A permanent editor at the National Museum of Singapore: Much needed, or a knee-jerk to past embarrassments?

Well, after the editorial/copywriting debacle at the National Museum of Singapore (click here for my previous blog) – where Slim River ended up as Grim River, amongst others – NMS has done the knee-jerk thingie. They have created a new position “Assistant Manager/ Manager (Editorial)” (click here). As far as I know, only Asian Civilisations Museum has a similar position where a permanent staff is tasked to look at all text before they get printed/uploaded (but even then this ACM position appears to be a first for NHB as a whole, and seems to be a bit unwarranted … until you find out the relationship between the Director/ACM and this editing staff: Alan was hired from Boston to be D/ACM, and later he hired ex-Boston colleague Richard to be the new “Asst Director/Editorial & Interpretation”).

Anyway, editing has all got to do with ‘pairs of internal and external eyes’. Internally, the curator writes the text, the senior curator and/or the director edits it. Now with the new position in NMS, I assume the editor reads/edits it too. But even though it has gone through quite a few pairs of eyes, the editors are all reading from the ‘museum’s perspective’, and they may miss errors and/or pitch content at wrong levels. I think it is still best to get an outsider (ie external editor) to read it, because s/he provides a vital ‘non-museum’  perspective. This internal/external-editors system has worked well for NHB in general, and I’m not sure if getting a permanent editor would solve the problem of sloppy text/wrongly-pitched content (if this position means that the text then does not get routed to an external person). But from the Director/NMS’s perspective, Angelita will have a ready answer when her boss asks her what she will do to prevent such embarrassing errors in the future.

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‘Woon’ minute he’s here, the next he’s gone: National Gallery Singapore’s senior staff leaves 10 months short of the opening

I had blogged about this last year (click here). High-flyer Woon Tai Ho joined the National Gallery of Singapore from a much larger organization (managing director at Mediacorp). My quip then was how much money he’d have been enticed with to make the gallery an attractive career option.

It has just been announced that Woon is leaving the Gallery (click here). Like most high-level resignations, both parties made bland statements that don’t tell why he is leaving. Money? Ego? Whatever lah….

But consider this. The opening of the gallery at the end of 2015 is going to be the icing on the SG50 cake. They have thrown everything at it (including lots of money to get Woon on board) so that it does not fall flat. But for someone so senior to be leaving so close to the opening, I venture a guess that something is not right with the dynamics of the staff. As it is, I have already heard that the ‘contents’ people in the gallery are working at their own pace, while the ‘operations’ people are frantic that deadlines have come-and-gone. And with ‘contents’ people calling the shots in the Gallery, you can imagine how demoralizing it must be for the ops guys. Well, 10 months is a long time; let’s wait and see how this unfolds.


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Statistics, statistics and damn lies: a harmless accounting trick in the Singapore art/heritage scene?

According to this report, “More Singaporeans are visiting national museums and heritage institutions, with visitor numbers hitting a high of 3.2 million in 2013, up from 2.8 million in 2012″ (click here). I do not dispute the rise in numbers, as I assume museums do keep track of visitor-numbers somehow. Also, for arts/cultural events, “attendance for non-ticketed arts and cultural events – such as arts, heritage and library events – rose to 18.2 million in 2013 from 17.9 million in 2012″. These 18.2 million ‘attendees’ I question. I assume such non-ticketed events include the Night Festival and other big, open events held in non-enclosed spaces. How do the people in-charge give a good estimate of how many people, for example, actually attended the Night Festival, since some of these events are held outdoors and are spread over a few venues? How do you tell who is a bona-fide ‘Night Festival’ attendee from someone who happens to be walking past the Bras Basah area on the way to a shop or restaurant or hotel? And let’s not start about the much-longer, more spread-out Heritage Fest where it was reported that there were 1.3 million visitors in 2012…

We already have cases where the authority’s ‘creative counting’ have surfaced. Remember when the Singapore Art Museum reported 912,878 visitors (yes, that’s the exact figure, close to a million) to the multi-sited Biennale in 2011 (click here to read my blog entry)? Of these, only 196,000 were ‘indoor visitors’ (i.e. who had visited indoor spaces where the receptionists would have done a proper headcount). The rest of the 700,000+ visitors were reported in the Straits Times as those who have had ”clear and deliberate eye contact with the artwork” that were placed in outdoor premises where there were no proper receptionists doing proper headcounts.

