Let’s face it – museums are not known for being the most interesting places in the world.
If you don’t know that International Museum Day (IMD) is celebrated on the 18th of May every year, you’re probably not alone.
IMD is a day championed by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), an association which hopes to raise awareness that “museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding (and) cooperation among peoples.”
The theme for IMD 2019 is Museums as Cultural Hubs – The Future of Tradition. To commemorate the day, ICOM Singapore and the Museum Roundtable Secretariat, with the support of LASALLE College of the Arts co-organised a Roundtable discussion on 10 May to discuss the extent to which our local museums have embodied the role of ‘cultural hubs,’ and how emerging museum professionals can prepare themselves for the future.
Do you dislike museums and not care about IMD?
Let’s see if I can change your mind with this article, in which I challenge and question the usual reasons why people hate museums.
1. Museums are boring
Museums face a serious challenge as they compete with all kinds of new-fangled things for the attention of the general public – malls, cinemas, Netflix – any form of entertainment really, that demands for and occupies our time. For many years, I would myself walk right past the National Museum of Singapore, turn left and head straight into Orchard Road. Shiny shopping malls, versus a dreary, musty and impenetrable place like a museum – the choice was obvious, wasn’t it?
At the discussion, panellist Ong Zhen Min, Deputy Director, Artwork and Exhibition Management at the National Gallery Singapore, revealed that museums are painfully aware of what they’re up against. In the run-up to its opening in 2015, the museum conducted audience surveys which showed that museum-going didn’t rank highly at all on Singaporeans’ to-do lists.
Fortunately, museums are reinventing themselves, and as with all things, there is of course, a balance to be struck.
The crux of the issue is perhaps the idea of what museums stand for. Are they about their precious collections, or about the need to create entertainment and spectacle for their audiences? While members of the IMD Roundtable acknowledged that visitor experiences were of great importance, the panel also noted a need to carefully evaluate all the competing interests at play.
Perhaps authenticity is key?
Alvin Yapp, a Peranakan antique collector who personally conducts guided tours in his private museum The Intan, perhaps explained it best, exhorting that his museum of painstakingly collected treasures is no “Peranakan Disneyland,” in which his “mother will put a kebaya on so people can take photographs.”
Rather, he explains that there is a need to “try to keep things as authentic and real as possible in today’s context.”
Yapp for example, weaves food and fun into the experiences that he offers guests – delicious kuehs are served with tea, and visitors get to sit down with him for a personal chat, being free to ask him anything under the sun about his life as a collector, and about Peranakan culture. If you’re so inclined, he will even play a tune for you on his Josh Groban- autographed piano (yes, Alvin’s played host to some extremely prominent visitors):
Nalina Gopal, Curator at the Indian Heritage Centre (IHC) very aptly highlighted this quote by Rudyard Kipling at the IMD Roundtable, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
And indeed, the most memorable museum experiences are those which involve stories that we hear and tell.
Examples offered by the IHC at the IMD Roundtable provided fascinating insights into the meaning and impact of museum-led initiatives when done right, and with a view to creating fresh and interesting perspectives. We were informed that the recently-ended IHC exhibition on the Chetti Melaka contributed to a small revival amongst this lesser-known branch of the Indian community, even drawing participation from members who had stopped identifying with the Chetti Melaka culture. The IHC permanent collection was itself significantly ‘crowdsourced’ by way of loans and donations from the Indian community, drawing on the rich (but scattered) resources of the group’s own lived experiences. In so doing, the IHC was able to carefully breathe new life, structure and thoughtful curation into those precious memories.
2. Museums are irrelevant
With the advent of new technologies, one wonders why there’s even a need for physical museums in the first place. Consider cool new tools like the Google Arts and Culture App– which enables you to go anywhere in the world, virtually, without the need to leave the confines of your own home.
Disruptive technology is making its mark in all areas of life, but perhaps there’s still a case to be made for the physicality of museum spaces. Culture and community are after all about the lived realities of people and places. Places where scents can be smelled, buildings and objects can be touched, and people can chat with one another.
Perhaps technology will one day catch up with the most remote corners of the world, but till then, I’m thankful that places like the Indian Heritage Centre exist, right in the heart of Little India in Singapore, where I can look at a gorgeous old painting like this…
… and then step out onto the streets to soak up the teeming life and atmosphere of one of the most colourful and absorbing parts of Singapore:
Ground- up initiatives, community projects and private museums also play important roles in complementing national museums and providing refreshing new insights. At the IMD Roundtable, Asmah Alias, Deputy Director for Education and Community Outreach at the National Heritage Board, spoke of the importance of “heritage volunteers and champions,” who could “encourage ground-up initiatives and empower communities to take charge of their own heritage.”
