A nationwide heritage survey in Singapore: A good thing (though late) if done right

It was announced in March 2015 that the Singapore National Heritage Board (NHB) “…will commission a nation-wide survey… (covering) Things like the age of these buildings, their architectural merits, the social and cultural value of certain landmarks to the community, and sites where significant historical events happened will be considered.” (click here). It appears to be a wide-ranging ‘baseline’ survey that would be the first in Singapore to extensively cover both tangible and intangible aspects of our heritage.

But this got me thinking. This project sounds like something that ANY heritage board would have done very soon after being set-up. But consider that the NHB was set-up in 1993, and it seems that this new much-needed project is about 20 years late.

In April, the Straits Times published an editorial piece about the project (click here). The article praises the project but alluded to the fact that it’s a tad late (possibly because much had been lost and therefore not recorded since NHB was formed in 1993). But more pressing is that several academics and heritage enthusiasts question not the purpose of the project, but its execution. For example, a heritage expert from the Singapore Management University said “We don’t know what happens during the discussion phase (in the selection of what to record/protect) as these tend to be an internal process that is not made clear to the public”. The article cited the example that the criteria for selecting buildings to be conserved comes under the Urban Redevelopment Authority (and not NHB) and is covered by the Official Secrets Acts.

Those interviewed all agree that this survey is a good starting point to the collecting of much-needed data, AND that the process should be inclusive (such as involving different interest groups) and be transparent.

I agree. But I am a bit skeptical about how this whole project would pan out. This is mainly because NHB has in the past shown to be lacking in not just the sincerity of its intentions but also in how it takes its tasks seriously.

Take the Bukit Brown cemetery example. That is clearly a place of significant national heritage (due to the many prominent pioneers buried there). But NHB was not closely involved in the process of its partial destruction (well, it was not really apparent how much NHB was involved as reported through the local media, with the Land Transport Authority and Singapore Land Authority appearing to the lead decision-makers). I think till today, beyond NHB saying that they would survey the part of the cemetery that would be destroyed by the new road, I don’t recall NHB being a significant part of the decision process prior to the go-ahead for the new road was made. This is not the first time NHB was caught short on the destruction of cemeteries: Another significant one – Bidadari – was completely destroyed years ago and I do not recall that NHB was active seeking views prior to the decision. I am also not sure what NHB had done to preserve the tangible aspects of the cemetery, beyond saving a handful of tombstones that will be displayed in the housing estate that would be built there.

Another example: the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ bid for UNSECO World Heritage listing. It appeared in this case that the Gardens took the lead, and the NHB only assisted in lending its name to the bid because it is after all – DUH – in-charge of Singapore’s ‘heritage’ (of which the Gardens would logically fall under).

I agree with those quoted in the article that the public should be more involved in this new survey. This is after all OUR heritage and the things that make it in there should have some of our input. And by ‘input’ I don’t mean that NHB makes a decision FIRST, and then seeks ‘views’ on the fait-accompli after the fact. If this is OUR heritage, sometimes what we the ‘people’ say should triumph over policy consideration. Think of the destruction of the National Library at Stamford Road (for a new road tunnel for goodness’ sake) despite the public outpourings, and you know what I mean.

Also, I would like to see NHB grow some guts vis-à-vis other government agencies; NHB is the only one with ‘heritage’ in its name, and it should be the one to take the local ‘heritage bull’ by its horns. Don’t let SLA, URA LTA, NPARKS, NLB etc trample over Singapore’s heritage (or what’s left of it) BECAUSE NHB should be its paramount guardian. If anything, the culture with the government service should change to become one where an agency should be consulting NHB FIRST before any heritage-linked policies are executed.

P.S. On a good note, I think this survey is a good sign that NHB is beginning to see itself not so much as the “Singapore Museum and Heritage Centres Board” but as an overall champion of heritage (covering both museums and heritage outside of museums). With the Singapore Art Museum taken out of NHB and the National Gallery not being placed under the NHB, I hope that the other museums would eventually also get autonomy outside of NHB, leaving it to concentrate NOT on running permanent exhibitions BUT on tangible heritage (old buildings, cemeteries etc) and intangible heritage.

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Investigative piece about possible archaeological loot in the possession of Asian Civilisations Museum

I am posting in full the article below which was uploaded elsewhere (click here). I have no comments on any of the information shared by that website. Just thought it would be interesting to alert readers that ACM is getting some international airplay. BTW, Dr Gauri Krishnan, who is mentioned in the article, is still an employee at National Heritage Board, Singapore; I wonder why she wasn’t contacted for comments?

START OF ARTICLE

Stolen artifact kept by SG museum for 15 years?

Following reports by TR Emeritus (TRE) that the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) had acquired stolen Indian artifacts, ACM issued a statement last year (8 Jan 2014) saying that it will take all necessary steps according to international laws and practice to return any stolen or looted objects particularly purchased from New York gallery Art of The Past (‘ACM: We will return stolen Indian artifacts‘).

