Where is National Gallery of Singapore in the ‘Museum Roundtable’ list?

The Singapore Museum Roundtable is run by National Heritage Board to encourage a museum-going culture. Under the MR are all the usual suspects.

All the NHB museums are in MR (of course) and many others too, including both small private museums/galleries and larger stat board galleries. The link http://www.museums.com.sg/about-us/mr-directory/art shows the ‘art’ museums under MR. They include the Singapore Art Museum, of course. But the National Gallery is nowhere to be found. They opened late last year. You mean to say that after 10 months, they still have not been able to join MR? Is this NatGallery and/or NHB bureaucracy at play here that is delaying the entry? Or does the NatGallery march to its own tune where joining the MR may not be on the top of their priorities?


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A non-museum trained person who heads a museum


Mr Sabapathy speaks candidly, in 2013, about how

1) local museums are booming, but yet there are not many local institutions that produce trained curators, museo-logists etc that are supposed to fill these specialized roles in these institutions, and

2) how non-museum/curator/art trained professionals are hired to the most senior positions in local museums.

For point 1) I think locals who are adequately trained overseas are good enough for the museums, and so are foreigners who are similarly trained and are also sympathetic to local museum-conditions. I think that these foreign-trained museum staff do bring a certain level of cosmopolitanism that the museum-world requires. But having said that, the point is true that why not have local more institutions giving degrees in museology/art/curation/conservation etc since there is obviously a need in the local industries for these professionals.

For point 2, there is of course the argument for ‘transferrable skills’. Just like how a bank may hire an engineer/architect etc to be a banker, because they may have valuable ‘non-banking’ perspectives on banking, a non-museum/art person may also bring such perspectives that are important to local museums.

But then again, like Mr S said in the video, how would you feel about the senior management in a hospital being populated with curators/museum-trained people, with the same argument that they bring uniquely ‘non-hospital’ perspectives on running a hospital? None of us would buy that. Then why do we think nothing of getting non-museum trained/experienced people to helm some of our local museums, such as the National Gallery? Are we saying that unlike hospitals, the skills needed to run museums in Singapore are so generic that anyone senior enough would do, even if they are newbies to the museum-scene?

But of course the flip side is that even when we hire curators to helm museums, they also may not stay. Think of Dr Alan Chong of ACM and Dr Susie Lingham of SAM; they are eminently qualified in the correct fields to guide the museums on the appropriate theoretical/practical trajectories, but yet these 2 didn’t stay too long in their jobs. Can it be possible that curators are not up to the mark on the technical/administrative rigours of running a museum, or that the local museum-structures do not know how to retain the ‘right’ people?

For the moment, I’m pondering about the thinking behind the appointment of ACM’s incoming director  Kennie Ting. He has a BA in Econs/English and an MA in Urban Studies. So it seems that he doesn’t any tertiary training in art/museology etc (please correct me if I’m wrong here). He’s got many years in heritage policy-making but I don’t think he has any direct experience working IN a museum. Let’s see how his transferrable skills work in ACM. What the heck, since Kennie is good enough for ACM, his next job may be to run Singtel or SGH?

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it’s been a long time since I’ve posted stuff

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?





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Ongoing case on the 2 artifacts the Asian Civilisations Museum had purchased from New York dealer Subhash Kapoor

Just reposting an old case that I’ve not heard about for over a year. In short the Asian Civilisations Museum had bought things from a New York dealer who is entangled with some poorly-provenanced artifacts that were sold to a reputable museum in Australia. According to this Straits Times article (click here), “Nine years later, the statue [worth $650,000] and an 18th-century gilded Virgin Mary and Christ altar from Goa, India, bought [by ACM] for $348,000 in 2009, have been named in lawsuits brought against associates of the gallery in the US”.

I wonder what would happen if the US court can prove that the two artifacts bought by ACM are indeed problematic, esp since ACM director Alan Chong said confidently “I want to dispel the notion that we lack procedures and that we are cowboys out there just doing things. We are not. Our procedures are actually very robust. We could not find a flaw or error in our procedures in 2006 and 2009.” Australia had already agreed to return to India some of the artifacts it had bought from Kapoor (click here).

On another case, Australia had gotten a refund for a questionable sculpture that it had bought from another prominent dealer Nancy Weiner (whom according to her website counts ACM as a client). Read more about this case here where the writer mentions ACM and the stuff it had bought from Nancy. The same writer had reported (click here) that ACM had spent more than $1,000,000 on 30 artifacts from Kapoor (listing exact prices for exact items in its collection), urging the museum to “…immediately release the provenance documents for all the antiquities it acquired from the dealer and proactively reach out to Indian and American investigators”.

