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 globalization) 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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Where is National Gallery of Singapore in the ‘Museum Roundtable’ list?

The Singapore Museum Roundtable is run by National Heritage Board to encourage a museum-going culture. Under the MR are all the usual suspects.

All the NHB museums are in MR (of course) and many others too, including both small private museums/galleries and larger stat board galleries. The link shows the ‘art’ museums under MR. They include the Singapore Art Museum, of course. But the National Gallery is nowhere to be found. They opened late last year. You mean to say that after 10 months, they still have not been able to join MR? Is this NatGallery and/or NHB bureaucracy at play here that is delaying the entry? Or does the NatGallery march to its own tune where joining the MR may not be on the top of their priorities?

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A non-museum trained person who heads a museum

Mr Sabapathy speaks candidly, in 2013, about how

1) local museums are booming, but yet there are not many local institutions that produce trained curators, museo-logists etc that are supposed to fill these specialized roles in these institutions, and

2) how non-museum/curator/art trained professionals are hired to the most senior positions in local museums.

For point 1) I think locals who are adequately trained overseas are good enough for the museums, and so are foreigners who are similarly trained and are also sympathetic to local museum-conditions. I think that these foreign-trained museum staff do bring a certain level of cosmopolitanism that the museum-world requires. But having said that, the point is true that why not have local more institutions giving degrees in museology/art/curation/conservation etc since there is obviously a need in the local industries for these professionals.

For point 2, there is of course the argument for ‘transferrable skills’. Just like how a bank may hire an engineer/architect etc to be a banker, because they may have valuable ‘non-banking’ perspectives on banking, a non-museum/art person may also bring such perspectives that are important to local museums.

But then again, like Mr S said in the video, how would you feel about the senior management in a hospital being populated with curators/museum-trained people, with the same argument that they bring uniquely ‘non-hospital’ perspectives on running a hospital? None of us would buy that. Then why do we think nothing of getting non-museum trained/experienced people to helm some of our local museums, such as the National Gallery? Are we saying that unlike hospitals, the skills needed to run museums in Singapore are so generic that anyone senior enough would do, even if they are newbies to the museum-scene?

But of course the flip side is that even when we hire curators to helm museums, they also may not stay. Think of Dr Alan Chong of ACM and Dr Susie Lingham of SAM; they are eminently qualified in the correct fields to guide the museums on the appropriate theoretical/practical trajectories, but yet these 2 didn’t stay too long in their jobs. Can it be possible that curators are not up to the mark on the technical/administrative rigours of running a museum, or that the local museum-structures do not know how to retain the ‘right’ people?

For the moment, I’m pondering about the thinking behind the appointment of ACM’s incoming director  Kennie Ting. He has a BA in Econs/English and an MA in Urban Studies. So it seems that he doesn’t any tertiary training in art/museology etc (please correct me if I’m wrong here). He’s got many years in heritage policy-making but I don’t think he has any direct experience working IN a museum. Let’s see how his transferrable skills work in ACM. What the heck, since Kennie is good enough for ACM, his next job may be to run Singtel or SGH?

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it’s been a long time since I’ve posted stuff

but it’s not been such a long time for Singapore’s curator; I’m talking about the ‘staying power’ of our curators in NHB museums.

A curator is a ‘keeper’ of stuff; s/he not only looks after stuff that are already in the museum, s/he also buys/seeks donations to get more stuff in. The old and new stuff are ‘studied’ by the curator, and his/her fingerprints are literally all over them. Having said that, it would then make sense that the longer a curator stays in a museum, the more of his/her knowledge of his/her stuff stays with the museum. Think of it as the curator being the repository of much of the ‘corporate knowledge’ of the things that make a museum a museum (i.e. artifacts).

So it’s not surprising that curators elsewhere stay for 30-40 years (see and ). I can almost imagine these old-timers saying “I can’t bare to leave my stuff, and so I stayed for 40 years in my job…”

So let’s look at the earliest museums that came under National Heritage Board, Singapore when it was formed in 1996: National Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum and Singapore Art Museum.

Since coming under NHB in 1996, the National Museum, I think, has one of the original curators left – Iskandar. Dozens have come and gone, but at least there’s still one.

NONE of the founding curators of Asian Civilisations Museum (circa 96-97) are there anymore. The longest serving is probably Heidi, who left a few years ago for further studies on her own. None of the current senior/junior curators there now were there when ACM Empress Place opened in the early 2000s, when millions were spent on artifacts (and thousands more entered through donations).

NONE of the founding curators of the Singapore Art Museum are there anymore. Kian Chow the founding director is still in the art-circle but no longer with the SAM that he built. None of the current senior/junior curators there now were there when SAM first opened.

I don’t know why many of them left, but I’m sure many did so for personal reasons. But the fact that none are even going to hit the 40-year-mark (perhaps only Iskandar?) for long service to the museums must also make us turn to the ‘system’. What are the museums doing (or not doing) that are bringing in young curators who quit in a few years, or very senior curators (like ACM’s Dr Alan Chong and SAM’s Dr Susie Lingham) who do likewise?

If museums are ‘hip, young online businesses’, perhaps high staff-turnover may be a positive thing as new, innovative ideas enter and old, jaded staff exit. But a museum is a repository of things, each of which has a life that extends beyond the time it spends in the museum. Each object has a story that its keeper (i.e. curator) is intimately knowledgeable about; when the curator/keeper leaves, s/he not only leave his/her cubicle empty, but s/he walks away with a wealth of info about his/her artifacts that cannot be ‘handed over’ to the incoming curator/keeper. With curators in Singapore museums using the institutions as a revolving door in their long, varied careers, the museums lose out, and eventually we, the audience do too. Overall, since museums use objects to tell stories, these revered institutions also lose out when curators – a museum’s storytellers – don’t stay for long.

I wonder if NHB and other local museums have studied this problem before?





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