Syonan Gallery – what’s in a name?

The old Memories at Ford Factory has been revamped and renamed: Syonan Gallery. But people are not commenting on the ‘contents’ of the exhibition; it’s not open yet. They have gone ape-shit over its name (see here). Syonan, you see, is the name the the Japanese gave to Singapore in the few short years during WW Two. According to the report “Heritage expert and law professor Kevin Tan said: “I think a more appropriate name might have to be found as it suggests a celebration of the time. The frontage could be more sensitive.”

Yes, we should be much more sensitive about the sufferings Singapore had to endure under the Japanese. Maybe for a start, Singaporeans who had collaborated with the Japanese would be ‘distanced’, just like how we would like to distance ourselves from ‘Syonan’ due to the memories of the cruelty of the Japanese. Should such people, including a few who had held very high positions in Singapore post-WW Two (and who now have buidlings and scholarships named after them) be reviewed as they were actually working for the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore (i.e. collaborators with the Japanese, who in their collaborations could’ve made Singaporeans suffer)? Or maybe we should go further in WW Two ideology: People who drive the old VW beetles should be reviewed because the distinctive round-ish car was, after all, made under the orders of Hitler? There were Singaporeans who did much to resist the Japanese during the war with much pain and hardship (and even death) but do we see many buildings and scholarships named after Lim Bo Seng and Elizabeth Choy? Nope.

OK, enough of the bull-crap. Yes, people can protest the name Syonan Gallery because everyone one has a right to. And yes, of all the names in the world, if the Library Board and National Archives picked this one on purpose, they should definitely be well-prepared for the ensuing shit-storm. But i just hope that these people think about why and how they are picking and choosing their personal memories of WW Two that suits their convenience. If the gallery’s contents are historically ‘accurate’ and paint a ‘fair’ picture of Singapore at the time of occupation, I don’t give a hoot what it’s called. I am, however, interested to see if the gallery does talk about Singaporeans such as K.Y. and S.R. and their roles as collaborators (and if such collaborations resulted in intelligence that actually harmed locals) in these few short years.

Eh, what’s that pink, hairless blob that just flew past my window???

How about “Glorification to the tangible sufferings of our stoic people in the face of inhumane acts of cruelty by the incorrigible Japanese during WWII in occupied-Singapore Gallery”?


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“Muru-gun” vs “Muru-gurn”

ACM curator Naomi Wang is promoting a tour of Port Cities exhibition through this video (click here and scroll down a bit until you see the advert for the tour plus the uploaded video). Turn up the volume and listen; at about 50sec into it, she refers to “Murugan” by saying “Muru-gun” (ending the last syllable by pronouncing it as ‘gan’, as is ‘beGUN’). Murugun is, by the way, is the Hindu deity associated with Thaipusam.

Murugan is pronounced “Muru-gurn” (as in ‘intern’ without the ‘hard’ ‘r’). I understand if a person who is not familiar with the proper pronunciation to say His name wrongly; you may be non-Singaporean, speaking a language where saying “Muru-gurn” is beyond your linguistic range.

But I assume Ms Wang is from Singapore, judging from her accent. More important is that she is the curator of the exhibition that covers this topic. When you, as a local Singapore curator, say Murugan in a way unfamiliar to my Singaporean-ears, it makes my hair stand lah….

I won’t be paying to join her tour. Instead, I wouldn’t mind paying Miss Wang to say ‘Japanese Shogun’ just to hear her pronounce it as ‘Sho-gun’!! The Hokkien-speakers amongst us may get the joke…

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The Dilution of Museology Continues in National Museum of Singapore

The National Museum Singapore just announced a brand new gallery (see here). For those of you who have yet to read the news, you may be thinking ‘What’s on display?’. Well, technically, lots of stuff are on display, but yet nothing is displayed.

According to the news-site, “Called Gallery10, the museum’s 10th permanent gallery is equipped with advanced projection technology and is designed to be an immersive digital space for artists to experiment with the “traditionally binary ideas of art and science… Titled Art of the Rehearsal, the installation depicts Singaporean dancers from various cultures rehearsing their performances along the back lanes of cultural districts in the city”.

So I assume that the gallery is full of sight/sounds, but yet not a tangible artefact is on display. I’ve got 2 issues with this. 1) NMS is a museum after all, and a museum, by definition, displays ‘things’. If NMS is going down this route of ‘curating experiences’ without the display of things to anchor the storylines, then it may well be on the side of pseudo museums like those existing only online and ‘real’ museums like TrickEye where people go NOT to see tangible artefacts. NMS Director Teo says “The role of the museum has changed over the years, expanding its focus beyond presenting things of the past to include creating a connection with the present”, to which I agree. But if a cutting-edge museum eventually does away with artefacts, is it still a ‘museum’?

