but it’s not been such a long time for Singapore’s curator; I’m talking about the ‘staying power’ of our curators in NHB museums.
A curator is a ‘keeper’ of stuff; s/he not only looks after stuff that are already in the museum, s/he also buys/seeks donations to get more stuff in. The old and new stuff are ‘studied’ by the curator, and his/her fingerprints are literally all over them. Having said that, it would then make sense that the longer a curator stays in a museum, the more of his/her knowledge of his/her stuff stays with the museum. Think of it as the curator being the repository of much of the ‘corporate knowledge’ of the things that make a museum a museum (i.e. artifacts).
So it’s not surprising that curators elsewhere stay for 30-40 years (see https://www.dma.org/press-release/curator-carol-robbins-retires-after-47-years-service-dallas-museum-art and https://museumvictoria.com.au/about/media-centre/news/december-2013/rock-of-ages-senior-curator-retires-after-40-years/ ). I can almost imagine these old-timers saying “I can’t bare to leave my stuff, and so I stayed for 40 years in my job…”
So let’s look at the earliest museums that came under National Heritage Board, Singapore when it was formed in 1996: National Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum and Singapore Art Museum.
Since coming under NHB in 1996, the National Museum, I think, has one of the original curators left – Iskandar. Dozens have come and gone, but at least there’s still one.
NONE of the founding curators of Asian Civilisations Museum (circa 96-97) are there anymore. The longest serving is probably Heidi, who left a few years ago for further studies on her own. None of the current senior/junior curators there now were there when ACM Empress Place opened in the early 2000s, when millions were spent on artifacts (and thousands more entered through donations).
NONE of the founding curators of the Singapore Art Museum are there anymore. Kian Chow the founding director is still in the art-circle but no longer with the SAM that he built. None of the current senior/junior curators there now were there when SAM first opened.
I don’t know why many of them left, but I’m sure many did so for personal reasons. But the fact that none are even going to hit the 40-year-mark (perhaps only Iskandar?) for long service to the museums must also make us turn to the ‘system’. What are the museums doing (or not doing) that are bringing in young curators who quit in a few years, or very senior curators (like ACM’s Dr Alan Chong and SAM’s Dr Susie Lingham) who do likewise?
If museums are ‘hip, young online businesses’, perhaps high staff-turnover may be a positive thing as new, innovative ideas enter and old, jaded staff exit. But a museum is a repository of things, each of which has a life that extends beyond the time it spends in the museum. Each object has a story that its keeper (i.e. curator) is intimately knowledgeable about; when the curator/keeper leaves, s/he not only leave his/her cubicle empty, but s/he walks away with a wealth of info about his/her artifacts that cannot be ‘handed over’ to the incoming curator/keeper. With curators in Singapore museums using the institutions as a revolving door in their long, varied careers, the museums lose out, and eventually we, the audience do too. Overall, since museums use objects to tell stories, these revered institutions also lose out when curators – a museum’s storytellers – don’t stay for long.
I wonder if NHB and other local museums have studied this problem before?