho spent for some external branding company to come up with this design (or how the approval process went with the staff and board). I got reminded of Changi Airport’s ‘Name the budget terminal contest’, of which the winning entry was – DUH – ‘Budget Terminal’….

Anyway, NAGA needs to find its feet on its long journey. Let’s hope the exhibitions are more exciting than its logo.

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Singapore’s National Treasures: How safe are they when the crap hits the fan?

It’s been a few months since the new National Heritage Board ‘National Collection’ department has been formed. Ms Loh Heng Noi (ex-director of Heritage Conservation Centre) became the new director, but I have not heard anything about what this department does. There’s an online sgcool portal, which is pretty spiffy if you are looking for artifacts.

Then I came across this article (click here), sharing that Kuwait (which was invaded by Iraq some 20+ years ago) is STILL looking for national treasures that were looted during the war. National treasures not only get looted by invading armies. Even in civil wars, such as the current one in Syria, locals also steal their own priceless artifacts (click here).

So when war comes knocking on Singapore’s doors (involving foreign armies or local militias), what protection plans are in there in place to help save our treasures from theft and/or destruction? Well, we do have ‘national treasures’, as stated in National Museum’s website (click here where the Singapore stone is one of these). I assume that these treasures are spread out across a few places, from the National Museum to the store in Jurong. All these places where the treasures are stored/displayed are prominent buildings that are easy targets in war. So when the crap hits the fan, will these artifacts be spirited away to a safe underground secret storage?

In some countries, the safety of national treasures is paramount. For example, the Palace Museum in Taipei has actually built mountain-bunkers to store their stuff, no doubt to keep them safe if the neighbour comes attacking (click here). From the ruins of war, I assume Taiwan would turn to the saved artifacts as their country’s legitimate claim to being the rightful ‘Chinese’ government.

So that got me wondering if the new National Collection dept in Singapore has in place a ‘national treasures protection plan’ (or at least is the process of drafting one)? I suppose even if they have one, we would not learn about it due to ‘secrecy’. But I have a slight doubt that they are even thinking about this eventuality (simply because it seems so way out of the realm of possibility). But let’s not forget that before Dec 2013 - where a full-on fracas took place where dozens of police/SCDF vehicles were destroyed – I had not entertained the thought of a riot happening in Singapore!

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A finger in every (art) pie: The government and public art projects in Singapore

I saw this article on Channelnewasia online “Void-deck art galleries to be launched in Jurong” (click here). The moment I saw the title, I immediately wondered about the ways the government is involved in this project. Why did I instinctively think that way? Govt-linked institutions like Singapore Art Museum proudly say “Community outreach continues to be an important area of the Museum’s function”. The National Arts Council raves about “bring[ing] the arts to where people work, live and play” and “a myriad of arts activities to encourage community arts participation and to inspire lifelong engagement in the arts”. If I did a straw-poll today, I am confident that most would agree that public art projects/exhibitions and the government are like peas in a pod.

To my pleasant surprise, the void deck galleries in Jurong are managed by non-profit arts enterprise Social Creatives with no govt involvement at all. Nothing about SAM, NAC, NHB… nothing.

I should be happy (and I am). Art does belong to everyone. It is only right that some art projects are privately-socially funded, and presented in non-intimidating spaces that are free and accessible.

But sometimes in the Singapore ‘public’ art scene – with govt-money thrown at million dollar biennales (I bet you many Singaporean taxpayers who fund this regular exhibition can’t even pronounce the word, let alone having to make the effort to see the exhibits) and multi-million dollar art museums – public art (read ‘atas’ or snooty art as mentioned in the CnA article) in Singapore seems to be dictated from top-down, and from a ‘if-you-don’t-understand-high-art-then-you-should-move-along’ perspective.

Be glad that there are some out there who are taking some of the public-art initiatives out of government hands.  

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“Chinese dialects are important because I say so”: Minister Wong oh-so-convinces me of his convictions

Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said this in Parliament on Tuesday that “…Chinese dialects are part of the Chinese Singaporean culture and heritage”. He added that “…these efforts will help ensure that the use of Chinese dialects as part of the culture and heritage of Chinese Singaporeans remains accessible to future generations”. (click here for the news)

I grew up in a Singapore where I spoke to my grandma and mother in dialect, and watched Man in the Net on national TV in Cantonese. Heck, all the HK movies where shown in Cantonese too. I also saw the gradual shifting away from dialects to Mandarin, to the extent that they were eventually replaced by it. Sad; Stephen Chow’s jokes in movies dubbed-over in Mandarin just do not work.