In fact, ACM revealed that it had bought 30 artifacts from Art of The Past over the 14 years from 1997 to 2010. ACM explained that it believed, at the point of purchase, the artifacts were legally and ethically acquired from the gallery. It added that it “follows acquisition procedures strictly”, and all possible checks were made on the artifacts at the time of purchase.

On 6 December 2013, TRE broke the news that a 1,000-year idol stolen from India is now in the possession of ACM (‘1,000-year idol stolen from India now in SG museum‘). The 1,000-year-old Uma Parmeshvari bronze sculpture was stolen from a temple in the Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu in 2005 or 2006 before being smuggled to Art Of The Past, owned by disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor sold the idol to ACM for US$650,000 in February 2007.

According to chasingaphrodite.com, a blog dedicated to the hunt for looted antiquities in the world’s museums, Kapoor’s contact in Singapore is ACM’s senior curator Dr Gauri Krishnan. The blog is written and maintained by Jason Felch, an award-winning investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times. He has written on topics such as arms trafficking, forensic DNA, disaster fraud, money laundering, public education and corruption in the art world.

Seated Buddha

Last week, Mr Felch published another article alleging that ACM may have bought another stolen Indian artifact – Buddha statue of the Kushan period dating back to 2 BC- through another New York dealer (‘The Kushan Buddhas: Nancy Wiener, Douglas Latchford and New Questions about Ancient Buddhas‘).

Through Mr Felch’s thorough investigative research, it was alleged that 2 Kushan Buddhas was stolen from an archaeological site in the city of Mathura, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The city was the second capital of the ancient Kushan empire.

The 2 Kushan Buddhas ended up with the New York dealer who allegedly provided false provenance (documents to show source of origin) for the statues. One statue was later sold to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and the other to ACM of Singapore.

Mr Felch’s story was partly confirmed by an Indian news report last month. According to the Times of India (‘Australia to return centuries-old stolen Buddha statue to India‘):

Australia to return centuries-old stolen Buddha statue to India

Australia has informed Indian authorities that it will soon return the sculpture, dating back to second century BC, realizing that it had been stolen from an archaeological site in India. Abbott has on several occasions stated that improving relations with India was high on his priority list and one of the ways he has reached out to the Modi government is by returning stolen artifacts illegally taken out of India…

According to a report in The Australian earlier this year, the artifact was purchased by billionaire philanthropist Ros Packer for NGA. After Indian authorities took up the issue with Australia, NGA launched a probe into how the statue was bought from a New York antiquities dealer and found that the dealer had tricked Australian authorities into believing that the red sandstone marvel had been purchased from a British collector in Hong Kong. The investigations revealed that the New York based dealer had travelled to India and acquired two Kushan Buddhas from a trafficker.”

Contacting ACM

Earlier, Mr Felch has also contacted ACM to enquire about the Kushan Buddha statue in the possession of ACM. An official from the National Heritage Board (NHB), a statutory board under Lawrence Wong’s MCCY, merely replied:

I refer to your email requesting more information about one of our objects in the museum.

The Kushana Buddha was purchased from a respected international dealer in the year 2000, who had purchased it from a private collector who had owned the piece since the 1960s.

The reply confirmed that ACM did acquire the said statue from a “respected international dealer” in 2000.

About 3 months ago, Mr Felch contacted Dr Alan Chong, the Chief Curatorial Director of ACM, mentioning the Kushan Buddha statue again.

Subject: Seated Buddha
From: Jason Felch
Date: November 6, 2014 at 12:16:36 PM PST
Cc: “Sharinita MOHD ISMAIL (NHB)”
To: “Alan CHONG (NHB)”

Mr. Chong,

I first contacted you in 2012 about the Seated Buddha in the ACM’s collection. Despite persistent requests, I never received a response to my request that you release the name of the dealer and prior owner.

I now have reason to believe the dealer was Nancy Wiener, and the former owner was a private collector named “Ian Donaldson” in Hong Kong. Wiener provided the same provenance for a Kushan Buddha now at the National Gallery of Australia.

A leading expert in India art with knowledge of both Buddhas says the provenance for both the ACM and the NGA’s Kushan Buddhas was fabricated to hide the fact that the statues had recently left India. In other words, Mr. Donaldson never possessed the sculptures, he says.

I am writing a story about this expert’s account, which was recently shared with the NGA. I would like your comment on the allegation. Also, please provide any information about what the ACM did to verify the provenance of the Seated Buddha before its acquisition in 2000.

Thank you.

Jason Felch
Arts journalist
Author, Chasing Aphrodite

Three months have passed and nothing is heard from ACM.

If the statue is not stolen and everything is in order, shouldn’t ACM issue a statement to clarify?

