Raffles torn apart: Thinking about Returns-on-Investment for heritage exhibitions in Singapore

I just went to see Raffles’ Letters: Intrigues behind the Founding of Singapore at the National Library (click here). It was indeed intriguing! It is one thing to see that ubiquitous painting of a handsome Raffles and read about him in books and articles, but it is a whole different experience standing 30cm from letters written from his very hand! Looking at his neat, flowing handwriting, I felt that I was that little bit closer to him. Furthermore, you get to read about the man, his concerns, his eloquence etc. The exhibition has given me new info about Raffles that I never knew and new found insights into the problems and issues he had to deal with in the early days him ‘founding’ Singapore.

And yes, you didn’t read me wrongly; this exhibition is held at the National Library at Bras Basah, and not at the National Museum of Singapore. While the ‘letters’ aspect of the exhibition would make the Library an appropriate place to hold the show, Raffles the founder of modern Singapore would surely feel more at home (and appropriate) if exhibited at the National Museum, no? This ‘competition’ for exhibition storylines amongst the museums/galleries/libraries in S’pore is not new (click here for a previous entry about the different museums competing for the attention of art-lovers). Perhaps then there is nothing wrong with the National Library doing a Raffles exhibition, in the name of all’s-fair-in-love-and-exhibitions’.

But my concern is one of ‘best allocation of resources’. I estimate that at least $250,000 would be spent on the Raffles exhibition (not just for the physical props needed to stage the show, but including the money spent on the swanky website and programmes). But when I was there on a weekday during lunchhour, I counted a grand total of two other visitors during the 1hr I spent there (keeping in mind that poor attendance is despite the exhibition being free-of-charge). I do not expect that this exhibition will be teeming with people as it is located on the 10th floor of the library where no ‘walk-ins’ would stumble upon it by chance. I am musing here: If the same amount of money is to be spent on staging the same exhibition at the National Museum instead, would I expect there to be at least a few hundred more visitors per day?

And even if I do not become a bean-counter and start to ponder the cost-of-exhibition per visitors (i.e. total cost spent on the entire exhb divided by total visitors over the entire duration), I am saddened that such a prominent exhibition is not more popular (or accessible) with Singaporeans. This exhibition is a great chance for us to learn more about the Raffles ‘the person’ who is not just ‘the myth’. But alas, this exhibition at the library will not have visitor-numbers even close to what it would be at the National Museum. This is what you get when all our local heritage institutions have ‘visitorship’ as their KPI, and each is willing to do whatever it takes to stake its claim on the heritage scene. The sad fact is that they are all chasing the same finite pool of ‘heritage supporters’ to fulfill this KPI. (A side note: I am not sure what a non-ticketed, and open-concept, exhibition like Raffles will use to determine the actual number of genuine visitors, but I got a feeling that someone at the Library will use ‘creative accounting’ and include every person who uses the 10th floor (may it be for the books or toilets or Raffles’ letters) as a ‘legitimate’ visitor. Such an inflation of visitorship is commonly used by local institutions to make their own exhibitions look more popular than they actually are; click here to read about my previous blog on this matter.)

Maybe it’s time all our museums/galleries/libraries sit down and discuss what is BEST for the visitors for the public monies spent on exhibitions, instead of doing what is best for the self-serving interests of each institution. This must be wishful-thinking at its most naive, but since I am a museum/gallery-visitor and a taxpayer, I do want my tax money to be spent on exhibitions with the best returns-on-investment in mind. As such, the money spent on this Raffles exhibition will definitely be better spent if it is hosted at the National Museum, and not the National Library.

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