When my younger cousins were growing up, they had already been weaned off dialects, to the extent that my non-Mandarin speaking granny had to learn Mandarin to communicate with her younger grandchildren. All my granny’s naggings-at-me and lullabyes in Cantonese (rich in meanings!) were something that my cousins would never be able to experience (and hence something important have been lost in translation between the generations).

So it is really rich to hear Minister say that his government thinks that dialects are important.

Read this blog (click here) which sums up nicely how our government’s rhetoric on dialects is whitewashed by its actions. In a recent talk that Prof Eddie Kuo gave at the Hokkien Huay Kuan, he was totally pessimistic about the government’s commitment to dialects. He harped on the point that the govt had been funding dialect-news on local airwaves for a long time, but these programs have had their time-slots reduced, and are in real danger of being pulled off the air completely.

For a start, if Minister Wong puts his money where his mouth is, let us have Taiwanese tv dramas on national TV shown in original Hokkien, and let Hong Kong movies shown in cinemas be undubbed.

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January 22, 2014 · 10:14 pm

‘Non-museums’ giving bona-fide museums a bad name; Singapore National Heritage Board to step in?

According to the International Council of Museums, a museum is “is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment” (click here).

The key points are that museums are: 1) non-profit; 2) institutions that have collections of objects that they display, study, conserve…etc.

So it is with great disappointment that I read that ‘Trickeye Museum’ will soon open on Sentosa. This is “an art gallery filled with 2D paintings that give the illusion of being three dimensional”. No, not that I am disappointed that another attraction is opening to cash in on S’pore’s tourist-onslaught, but that it has decided to call itself a ‘museum’. Using ICOM’s definition of a museum, ‘Trickeye Museum’ does not qualify because it is for profit, and that the objects are hardly the stuff of academic scrutiny. If ‘Trickeye Museum’ can call itself a museum, any shop that sells ‘stuff’ can too.

So I urge National Heritage Board to consider monitoring who in Singapore can (or cannot) be allowed to register a ‘business’ with the term ‘museum’ in it. This has already been done in other aspects of naming-conventions, as companies here are restricted in the use of ‘Singapore’ in their names (by Accounting & Corporate Regulatory Authority). Just like how there are now many ‘Ministry of Food’, Ministry of Sounds’ etc, the flagrant use of ‘museums’ for underserving businesses may dilute the integrity and dignity of bonafide museums.   

 

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Asian Civilisations Museum says that the Uma they purchased was done with due diligence; You say po-tay-toe, they say po-tah-toe?

Asian Civilisations Museum has defended the purchase of the USD650,000 Uma bronze (click here). According to the website, ACM “said it acquired the Uma Parmeshvari sculpture according to strict procedures governed by international standards, as well as according to the National Heritage Board Policy.”

Well, if the National Heritage Board’s policy for artefact-acquisition is really so strict, should this have happened in the first place? Why? Provenance. ‘Provenance’ is simply the history of the artifact; not so much when the artifact was made/used, but how it came to be owned by different owners until it has been offered for sale. The longer the artifact has been in private hands, the more ‘legal’ the artefact, as it predates anti-smuggling conventions. In ACM’s case, their defence that they did their best to ensure that the Uma sculpture is ‘legit’ will be challenging to defend in court; according to the Hindu newspaper (click here), the sculpture was only stolen and taken out of south India less than 10 years ago. When purchasing the artifact, it appears that either ACM did not want to delve too deep into the sculpture’s (recent) past (so as to be convinced that ignorance was bliss), or that the USA dealer provided a dubious provenance that ended convincing the buyer. All over the world, museums have been taking more and more precautions regarding artifact-provenance, may it be due to ethics or legal implications (click here to read about the measures some American museums are taking).

No matter how the USA dealer is eventually dealt with, this is truly a case of caveat emptor or ‘buyer beware’. It is completely within ACM’s duty to ensure that they are completely satisfied with an artifact before purchasing it. If it is true that the Uma was only stolen less than 10 years ago, and it was eventually bought by ACM under its proclaimed strict acquisition standards, the elephant in the room is bloody obvious. Since this is taxpayers’ money that has been used, I would love to see the Attorney-General’s Chamber go through all of National Heritage Board’s purchases since the mid 1990s to ensure that 1) our public monies have been well-spent, and 2) that Singapore-museums have not broken any international anti-smuggling laws.

Why should AGC get involved? Because they have come down very hard on an overpriced folding-bike even though the procurement process was followed. Did you know that when NHB museums spend millions on buying stuff, they do not go through a open-bidding process where everyone can see? They find the object (either from auctions or private sellers) and then they only need an internal committee to approve the purchase, even if it costs USD650,000? Considering that all govt depts have to go through the open-bidding process (not just for items but also services) for any items/services above $3,000, the AGC should find NHB’s artifact-expenditures very interesting indeed!

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