When ‘giving’ and ‘altruism’ are strange bedfellows: The politics of gift-giving to Singapore museums

The issue of big-ticket philanthropy is still in the news today. I just read about someone musing that a ‘gift’ is something given with no-strings-attached, while money given with a building promised to be named in honour of the benefactor should rightly be called an ‘exchange’ (click ‘here‘).

I had already posted that most of the rich individuals/wealthy corporations/foundations that I had dealt with in the past were all in the business of ‘exchanging’ money for tangible benefits (click ‘here‘). Arguably, many of these ‘philanthropists’ would walk away if there were no benefits for their ‘gifts’.

Something else about ‘giving’ caught my eye today. Straits Times Life section today had a 2-page colour spread (‘Bibik Chic’, pages C2/3, written by Deepika Shetty) about the new kebaya exhibition at the Peranakan Museum, ‘Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion and its international sources’. [I had already blogged about the opening of this kebaya exhibition (click ‘here‘)]. As it turns out, many of the pieces were donated by Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee (who are parents of Dick Lee).

No, there’s nothing fishy about this donation; not in the ‘name the gallery after Lee Kip Lee’ type of controversy that is currently being debated). However, it mentions that Peter Lee, their son, is guest curator of the exhibition.

Now, that is strange. Let’s put it this way. Imagine I am a painter and I decide to donate my paintings to a museum. My son curates the exhibition (and he probably also writes the text panels and catalog). Even if my paintings are truly ‘good’ and my son praises them as a curator, wouldn’t people call into question his conflict of interest? After all, my son the curator would be ‘obliged’ to praise my paintings even if they are crap, right?

Therefore, getting Peter Lee to curate an exhibition featuring mostly kebayas donated by Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee’s is NOT something that the Pernakan Museum had initially wanted due to the obvious conflict of interest, I venture to guess. Instead, and I am purely speculating here, Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee donated the 400 kebaya on condition that:

i) the Peranakan Museum fully funds an exhibition featuring the kebayas,

ii) Peter Lee gets to be the guest curator (and incidental costs toward this will be paid for by the Museum),

iii) the requisite tax-breaks are given to the Lee family, and

iv) possibly a full-colour catalog of the donation/exhibition is to be produced at the Museum’s expense, with Peter as ‘guest writer’.

So, when is a ‘gift’ not a gift??


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5 responses to “When ‘giving’ and ‘altruism’ are strange bedfellows: The politics of gift-giving to Singapore museums

  1. With no strings attached. Scotch-tape better. Great blog here! Will visit more often.

  2. Pingback: Review of ‘Sarong Kebaya: Peranakan Fashion and its international sources’ at the Peranakan Museum | 23princessroad's Blog

  3. Anonymous

    Do you know anything about Peter Lee? Perhaps you should do a little digging: he is one of the leading scholars on Peranakan culture, a thoughtful and perceptive, extremely intelligent, generous man. Of course the museum wanted him to curate the exhibition – he is the most qualified person to do so. Sometimes donations are not what they seem, but that does not mean there is always a scandal behind them.

    • Dear Anon, please re-read my post: I never called into question Peter’s credentials as an expert of all things Peranakan. I just assumed that someone as savvy as him would be fully aware that ‘curating’ one’s parents’ collection will come with some controversy….

  4. Pingback: ACM’s “Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia 1500-1900” Exhibition – A Spectacular Journey to a Let-Down | 23princessroad's Blog

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