2. While this 1st immersive video does touch on local dance heritage, I assume is more ‘artistic’ than didactic, since the gallery aims to explore the “relationship between art and digital technology”. In other words, the gallery will more likely be used by artists to display ‘art’ rather than specific info that would enhance the ‘heritage’ on display elsewhere in NMS. If the gallery is dedicated to art – with the 1st installation as a good indication of this intent as it is funded by the National Arts Council – then my question is “What is the role of NMS as a museum of history?”. There are already lots of govt- and non-govt funded arts museum/spaces in Singapore; so why is NMS spending precious money and space on what is essentially a gallery for contemporary visual arts?

I think NMS is suffering from a few issues. 1) It probably has taken a huge hit from would-be visitors being sucked away to new venues like National Gallery. So if ‘art sells’, then NMS perhaps is thinking that this new gallery would bring back some of the ‘visual arts’-leaning visitors who had been stolen. 2) I can’t recall the last major exhibition on Singapore history that NMS has presented. My point is that NMS has lost its foothold as the premier local institution that researches and displays Singapore history – think about the number of good Singapore-history exhibitions that the National Library Board has presented in comparison.

With NMS restyling itself as a venue of edu-tainment (Arrhhhhhhh! I said that E word!!) rather than the doyen of “displayed Singapore-history”, will the race for ‘museum-visitors’ in Singapore heat up even more among local institutions, while the quality of curated exhibitions on Singapore histories suffers?

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Malay Heritage Centre and its new temporary exhibition: Well done!

I went for the Mereka Utusan exhibition at the Malay Heritage Centre. I was just passing by and wasn’t expecting anything to see there at all. But this little exhibition was great. Spread over 2 small rooms, it documents Malay culture in Singapore through the print media. In the intimate spaces, there was a good mix of artifacts (like an old-school printing-press) and interesting blown-up news articles and advertisements. Many local visitors would be surprised to learn of the importance of Singapore’s Malay literati not just here on our island, but also in the Malay world in general.

On another note, while this mini exhibition at MHC is an excellent reminder that the richness in Singapore’s history is not just in archaeology and British colonial topics, it also reminded me “What the heck has the sleepy National Museum been doing for Singapore history of late??”. After the British Museum travelling exhibition that it hosted sometime back, I can’t recall if NMS has curated anything of note on its own recently in terms of temporary exhibitions. It’s really a pity that Mereka Utusan is held at MHC and not NMS (with its much higher visitor-numbers), as such well-curated exhibitions on niche topics are exactly the ones we need in our constant striving to understand the complexities that make up Singapore.

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Editorial sloppiness at ACM; is it still a minor issue when someone senior is paid to be hawkish about English?

OK, it seems like a minor issue when a staff misses a spelling error or an inappropriate punctuation that eventually gets displayed at the museum. We all make mistakes, yes?

But then again, most museums do not have an “Assistant Director – Editorial & Interpretation” on its payroll. Asian Civilisations Museum actually employs someone who goes by that title, Richard Lingner. I don’t really know what he does, but I assume the least he could do is to ensure that exhibition text is read for consistency prior to display.

So since someone at ACM is not only paid but is also in a senior position as an editor, you’d think that simple issues like ‘…ise’ or ‘…ize’ would be sorted out before display, and even if there are inconsistencies, Richard should’ve picked them out with his eagle eyes before the text gets put onto a wall. You’d think.

So for the new Port Cities exhibition, below are 2 photos showing parts of the main text that visitors get to read right at the start of the show. Mind you these are in large-print, and not fine print hidden in the back of a brochure or small artifact info-panel.

Since “globalization” and “improvisations” are both spelt distinctively, it means that the museum hasn’t decided if it should go ‘British’ (ie globalisation) or ‘American’ (ie improvizations). But this is easy enough ain’t it? Its own name “Asian Civilisations Museum” already points to the preference for ‘ise’, so why the glaring flip-flop right at the start of a show that the museum is proud of?

Like I said, it seems to be a minor issue; but then again, are we letting off the hook the someone who is paid 1000s a month precisely to spot such hiccups before they go into print? And beyond the Editorial asst director, dozens of other ACM staff should’ve also read the text by now right? No one has caught the inconsistencies yet??


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ACM website; jumping the gun

So if you click here, you’ll see that the Cities & Kings exhibition (which opens on 2/12/2016) is already touted as “Now on at ACM”.

I take this enthusiasm as a positive sign that the good people at ACM are so excited about the show that they wish that it should be opened already??

We’ll see.