Why is ACM keeping mum over the whole matter?

What do you think?

END OF ARTICLE

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Jackie Chan’s replicas for Asian Civilisations Museum: Heading for a curatorial disaster?

This seems to be a hands-down good thing for the Asian Civilisations Museum – 12 replicas of the looted zodiac heads from the Beijing summer palace have been donated by Jackie Chan (click here for the news). 1) Jackie Chan, probably the most famous Asian face in the world, is now indelibly linked to ACM, giving it more global prominence, and 2) the 12 looted heads (some are still missing) are still a source of controversy and intrigue, and should therefore draw more visitors.

In 1860, at the end of the 2nd Opium War, French and British soldiers looted the Old Summer Palace, taking away, amongst many other artefacts, 12 bronze heads of the Chinese zodiac creatures that were set in a garden. While the palace was set alight, the goodies taken were to add insult to Chinese injury. The 12 heads were then separated, before some were eventually returned to China and some still missing. The 2 recently returned ones – rat and rabbit – received lots of press in 2013 when a French company returned them to a Beijing Museum (see article here).

Now back to Jackie Chan’s heads. As far as I can tell from news reports, NONE of these replicas are made based on the actual moulds taken from the 12 originals (and furthermore, this is not even possible simply because some of the originals are still missing and therefore no moulds could have been made from these). According to Taiwanese artist Apen who made the new heads, “We created and designed new ones” (click here for this confirmation that the new heads are nothing like the old ones), thereby admitting that the donations are not just ‘new’ in terms of age, but also ‘design’. ‘Replicas’ by definition are not merely lookalikes – they are exact copies of the real things (sometimes in actual size, sometimes as scaled-down accurate models).

For the different news agencies to call JC’s donations “Bronze replicas of all the zodiac statues” is to grossly misrepresent them (which is an understatement, to say the least). NONE of the 12 new heads are made as exact copies of the originals, so they do not deserve to be called ‘replicas’. So the ‘replicas’ on display ‘replicate’ what exactly? The Taiwanese artist’s creative imagination??

Museums are ‘shrines’ to authentic artefacts. All that are displayed in good museums should be certified bona fide, and therefore give visitors the impression that they are staring at actual objects linked to actual historical events. In the case of these 12 heads, I can understand that if 11 replicas were made to complement the donation of a sole authentic one (so as to put the one real artefact into context); but ALL TWELVE are NEW designs… What aspects of ‘reality’ would you see, then, if you are staring at things that are 100% ‘unreal’?

“Asian Civilisations Museum director Alan Chong says: The exhibition combines the past and present, and raises issues of nationalism, identity and culture. We hope the zodiac will delight visitors as they discover aspects of history.” I do not contest that the 12 heads would draw extra visitors to ACM and that these will learn more about an important aspect of Chinese history. But if ‘discovering aspects of history’ is paramount for ACM, it should in that case make fakes of any and all important Asian artefacts and display them, right? Why bother to spend taxpayers’ money to buy anything authentic then, when ‘replicas’ (or any new thing that may look nothing like the original) will do?

Dr Chong, you may have ‘re-branded’ the Halloween debacle at ACM to save some face for a venerable institution, but the news of this donation of so-called ‘replicas’ will reach museum-lovers all over the world and do no good to ACM’s name. Furthermore, Dr Chong is Chief Curatorial Director for the whole of the Singapore’s National Heritage Board and all its museums; is this a green light for other government-funded museums to display anything they like in their museums, real or otherwise?

And now the piece de resistance – Singapore museums could have said consistently and clearly ‘we, on principle, do not accept donations of ‘replicas’ of anything old. Now that the floodgate has opened, how can the National Heritage Board decline future donations of ‘replicas’?? I hope the trade-off – being associated with Jackie Chan’s fading fame – will make it worth ACM’s while for taking this large gamble.

**On a side-note, once these replicas have been ‘accessioned’ into the national collection, they will belong to Singapore in perpetuity. Resources – paid for with taxpayers’ money – will have to be spent housing and caring for them FOREVER. Considering that these heads are BRAND NEW objects that have no physical relevance to actual artefacts, what is the justification of spending taxpayers’ money on their storage, security and conservation FOREVER? Some bean-counter at a Ministry and/or internal/external auditor should be very interested in the short-mid-long term repercussions of this donation.

As a stat board, NHB should make an official statement about its stand on 1) whether with this donation, it signals the acceptance of donations of ‘new’ things that are loosely-modelled after old ones, 2) giving tax breaks for such donations – does Jackie (or any of his Singapore proxies) get a tax-write-off for this donation, and if so, what is the valuation for this donation (and who made that valuation)?, and 3) what would be the estimated cost to the Singapore taxpayer on the future care of these 12 heads? While we wait for answers, let me go look for ‘replicas’ in my collection that ACM may be interested in…

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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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