Instead of unwinding with a drink and good company last Saturday night, I opted for a late evening tour through the restricted areas of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). I had the pleasure of ‘meeting’ a quirky architect, a Japanese soldier, and even Walter the Curious Colossal Bunny, all on the same night.
I can gloat about my delightful cultural experience now, but frankly, I did not know what I was in for when I first committed to attending SAM’s Excavations Theatrical Tour.
Before SAM’s building revamp project commences, the museum has teamed up with the National Heritage Board and ISEAS to create a set of programmes around the theme of archaeology. There are opportunities this month to meet archaeologists, attend specialist talks, attend architecture tours and even watch the professionals at work at on-site excavation pits.
I will not try to sugar-coat my attitude -– I am simply not that interested in archaeology.
When I hear the term, I still first envision a group of well-educated (read: boring) scholars brushing away sand in a vast desert. I am, nonetheless very interested in the idea of conservation because I see it as an extension of my interest in contemporary art. This was part of the reason why I was keen to attend the Excavations Theatrical Tour which takes visitors through restricted parts of the SAM building.
During the tour, performers from Drama Box act as the ‘ghosts’ who once inhabited the SAM building, in order to retell fascinating, but true tales related to the building’s history.
The tour begins at the entrance of the SAM building, where an actor playing the role of a security guard organises the crowd:
The entire tour is 90 minutes long and snakes through different gallery spaces, to end with a performance at the chapel.
When conserving a historical building like the one which houses SAM, one of the core considerations is: what do we keep and what do we discard? I know this now thanks to Sabrina, an actor-tour guide playing the role of a quirky architect who was part of the team which revamped the building in 1995.
Here is a loose timeline of the building’s history –
The former St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) was opened here in 1852, on the premises of Singapore’s first Roman Catholic church. The iconic wings on each side of the central block as well as the central dome were only added after the year 1900. Japanese soldiers then repurposed the building during the Japanese Occupation, as barracks. Only in 1995 after a major conservation-focused revamp, did the building finally become the home of our dear SAM.
At one point during the tour, we were led – very dramatically – into an elevator, which took us to a small room. Here, another actor, who played the role of a Japanese soldier from the Occupation years, greeted us in his rather well-rehearsed accent and spiffy outfit. I am not entirely sure that this particular actor succeeded in scaring us, because my companions were giggling when we parted ways with him. Thankfully, this did not detract at all from the storytelling – it was engaging, interactive and informative.
Walter the Curious Colossal Bunny was, however, absolutely fantastic:
What a great and perhaps obvious choice to bring audience members together for a moment of education about contemporary art. An actor took on the persona of artist Dawn Ng’s beloved creation, to pitch important and open-ended questions about art and how viewers interact with artworks, all while wearing a costume I hope to find in time for my next Halloween party.
If you have an appetite for ghost stories, you may already have heard that the SAM building –specifically the chapel – is fabled to be haunted. With these rumours swirling around, I would have had quite the experience, had I ventured into the building alone in the dark. However, with a small and friendly crowd looking for a good story on a weekend night, the scare-factor was replaced with a sense of intimacy and light-heartedness. Ghost stories typically bring me a strong sense of unease, so I was very pleased with this ambience.
In the cosy setting of the chapel, the team of actors delivered a very heartwarming performance. I quite enjoyed the set-up of a traditional stage within a pristine white interior, complete with Roman Catholic reliefs on every wall.
The performance featured a segment with actors playing the role of old SJI boys in the days leading up to the school’s relocation:
Another part of the show saw actors playing out a story between two very relatable lovebirds, who had to report to the building for work. I confirmed that this adorable final skit is based on a true story, and my cheesy little hearted melted immediately.
As we were escorted to the exit, I was surprised to feel a little wistful when one of the actors shared that the spiral staircase which many people have become so familiar with, may not remain after the revamp:
While there are no particular special moments that I recall on this spiral staircase, it has nonetheless been a mainstay in my mental folder of memories associated with SAM. It is both strange and exciting to imagine what SAM would be like without this iconic section.
Returning to my earlier point about the core considerations in any conservation effort — what do we keep and what do we discard?
For the month of April, forget about heading for post-work or weekend sundowners. Instead, visit SAM for one of their Excavations Theatrical Tours. These heartwarming and entertaining experiences will continue to run until April 15, educating and engaging visitors about a part of our own heritage, through the story of a much-loved monument.
All images except that of Walter, are courtesy of the Singapore Art Museum