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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Nanyang Technological University is organising a Singapore Heritage Conference in Jan 2014 (click http://www.complexity.ntu.edu.sg/Events/Heritage%20Science%20as%20a%20Complex%20System/Documents/291113%20Tentative%20Program%20-%20Heritage%20Conference.pdf)
This conference is endorsed by a few local institutions, including ministries and National Library Board. Funnily enough, National Heritage Board is not one of them. And if you click on the link above, you’ll see many foreign and local speakers, but only one is from National Heritage Board. Instead, National Library Board has two speakers (one of whom is the Chief Executive, signalling the highest involvement from NLB in the conference. On the other hand, I don’t see NHB CE Rosa’s name appearing here).
Is this a snub to NHB, and a signal that the Library Board is more of a ‘heritage’ stalwart than NHB? Considering its namesake, what kind of academic authority does NHB have, since it has less involvement than NLB in such a local heritage event (considering the ‘Library’ – not a specifically ‘heritage’ institution – has 2 speakers, and has endorsed the event while NHB has not)? Perhaps it would not be askew to see a paper presented in this conference on ‘National Heritage Board of Singapore: What is so ‘national’ about it, and what does it do for Singapore’s heritage?’. Like I said before, with NHB’s light touch on Singapore’s heritage and heavy emphasis on ‘museums’, perhaps it’s really time to rethink if it should be renamed ‘National Museums Board’…
I’ve talked about this in a previous blog (click here): “With all our world-class museums in Singapore, we are still a world away from being a global leader in being ‘ethical’ in heritage issues. Perhaps it’s because we have nothing in Singapore to be looted for us to care about another country’s stolen treasures? And/or because the trade in looted artefacts makes lots of money for this free port of ours??”
The Hindu newspaper reported on 5 Dec that an important allegedly stolen bronze sculpture is now allegedly in the hands of Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum (click here for the article). The price ACM supposedly forked out was a whopping USD650,000! According to the newspaper, “[they] wrote to the museum authorities in Singapore in July, enquiring about the provenance of the Uma Parameshvari sculpture. However, they did not reply. The Hindu contacted the museum again to get its response to the recent developments. Until this story went to print, the museum did not reply to the email that followed a telephone conversation.” A serious case of ‘No Comments’ from NHB?
Let’s see what ACM says about this, since they are now under international scrutiny. I would also like to hear what ACM’s collection policy is: how do they buy artifacts, and how are they sure they are doing it legally? ACM is part of National Heritage Board, which is a statutory board of the Singapore government. Surely a government like ours cannot condone a local institution buying things that are not legally for sale, right? At the very least, ACM must help assure the Singapore taxpayer that there is no wrongdoing here. If there is indeed some monkey business, ACM should come clean, apologise, and return the piece (like what many museums around the world have already done). I think I know who the Director and Curator in question are, and also the group of non-ACM people who had to approve this large expenditure (nearly S$1,000,000 in those days?) in the first place. If there was any professional misconduct or oversight, it is important that the wrongdoers face the music also. Now that NHB’s collection policies are in the limelight, perhaps we would finally find out what these policies are (if there are any clear policies, that is).
Beyond this one sculpture, ACM must have spent millions on a buying-spree leading up to its opening in the early 2000s. What other artifacts are in the same predicament? The fallout may be explosive!