Read this interview that Angelita Teo (the freshly minted National Museum of Singapore director) gave about her ‘vision’ for the museum (click here). I quote: “We want to bring a lot more people through our doors through activities that will bring in new audiences. We want to be “top of mind” for people. For example, families who want to spend a meaningful weekend will automatically think, the National Museum is a good place to spend a few hours. We are trying to work towards being a place of pride for Singaporeans, for people to bring their families or overseas guests.”
So, it’s all about the number of visitors brought in by exhibitions and activities. Nothing wrong with that; no point having a ‘museum’ if no one visits, right?
But think about this; NM is a ‘national museum’. This name is not to be taken lightly. It was ‘national’ for decades before it became the S’pore History Museum for a few years, before the ‘National’ came back after its renovation. Therefore, someone somewhere felt that it is should not merely be a ‘history’ museum, but one befitting of representing the nation. Think about the ‘national’ museums around the world (such as the reputable British Museum, the Gugong in Taiwan, the National Museum of Australia in Canberra), and you get an idea how central the National Museum is to S’pore’s identity.
Therefore, for Angelita to only want lots of programmes to attract lots of visitors to NM is worrying. It is a given that the museum SHOULD draw lots of people through lots of exhibitions and activities. But I feel that beyond this numbers-game, the NM must rise above and do more, albeit behind-the-scenes. It has to have a firm set of policies to ensure that it preserves the material culture that is significant to S’pore. For one, significant things that are likely to be destroyed have to be preserved. For example, with Bukit Brown being a hot topic in the local struggle for space and heritage, NM should have a plan in place to at least take the more unique headstones to be preserved for posterity. Imagine in 50 years when Bukit Brown is nothing but a housing estate and highways, our nation would at least have a few headstones to physically remind us of what we have lost. On the other hand, ‘insignificant’ things should also be collected and preserved by NM. I say ‘insignificant’, but these seemingly unimportant everyday items are parts of the banal existence of the average Singaporean. How many of use can say that looking at an extinct longish-paper-bus-ticket (with a hole punched by the on-board conductor) would not bring us back to our childhoods? Or a paper-ticket-stub from Orchard/Odeon/Lido cinema with a handwritten seat-number, or the old wooden chairs/marble tables in kopitiams? These everyday things are so ubiquitous that when they cease being in use, no one would think of them being important enough to preserve for the future (and hence the ‘past’ of Singapore is largely preserved in photos, interviews and memories, but not so much in tangible artifacts).
And that is where I find Angelita’s vision for the museum worrying. The museum must be more than just a visitor-magnet; it must have the foresight to collect and preserve the things (both ‘important’ and ‘banal’) that make us Singaporean. I can hazard a guess that under Lee Chor Lin’s decade-long directorship, the National Museum had embarked on a large physical transformation, but her collection policy (if there was any) was very limited in scope. I hope that under Angelita’s, our National Museum should start collecting ‘stuff’ that would in the unknown future help anchor us Singaporeans to this little island we call home. For a start, I think NM should hold an annual drive to get ordinary Singaporeans to bring their ‘stuff’ into the museum so that the curators can decide if they are good enough for the collection. I know that the new Indian Heritage Centre has such an artefact-donation drive (but not well-publicised) and there is no excuse our ‘National’ museum does not have one.
After all, isn’t the primary purpose of a ‘museum’ to collect, preserve, conserve material culture (and its ‘secondary’ purposes include attracting visitors, philanthropy etc?). Don’t take my word for it: According to the International Council of Museums, a museum is “is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment (click here).