So this year, what can one make of the newly reported figure of 18.2 million attendees for non-ticketed arts and cultural? As I said, these are ‘number games’ that public servants play so as to justify to their paymasters that key-performance-indicators have been met (and therefore make a strong case for the continuation of funds to be injected). Eventually, the numbers will rise and rise to the extent that no one – including the public servants themselves – would believe. As it stands, the 18.2 million visitors to such events in 2013 would mean that all locals (5 million) + tourists (15 million for 2013), would have EACH visited one such event. It may not seem much, but we all must know quite a few people in Singapore who did NOT visit much events (such as some of our elderly parents/grandparents, the office-cleaner, the security guard of your building etc). Having said that, I am glad that it appears (to my untrained eye at least) that more and more people are actually going to such free events; it’s just that someone somewhere must really look at 1) how these numbers were conjured up, and 2) what do these inflated numbers mean to the policy-makers, funders and the person-on-the-street. Well, if you think 18.2 million is a high figure, I’ll be tickled to see what numbers they would be reporting for SG50 next year…

POSTSCRIPT: Do you remember that National Heritage Board reported late last year that even though visitors to museums have decreased, it was ok because the fewer visitors were ‘better engaged’? (click here to see my blog entry about that). So with this latest triumphant report about visitorship increasing, will ‘vistor engagement’ be thrown out the window in the renewed chase for numbers?

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Of Grim Rivers and wires-who-like-poetry: Heritage Trail markers and the funny info contained within

So I was lucky enough to go on a bit of a scenic lunch; Labrador Park. It’s tucked away at the end of a small road, so it’s peaceful and scenic. It’s also one of the historic places that National Heritage Board has ear-marked for informative trails. The park was the site of large rocks (Dragon’s Teeth?) marked on seafarers’ maps for centuries, and it was also the site of some WW2 guns. So there are some NHB/National Parks Board panels to inform visitors of the park’s significance. Well, I was happily reading them, until I spotted a funny little mistake. Can you see it in the photo below? WP_20141205_001 “…barded wire.”, it says. I assume it is ‘barbed wire’, and not some poetry-inclined wire that has a particular bard-like disposition. Small mistake, yes, but consider how many people had read the text prior to its production/installation (at least half-a-dozen??), then the mistake is unforgivable. But the sloppy ‘final approval’ process does not end there. In the same panel is also a ‘spacing’ issue right at the end. WP_20141205_003 The parts-of-the-same-sentence “…along the foot” and “…of the hill” should have the gap closed. Again, a small error missed by the producers. Yes, I am being petty. Small, honest errors that shouldn’t be overblown, right? But no. Consider that many salaried-people had seen, and approved, of the text, and also overseen the process from scratch to completion. And NONE of them caught the errors… Also, when was the last time ANY NParks or NHB staff had read the panel after it was installed? Public money was spent on this installation (and also the employing of copywriters/researchers), and now, even more money will have to be spent to change it simply because in the first place, someone didn’t do the job s/he was paid to do. Not in the nasty spirit of the complaint made by a member of the public (to the much-read Straits Times, no less) about the errors at the new archaeology exhibition at National Museum of Singapore (which embarrassed the institution), I suppose the readers of my small, humble blog who are in a capacity to rectify the errors would have a few weeks to sort this out, before someone writes to the press again?

P.S. In my last blog on a similar error on a Gan Eng Seng marker (click here, where the school principal was referred to as ‘principle’) in Nov 2012, I am glad to note that the text was replaced after a few weeks.