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ACM’s “Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia 1500-1900” Exhibition – A Spectacular Journey to a Let-Down is ACM’s new exhibition that recently-opened to much fanfare. In his own site, Director Kenny said “The exhibition is also significant because the concept and the curatorial narrative of the exhibition originated in ACM, and it is the first exhibition anywhere in the world that adopts a pan-Asian approach in presenting on the subject of Port Cities in Asia”. Curiously, the show is curated by an external curator who is not known for much beyond Peranakan exhibitions; why use him for this new, wide topic for which he is relatively unknown, when ACM already has existing cross-culture curators? Perhaps ACM still owes him favours for a large donation his parents gave to the museum, as mentioned in a previous post here on the Lee Kip Lee/Peter Lee/Peranakan Museum links?? But anyway…

Well, before visiting the exhibition, there’s lots to be excited about. 1) ACM has always been a pan-Asian museum, and it is expected that this new pan-Asian exhibition will be covering new ground. 2) There’s a new director who is excited about pan-Asian-ness, and together with the new-ish cross-culture curators at ACM, this exhibition should be good. 3) I saw in the museum shop on the way into the exhibition that the catalogue features the doyens of Asian history – the Andayas – as contributors to an article, and this was a good sign. And of course 4) because I had to pay $13 for the exhibition (when otherwise most other exhibitions are free), it’d better be good enough to justify the infinite chasm between free and not.

So I stepped into the exhibition, anticipating quite a bit. Why wouldn’t I? Think about it, Port Cities in Asia. There must be 100s if not 1000s of such port cities, spanning Middle-East to the west and Japan to the east, the east-west coasts of India, and 1000s of km of beaches in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Philippines. Some are probably 1000s of years old, while most at least have a few centuries of histories (like the 1500-1900 suggested in the title). There must be so many similarities as well as differences between these ports across Asia.

Imagine all that richness of material culture, and expanse of space and time, all boiled down to a paltry 180 artefacts, squeezed into a space no larger than 1-2 tennis courts. Standing at the end of the exhibition hall, I had to ask a guard if there was another space somewhere else in the museum where the exhibition continued. (His answer was ‘No’)…

There’s no need to do detailed summary of the exhibition lah. The subject title is already quite ambitious for a ‘book’ (or several books), let alone trying to organise an exhibition around it, let alone trying to squash it all into a little shoebox of a space, let alone trying to achieve all that with less than 200 objects. Of course there are huge gaps in the storyline on display – where are the indigenous/tribal peoples who were important in supplying the port cities with trade goods, where are the languages that you hear, the religions practiced, the foods eaten, what about the changes that EACH port city has gone through in its lifetime, let alone the webs of change that all the inter-linked port cities had endured, where are the internal and external wars, and where the heck were all the stuff that were traded, from spices to horns to wood to textiles etc – leaving a few cheesy-looking pieces of clothing (they look more like theatrical props than bone fide artifacts) taking up most of the front-displays and some mute wooden chairs bringing up the rear.

And all this rosiness pushing the notion that port-cities are warm, fuzzy marketplaces where people hang around peacefully and make friends and exchange ideas is shockingly simplistic. Beyond the one print of the 1740 Batavia massacre of 1000s of Chinese settlers, there is almost no mention that port cities are rosy one day and horror stories the next. Countless lives were lost to invaders/conquerors/rebels/pirates both local and foreign, and even more must have perished due to the introduction of new diseases from lands faraway and those resulting from unsanitary living conditions that cities brought. And to cite a bit more of academic discourse, a colonial officer in Burma – Furnivall – already pointed out that in such colonised societies, the pluralities of peoples mixed for business but did not combine socially; so beyond the hustle and bustle of port cities, we need to problematise the oversimplification that the ‘combination’ of racial/ethnic/cultural differences was the norm.

I’m a tad embarrassed that I have to be this blunt. ACM used to have vision (of scope) and reality (of what objects can be displayed to prop up a storyline) pretty well matched. But now, even though you have opened a few new swanky galleries and now a new exhibition (and soon another new one on Myanmar in Dec 2016), I think your storylines are better read in books than seen in actual displays. In museum-speak, for the Port Cities exhibition, you have bitten off way more than your little mouth can masticate: The gargantuan storyline-breadth (impressive as it may be) is way more ambitious than the feeble number of artifacts that you can rustle up in its justification. Anyone can tell a story in a book (because words are cheap), but a museum must always rely on objects to make tangible an intangible storyline.

You know what? In hindsight, the exhibition feels like it is the much smaller, humbler supporting act to the main event, which was the publishing of the book, rather than the exhibtion being the main event and the book the supporting act. Oh, and if the book is indeed the main event, it’s already been done before… see this link here of the book “Asian Port Cities, 1600-1800“.

Director Kenny, about the $13 I paid for the ticket…



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