The National Museum Singapore just announced a brand new gallery (see here). For those of you who have yet to read the news, you may be thinking ‘What’s on display?’. Well, technically, lots of stuff are on display, but yet nothing is displayed.
According to the news-site, “Called Gallery10, the museum’s 10th permanent gallery is equipped with advanced projection technology and is designed to be an immersive digital space for artists to experiment with the “traditionally binary ideas of art and science… Titled Art of the Rehearsal, the installation depicts Singaporean dancers from various cultures rehearsing their performances along the back lanes of cultural districts in the city”.
So I assume that the gallery is full of sight/sounds, but yet not a tangible artefact is on display. I’ve got 2 issues with this. 1) NMS is a museum after all, and a museum, by definition, displays ‘things’. If NMS is going down this route of ‘curating experiences’ without the display of things to anchor the storylines, then it may well be on the side of pseudo museums like those existing only online and ‘real’ museums like TrickEye where people go NOT to see tangible artefacts. NMS Director Teo says “The role of the museum has changed over the years, expanding its focus beyond presenting things of the past to include creating a connection with the present”, to which I agree. But if a cutting-edge museum eventually does away with artefacts, is it still a ‘museum’?
2. While this 1st immersive video does touch on local dance heritage, I assume is more ‘artistic’ than didactic, since the gallery aims to explore the “relationship between art and digital technology”. In other words, the gallery will more likely be used by artists to display ‘art’ rather than specific info that would enhance the ‘heritage’ on display elsewhere in NMS. If the gallery is dedicated to art – with the 1st installation as a good indication of this intent as it is funded by the National Arts Council – then my question is “What is the role of NMS as a museum of history?”. There are already lots of govt- and non-govt funded arts museum/spaces in Singapore; so why is NMS spending precious money and space on what is essentially a gallery for contemporary visual arts?
I think NMS is suffering from a few issues. 1) It probably has taken a huge hit from would-be visitors being sucked away to new venues like National Gallery. So if ‘art sells’, then NMS perhaps is thinking that this new gallery would bring back some of the ‘visual arts’-leaning visitors who had been stolen. 2) I can’t recall the last major exhibition on Singapore history that NMS has presented. My point is that NMS has lost its foothold as the premier local institution that researches and displays Singapore history – think about the number of good Singapore-history exhibitions that the National Library Board has presented in comparison.
With NMS restyling itself as a venue of edu-tainment (Arrhhhhhhh! I said that E word!!) rather than the doyen of “displayed Singapore-history”, will the race for ‘museum-visitors’ in Singapore heat up even more among local institutions, while the quality of curated exhibitions on Singapore histories suffers?