What gets exhibited in a National Museum?: The curious case of Vacheron Constantin on show at Singapore’s National Museum

‘Treasures of Vacheron Constantin: A Legacy of watchmaking Since 1755’ is now on show at the National Musuem of Singapore or ‘NMS’ (click ‘here‘).

Visited this over the weekend. The point of this post is not about how exquisite the Swiss watches are; they are fabulous, by the way.

I was pondering, as I walked through the exhibition, the role of a national museum. Yes, it should showcase exhibitions of BOTH local and international origin, of course. But who is there to intercede when the lines between exhibitions of ‘integrity’ and those of a more dubious nature are blurred?

Take the Vacheron exhibition for example. The exhibition-storyline of a history of ‘watch-making’ is a fascinating one that truly deserves space (and resources) at a national museum. But with the Vacheron show at NMS, this important storyline is told through the objects (and history) exclusively from Vacheron’s private collections.

I can only conclude that Vacheron got the chance to exhibit at NMS not because of its great collection and interesting history, but that it also ‘paid’ to for the right to be there. The telltale signs that Vacheron ‘bought’ its way into NMS are many:

(1) See the official website of this exhibition (click ‘here‘); no other temporary exhibition of NMS’ has a dedicated website all on its own, and this one even spawns from the Vacheron official site ‘www.vacheron-constantin.com’,

(2) All the temporary exhibitions I’ve been to at the NMS have a children’s or hands-on section at the end to help visitors learn more about the storyline/topic. This Vacheron exhibition has none, which is very uncharacteristic of NMS,

(3) I usually get invited to the openings of such NMS events; I didn’t however get an invite for this opening. When I called to enquire, I was told that the guest-list was a ‘private’ one (meaning that most of the guests come from the Vacheron side and not NMS’?)….

Despite an interesting display of watches from one of the most exclusive brands in the world, I feel that this Vacheron exhibition should have not taken place at NMS. National museums should maintain some dignity and be wary of allowing their temporary exhibition spaces to be ‘overly commercialised’. What if MacDonalds approaches NMS and says they are willing to pay for an exhibition ‘A History of Happy-Meal Toys from MacDonalds’ to be held there? Knowing how many more Singaporeans are interested in MacDonalds’ toys – remember the Hello Kitty debacle?  – than they are in uber-pricey watches, NMS should hypothetically take up Mickie-D’s offer, no?

And that’s why I say that NMS should be more discerning about the contents of their temporary exhibitions, or else once the floodgate is open, any private entity with money can ‘buy’ the right to exhibit there. If paying for the exhibition in turn allows the ‘exhibitor’ to gain commercially from the show (i.e. Vacheron’s exhibition is being ‘legitimised’ by Singapore’s premier museum, and therefore endorses the quality of the brand and furthering their sales), then I suggest that NMS should think carefully about who they let through the doors and for what reasons. If not, a cash-rich MacDonalds may really come knocking one day, and NMS would find it hard to say no, since precedents like the Vacheron show have already been set….

1 Comment

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One response to “What gets exhibited in a National Museum?: The curious case of Vacheron Constantin on show at Singapore’s National Museum

  1. mambodog

    It is a sad state of affairs and the NHB management appears to have lost control of the National Museum. It needs to be reminded of its fundamental duty to the public and it is one that is not to be interpreted any way they like.

    I have scanned copies of the articles you mentioned, including the letter to the forum that sparked this debate. Let me know if you would like me to email them over.

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