Anyone knows the outcome on the Singapore-side? I am a Singapore tax-payer and the Singapore National Heritage Board has a duty as a tax-funded institution to come clean on all the facts, no matter how embarrassing. And if the inconvenient facts implicate some of its existing staff, it would be good to know how they would be treated. I know that the Singapore Attorney General’s Chambers is strict on the government-procurement process to ensure best-usage of public funds; but what about government agencies using public funds to buy ‘subjectively-priced’ things like antiques where there are no competitive transparent bids? The ex-ACM director Kenson Kwok, the ex-Indian curator of ACM Gauri Krishnan (current head of Indian Heritage Centre), then Board of non-executive directors of ACM (who had to approve purchases), ex-NHB CEO Michael Koh and current NHB CEO Rosa Daniel should all come clean on what had happened, and what can be done to right the wrongs if any are found. Singapore is well-known for its financial transparency and the integrity of its public servants, right?

On a side-note, not only is the business of antique-buying is messy; so is modern art. It was recently reported that the soon-to-open National Gallery of Singapore has in its possession a Chen Wen His painting (probably purchased by the Singapore Art Museum in 1994, and then passed on to the new Gallery) that it cannot prove is authentic or not (click here). And since public-funds are likely to be involved, who are responsible if the monies are not well-spent?

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The little things that actually are symptomatic of much larger problems: NHB’s slick, but un-updated, website

So the Indian Heritage Centre has opened last night. This made the local news, of course. I wanted to learn more about IHC, and so I went to NHB’s website to look for the IHC link. BUT BUT BUT, the NHB’s website not only does not have IHC under it’s drop-down ‘Institutions’ tab (SYS Hall and Malay Heritage Centre are there though), there are NO banners or pop-ups announcing the new IHC opening to public today. This is not the first time I have caught NHB’s website sleeping (click here fore a previous post). Aiyo. It seems petty to think that I am fussing over such small matters, and indeed it’d all be sorted out in the next few days. But then again, I am a stickler for how public funds are spent. Within NHB and IHC, I am sure there are more than one staff – who are of course paid with public funds – whose jobs are to ensure that IHC’s opening would get the maximum publicity. This must therefore mean that it should be someone’s (or some people’s) job to make sure that the relevant websites are updated. Oh, am I too picky just because someone had overlooked this small detail? Think about it; IHC has been in the making for years, so there should have been plenty of time to sort things out. Someone sorted out IHC’s new website, but someone dropped the ball with NHB’s main site. I’ll go to IHC soon enough to report about it. But in the meantime, I just want to note that the spillover of the Australian museum buying-stolen-Indian-artifacts scandal that had involved the Asian Civilisations Museum (but I think ACM has not said anything concrete yet about what it would be doing: click here for a previous post of mine on this matter) also brings IHC into the fray. I wonder if some of the implicated artifacts are on display at IHC? That wouldn’t surprise me; IHC’s new boss Dr G Krishnan was the South Asian curator at ACM for the longest time before moving to IHC. On another matter, now that the IHC is open, it would complement the existing Malay Heritage Centre. Looking at the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other classification still used in Singapore, the ‘M’, ‘I’ and ‘O’ parts (‘Other’ would be the Peranakan Museum I suppose) have already been covered museum/heritage centre-wise. So what about a ‘Chinese Heritage Centre’? Alas, CHC already exists in far-flung Jurong, housed and taken care of by Nanyang Technological Uni, and not NHB. When I was there a few years back, it looks so haggard that it seems to be begging someone to burn it down and start again. I’m sure NHB is eyeing it (the name ‘CHC’ and not the location), but I’m not sure how that would work out with NTU. Oh, in the good ol’days, ‘Other’ would stand for ‘Eurasian’. So would a Eurasian Heritage Centre be on the horizon? Well, slap me silly and call me Bob because EHC already exists. It’s located at the Eurasian Association at Ceylon Road. BUT why then is the EHC not under the NHB family of institutions? Who knows??? All I know is that I am a taxpayer and I think NHB can be spending our money more prudently. Let’s start with getting the relevant website/marcomm people (OI! WAKEY WAKEY!!) to update the NHB main site, for goodness’ sake.

P.S. By 11 May 2015, the main NHB site has been updated to include thelink to IHC and a banner to announce the opening.


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A nationwide heritage survey in Singapore: A good thing (though late) if done right

It was announced in March 2015 that the Singapore National Heritage Board (NHB) “…will commission a nation-wide survey… (covering) Things like the age of these buildings, their architectural merits, the social and cultural value of certain landmarks to the community, and sites where significant historical events happened will be considered.” (click here). It appears to be a wide-ranging ‘baseline’ survey that would be the first in Singapore to extensively cover both tangible and intangible aspects of our heritage.

