Change at the top for National Heritage Board’s museum directors; for better or worse?

A serious change in thinking has been taking place in National Heritage Board; at the top at least. After the lacklustre Tan Boon Hui has stepped down from Singapore Art Museum (but appearing to have been promoted), they appointed Susie Lingham as the new head (click here). Nothing strange, except that unlike Boon Hui, she’s Dr Lingham, a PhD holder. A few months back, the global search for the inaugural director for National Art Gallery found Eugene Goh, who has a PhD from Manchester (click here). 3 years ago, ACM’s second director was named, an Alan Chong, who has a PhD from NYU (click here). This leaves only the National Museum (out of the main NHB-museums) that doesn’t have a PhD at the helm (Angelita Teo has a Masters in museum studies, I think). Compare this to a few years ago, when all the directors of these museums did not have relevant PhDs (Lee Chor Lin of National Museum has a Masters, Kwok Kian Chow from Art Museum didn’t quite finish his PhD, Kenson Kwok of Asian Civilisations Museum has a PhD, but in environmental psychology).

What does this mean? I think this is NHB’s way of trying to boost the international image of these museums. It doesn’t matter locally if those who run the museums have rigorous academic training befitting of a museum; most of the most senior people running government agencies are NOT armed with relevant training in those areas, and that’s why past museum directors need not even been relevantly-trained). But I think these new Directors with PhDs are supposed to propel their museums forward in different directions, at least on the academic front. Museums are not just places where people go to see ‘things’; many of the best museums in the world also solidify their names with active scholarship. I am sure NHB must be putting pressure on these guys to not just publish pretty coffee-table books (that don’t require much academic/peer scrutiny), but also present peer-reviewed papers/books that can stand the scrutiny of academics all over the world. The Singapore art/heritage scene is after all being closely watched the world over, as we are the richest country in the world (?) who has now lots of money to buy come ‘class’; the world wants to know how nouveau riche we are. So all things considered, it would be good to see these new directors not just present new exhibitions, but also contribute to building art/heritage academic knowledge that can make Singapore proud.

(SIDEBAR: what about National Museum, the sore thumb without a Director with a PhD? I think this speaks volumes; Angelita’s job is likely NOT to focus on bringing academic acclaim to NM. She is more likely to make NM a ‘museum-of-the-S’pore-people’; something earthy, heartland-y, where uncles/aunties can call home. Not good for the academic nature of museology on S’pore content, but a more ‘community-based’ museum will bring in more visitors and become a focal point of nostalgia in our nation’s 50th anniversary in 2015).

But realistically, getting a PhD to run a museum also has its problems. First, I think Dr Lingham has no experience running museums or putting up exhibitions (please correct if I’m wrong); if much of a museum’s raison d’etre is in staging exhibitions, Dr Lingham has a LOT to learn in a very short time. So even if she has spent years studying and teaching, such experience cannot immediately be translated into skills required to stich a ‘good’ exhibition together.

Second, PhDs have, ermm, to use an old not-s0-funny cliché, permanent head damage… Sometimes, a visitor is not concerned about “…an exhibition that presents the dichotomies of art/heritage produced in specific time-framed milieu but consumed (and reinterpreted and re-consumed) in different contexts that forces a re-examination of its status quo, all set within a framework of a contentious, not unchanging academic/socio/political under layer…”. Confused?? You ain’t seen nothing yet until the Director tries to do some postmodern deconstruction of an exhibition… Yes, some PhDs do think and write like that for exhibitions, not because they think that’s what visitors want to ‘learn’, but that’s how they tell visitors what the curator/writer is ‘thinking’; “I am a  D  E  E  P  director…”. In short, not many PhDs are good at, or want to, ‘dumb down’ even if that’s what the audience wants.

Third, with a PhD at the helm, I think they would likely overlook some of the nitty-gritty of museum management (much like how some very well-regarded Professors make it to the top of NUS/NTU faculties based on their brilliant academic work, but they are nonetheless hopeless at managing staff or budgets or much of the realities of ‘management’).

Hopefully, while these new directors put a new sheen of academic credibility in the publications of their museums, their exhibitions and programmes should still remain enjoyable and understandable (which is what most visitors want, right?).

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Change at the top for National Heritage Board’s museum directors; for better or worse?

  1. Anonymous

    I am impressed by your comments which always hit the spot and take the words out of my mouth. Please keep this going. Would like to know and meet you in person but I guess that’s not possible.

  2. Michel Foucault

    Is the government heritage hierarchy over-impressed by academic (to use a polite word) qualifications? If you read Dr Lingham’s biography, you may fear she might turn out to be a devotee of impenetrable critical jargon of interest only to competing academics and museum professionals, critics and would-be critics – of limited interest to the human race in general. But maybe that is better than an over-popularising, purely bums-on-seats approach.

  3. mrsal

    Lee Chor Lin’s M.A was from Dept of History at NUS. Her thesis was about the textile trade between China and Southeast Asia from the Song to Ming dynasties. I think she also went to SOAS after the getting her M.A. She was a curator back then, the studies would have been relevant. I don’t see Alan Chong’s PhD in art history as much more relevant than Chor Lin’s. I could be biased because I do miss Dr. Kenson Kwok!! I never thought I’d say it, but I miss Kenson Kwok! Under his directorship, I got to see ACM1 at Tao Nan, then ACM at Empress Place, Peranakan Museum, Kangxi, Sari to Sarong, Mystery Men, Terracota Warriors, the dragon robes, etc etc which I really enjoyed! I didn’t know what I had until it was gone…..

    • loveart

      A PhD is never really relevant to being a museum director, certainly not the specific subject. It alone cannot be a qualification. More important is a critical approach, inspiring audiences and staff, showmanship, splashiness. And raising money and getting donations! Philippe de Montebello at the Met did not have a PhD. The director of MoMA in New York was originally an Islamic expert — no connection.
      Terracotta warriors, BTW. was done 2 years ago by A;an Chong, not Kenson.

  4. Anonymous

    i doubt Terracotta Warriors was initiated by Alan Chong. the show opened in June 2011. he was appointed around the middle of 2010. would that have been enough time to organise a big show with artefacts loaned from China, complete with catalogue, conference, festival and programmes….likely that the work started before he arrived, during the period when ACM was functioning without a director for a while. not that he didn’t contribute after he took the position as director though.

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