PPS I was back in Labrador Park last week (2 Jan 2015), and no change has been made to the ‘barded’ wires. I suppose maybe it is a real word?

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A small donor-family versus the might (and nonchalance) of Singapore National Heritage Board?

Just click on this link to read the saga on a small donation to the Malay Heritage Centre. In short, a family had donated some stuff to MHC, which is now dragging its feet on some basic information requested by the family. Doesn’t sound too bad on the part of MHC right? Think again. MHC had taken the donations under its wings, only to inform the donors that some had been broken/termite-infested. AND to add serious insult to injury, MHC had requested the damaged stuff to be taken back by the donors who were also asked to pay some ‘storage fee”. **FAINTS…….

Even the parent Ministry overseeing MHC says this is a ‘private matter’ and it does not want to intervene. The donors are right; when someone donates their stuff to the state, and a dispute occurs with the private-side accusing the public-side with serious allegations, surely there can not be anything ‘private’ about the matter?

The overall situation in National Heritage Board is all a bit convoluted. MHC does come under the control of NHB. But with so many ‘heads’ in NHB (due to the presences of so many departments [click here to see more – including ‘National Collection’, ‘Heritage Institutions’ and ‘Heritage Conservation Centre’), a few humble artefacts may get shunted left and right, together with the responsibility that goes with the care of such items. Add to this the fact that NHB was recently transferred from its long-time ministry to a brand new one that had just been set-up. Too many moving parts!

NHB, overall, has the grave responsibility of taking care of ‘artefacts’ under its charge for posterity. If the allegations are true, how can the contested items be broken and termite-eaten, and the public-servant custodians drag their feet on the smple requests of the donors? Whatever the ‘truth ‘may be, has NHB grown since the 1990s into a huge, untamable monster that has devoured ‘Singapore heritage’ to the detriment of the public it purportedly serves?

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“Grim River” and other grim errors at important National Museum of Singapore archaeology exhibition: A symptom of troubles at the top?

This exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore opened to some fanfare (click here). The exhibition chronicling 700 years of Singapore’s history is not just any ol’ exhibition; it is “the main exhibition on show as the rest of the museum’s permanent galleries have been closing in phases to undergo a revamp”. So you would think that some (if not “a lot of”) effort would be spent on it because there’s really not much else to see at the museum for some time to come.

So it was a surprise that the Straits Times reported on sloppy proofreading/research at the exhibition (click here). “The mistakes include Perak’s Slim River appearing as “Grim River”; the Singapore Symphony Orchestra as “Singapore Symphonic Orchestra”; and a map on some Asian colonies that became independent between 1946 and 1950 running as “1946 to 1960″, on display panels.

Well, it was not much of a surprise really. Insiders have told me that the museum director Angelita Teo does not focus much on the ‘curatorial’ part of her museum, which means that the basic things like ‘exhibition text’ and ‘facts’ are not given much scrutiny (which leads to glaring errors getting displayed on the walls). Even if the exhibition curator/s made an honest mistake with proofreading and/or fact-checking, there should always be other pairs of eyes to scrutinise the text (such as the Director of the museum, external proofreaders etc). Consider that during her predecessor’s time (ie. ex-Director Chor-Lin Lee), I do not recall such sloppiness at National Museum making shameful news in the media. However, such errors had plagued other Singapore museums in the past (click here for a Straits Times article in 2009, pointing out that both govt- and privately funded museums in Singapore are ‘text’ and ‘fact’ sloppy).

So what is Angelita busy with, that she would let such ‘grim’ errors slip through her gaze? A little birdie told me that she is quite the busy little bee preparing for a private event in New Zealand of a very personal nature. Whatever the case is, she has big shoes to fill (esp since she is – at least to me – a surprise pick for the Director position due to her youth and lack of PhD [unlike her peers at SAM, National Gallery, ACM]), and she should be on her toes all the time.

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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).


April 27, 2014 · 9:23 pm