But this got me thinking. This project sounds like something that ANY heritage board would have done very soon after being set-up. But consider that the NHB was set-up in 1993, and it seems that this new much-needed project is about 20 years late. In April, the Straits Times published an editorial piece about the project (click here). The article praises the project but alluded to the fact that it’s a tad late (possibly because much had been lost and therefore not recorded since NHB was formed in 1993). But more pressing is that several academics and heritage enthusiasts question not the purpose of the project, but its execution. For example, a heritage expert from the Singapore Management University said “We don’t know what happens during the discussion phase (in the selection of what to record/protect) as these tend to be an internal process that is not made clear to the public”. The article cited the example that the criteria for selecting buildings to be conserved comes under the Urban Redevelopment Authority (and not NHB) and is covered by the Official Secrets Acts. Those interviewed all agree that this survey is a good starting point to the collecting of much-needed data, AND that the process should be inclusive (such as involving different interest groups) and be transparent.

I agree. But I am a bit skeptical about how this whole project would pan out. This is mainly because NHB has in the past shown to be lacking in not just the sincerity of its intentions but also in how it takes its tasks seriously. Take the Bukit Brown cemetery example. That is clearly a place of significant national heritage (due to the many prominent pioneers buried there). But NHB was not closely involved in the process of its partial destruction (well, it was not really apparent how much NHB was involved as reported through the local media, with the Land Transport Authority and Singapore Land Authority appearing to the lead decision-makers). I think till today, beyond NHB saying that they would survey the part of the cemetery that would be destroyed by the new road, I don’t recall NHB being a significant part of the decision process prior to the go-ahead for the new road was made. It was as if NHB was contented just watching on the side (even though it should have spoken up for the cemetery, standing on the side of heritage preservation) because it didn’t want to step on the toes of what seem to be ‘more powerful’ government agencies with ‘more important’ national development agendas.

This is not the first time NHB was caught short on the destruction of cemeteries: Another significant one – Bidadari – was completely destroyed years ago and I do not recall that NHB was active seeking views prior to the decision and/or speaking against its destruction. I am also not sure what NHB had done to preserve the tangible aspects of the cemetery, beyond saving a handful of tombstones that will be displayed in the housing estate that would be built there.

Another example: the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ bid for UNSECO World Heritage listing. It appeared in this case that the Gardens took the lead, and the NHB only assisted in lending its name to the bid because it is after all – DUH – in-charge of Singapore’s ‘heritage’ (of which the Gardens would logically fall under).

I agree with those quoted in the article that the public should be more involved in this new survey. This is after all OUR heritage and the things that make it in there should have some of our input. And by ‘input’ I don’t mean that NHB makes a decision FIRST, and then seeks ‘views’ on the fait-accompli after the fact. If this is OUR heritage, sometimes what we the ‘people’ say should triumph over policy considerations. even if the actions impede national development. Think of the destruction of the National Library at Stamford Road (for a new road tunnel for goodness’ sake) despite the public outpourings, and you know what I mean.

Also, I would like to see NHB grow some guts vis-à-vis other government agencies; NHB is the only one with ‘heritage’ in its name, and it should be the one to take the local ‘heritage bull’ by its horns. Don’t let SLA, URA, LTA, NPARKS, NLB etc trample over Singapore’s heritage (or what’s left of it) BECAUSE NHB should be its paramount guardian. If anything, the culture within the government service should change to become one where any agency should be consulting NHB FIRST before any heritage-linked policies are executed.

P.S. On a good note, I think this survey is a good sign that NHB is beginning to see itself not so much as the “Singapore Museum and Heritage Centres Board” but as an overall champion of heritage (covering both museums and heritage outside of museums). With the Singapore Art Museum taken out of NHB and the National Gallery not being placed under the NHB, I hope that the other museums would eventually also get autonomy outside of NHB, leaving it to concentrate NOT on running permanent exhibitions BUT on tangible heritage (old buildings, cemeteries etc) and intangible heritage.


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Investigative piece about possible archaeological loot in the possession of Asian Civilisations Museum

I am posting in full the article below which was uploaded elsewhere (click here). I have no comments on any of the information shared by that website. Just thought it would be interesting to alert readers that ACM is getting some international airplay. BTW, Dr Gauri Krishnan, who is mentioned in the article, is still an employee at National Heritage Board, Singapore; I wonder why she wasn’t contacted for comments?


Stolen artifact kept by SG museum for 15 years?

Following reports by TR Emeritus (TRE) that the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) had acquired stolen Indian artifacts, ACM issued a statement last year (8 Jan 2014) saying that it will take all necessary steps according to international laws and practice to return any stolen or looted objects particularly purchased from New York gallery Art of The Past (‘ACM: We will return stolen Indian artifacts‘).

In fact, ACM revealed that it had bought 30 artifacts from Art of The Past over the 14 years from 1997 to 2010. ACM explained that it believed, at the point of purchase, the artifacts were legally and ethically acquired from the gallery. It added that it “follows acquisition procedures strictly”, and all possible checks were made on the artifacts at the time of purchase.

On 6 December 2013, TRE broke the news that a 1,000-year idol stolen from India is now in the possession of ACM (‘1,000-year idol stolen from India now in SG museum‘). The 1,000-year-old Uma Parmeshvari bronze sculpture was stolen from a temple in the Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu in 2005 or 2006 before being smuggled to Art Of The Past, owned by disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor sold the idol to ACM for US$650,000 in February 2007.

According to chasingaphrodite.com, a blog dedicated to the hunt for looted antiquities in the world’s museums, Kapoor’s contact in Singapore is ACM’s senior curator Dr Gauri Krishnan. The blog is written and maintained by Jason Felch, an award-winning investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times. He has written on topics such as arms trafficking, forensic DNA, disaster fraud, money laundering, public education and corruption in the art world.

Seated Buddha

Last week, Mr Felch published another article alleging that ACM may have bought another stolen Indian artifact – Buddha statue of the Kushan period dating back to 2 BC- through another New York dealer (‘The Kushan Buddhas: Nancy Wiener, Douglas Latchford and New Questions about Ancient Buddhas‘).

Through Mr Felch’s thorough investigative research, it was alleged that 2 Kushan Buddhas was stolen from an archaeological site in the city of Mathura, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The city was the second capital of the ancient Kushan empire.

The 2 Kushan Buddhas ended up with the New York dealer who allegedly provided false provenance (documents to show source of origin) for the statues. One statue was later sold to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and the other to ACM of Singapore.

Mr Felch’s story was partly confirmed by an Indian news report last month. According to the Times of India (‘Australia to return centuries-old stolen Buddha statue to India‘):

Australia to return centuries-old stolen Buddha statue to India

Australia has informed Indian authorities that it will soon return the sculpture, dating back to second century BC, realizing that it had been stolen from an archaeological site in India. Abbott has on several occasions stated that improving relations with India was high on his priority list and one of the ways he has reached out to the Modi government is by returning stolen artifacts illegally taken out of India…

According to a report in The Australian earlier this year, the artifact was purchased by billionaire philanthropist Ros Packer for NGA. After Indian authorities took up the issue with Australia, NGA launched a probe into how the statue was bought from a New York antiquities dealer and found that the dealer had tricked Australian authorities into believing that the red sandstone marvel had been purchased from a British collector in Hong Kong. The investigations revealed that the New York based dealer had travelled to India and acquired two Kushan Buddhas from a trafficker.”

Contacting ACM

Earlier, Mr Felch has also contacted ACM to enquire about the Kushan Buddha statue in the possession of ACM. An official from the National Heritage Board (NHB), a statutory board under Lawrence Wong’s MCCY, merely replied:

I refer to your email requesting more information about one of our objects in the museum.

The Kushana Buddha was purchased from a respected international dealer in the year 2000, who had purchased it from a private collector who had owned the piece since the 1960s.

The reply confirmed that ACM did acquire the said statue from a “respected international dealer” in 2000.

About 3 months ago, Mr Felch contacted Dr Alan Chong, the Chief Curatorial Director of ACM, mentioning the Kushan Buddha statue again.

Subject: Seated Buddha
From: Jason Felch
Date: November 6, 2014 at 12:16:36 PM PST
Cc: “Sharinita MOHD ISMAIL (NHB)”
To: “Alan CHONG (NHB)”

Mr. Chong,

I first contacted you in 2012 about the Seated Buddha in the ACM’s collection. Despite persistent requests, I never received a response to my request that you release the name of the dealer and prior owner.

I now have reason to believe the dealer was Nancy Wiener, and the former owner was a private collector named “Ian Donaldson” in Hong Kong. Wiener provided the same provenance for a Kushan Buddha now at the National Gallery of Australia.

A leading expert in India art with knowledge of both Buddhas says the provenance for both the ACM and the NGA’s Kushan Buddhas was fabricated to hide the fact that the statues had recently left India. In other words, Mr. Donaldson never possessed the sculptures, he says.

I am writing a story about this expert’s account, which was recently shared with the NGA. I would like your comment on the allegation. Also, please provide any information about what the ACM did to verify the provenance of the Seated Buddha before its acquisition in 2000.

Thank you.

Jason Felch
Arts journalist
Author, Chasing Aphrodite

Three months have passed and nothing is heard from ACM.

If the statue is not stolen and everything is in order, shouldn’t ACM issue a statement to clarify?

Why is ACM keeping mum over the whole matter?

What do you think?


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