So, if you have an interesting heritage project which you have been thinking about for a while, delay no more! Since the launch of the Heritage Grant in 2013, the National Heritage Board (NHB) has funded more than 450 projects ranging from festivals to card games to documentaries. If you are a grant newbie, NHB even holds grant clinics to equip you with the broader skills required to put your project together.
Also, don’t worry if your idea seems too specific or targeted. Communities are made up of diverse groups, and such diversity is welcome. The grant is aimed at attracting various communities to document their stories, so that overall narratives become richer.
According to Alvin Yapp, a Peranakan museum like The Intan “is not about promoting Peranakan culture or converting people to ‘become’ Peranakan but about using the space to contribute to the community, using Peranakan culture as a platform.”
The Intan, therefore, offers up its space for use in the display of art and for the hosting of concerts and fashion photo shoots, amongst others.
In a related point, Nalini Gopal spoke of how the Singapore Indian community preferred to have an Indian Heritage Centre building which was not overtly traditional but one that was contemporary with strong Indian-inspired elements.
After all, she explained, “We are not talking just about Indian culture but the encounters of Indians with others.”
3. Museums are for nerds
If this is what you think, then I’ve only these images to share with you. Check out these cool cats spotted last week at the IMD Roundtable:
4. Museums are closed communities
Museums worldwide have grown in numbers and in size, and our appetite for spectacle has been fed by dramatic buildings, both new and historical. But are museums truly inclusive? Or are they just imposing grand buildings managed and visited by small insular communities?
The IMD Roundtable panel was frank in its admission that such difficulties exist. Both Nalina Gopal and Ong Zhen Min observed that their respective institutions looked imposing and ‘expensive’ from the outside, thus deterring certain potential visitors from stepping inside. This conundrum stress-tests the notion that museums have a role (or indeed responsibility) in placemaking. Migrant workers who have naturally converged in Little India and Little Myanmar over the years are as much stakeholders in the environs of the National Gallery Singapore and the Indian Heritage Centre, as any other potential visitors. Should they not be made to feel welcome in these buildings too?
Both Ong Zhen Min and Nalina Gopal noted that museums need to continue to work harder to reach out to such diverse groups.
Perhaps it is also a question of looking beyond superficial facades and seeing museums for what they truly are– places where things are loved, kept, displayed and shared with the world so that their stories continue to live on.
In a similar vein, Ong Zhen Min told us that when conservators are unable to fix a work of art, they will actually set it aside and attempt to slow down its deterioration in the hope that someone in future will be able to sort it out, through new technologies or capabilities which have yet to be created. It’s a rather poetic thought as she explained, “We look to the past, but we are really keeping these things for the future.”
As Nalina Gopal so aptly phrased it, museums are simply “cabinets of curiosities,” meant to be shared with the world so that their stories live on. Viewed through this lens, they are conceptually quite the opposite of ‘closed.’
5. Museums will never hire me
The world of the curator is a rarefied inscrutable space and everyone who works in art knows that job applications vastly outnumber vacancies, right?
Well, what then should we make of the International Council of Museums (ICOM)? ICOM is, in fact, an NGO which is dedicated to the establishment of professional and ethical standards for museum activities. It’s a forum of experts and practitioners dedicated to making recommendations on issues related to cultural heritage, the promotion of capacity building and the advancement of knowledge, amongst its 40,000 members.
That’s right, 40,000.
That’s a whole lot of people sharing information about best practices and working towards building genuine, supportive communities.
Now that you know there is a strong support network for museum professionals, how do you go about landing that coveted museum job? Here are some pointers from the experts of the IMD Roundtable:
First, identify your ideal museum role based on your strengths and passions. If you hate research but love optimising processes, then perhaps exhibition management is a more suited role for you than a curatorial position. Indeed, if museums are to aspire to be cultural hubs, they must themselves be diverse in terms of their staffs’ skills and backgrounds.
Next, you need to be able to think out of the box.
Ong Zhen Min often asks her team, “How many ways are there to hang a painting?”
Whatever your role is, you can make an impact and improve things by being brave enough to challenge the status quo.
Finally, be willing to learn and seize every opportunity to gain experience. Check out the volunteer and internship programmes at museums and work hard to learn the native languages relevant to your museum of interest.
Feel inspired to find out more about how different museums are reinventing themselves to be future hubs of tradition? Take a look at the National Heritage Board’s latest Go Museums social media campaign on its I Love Museums Facebook page — post pictures of yourself at various museum locations from 18 May to 30 June and stand to win S$100 CapitaLand vouchers.
(Clearly, contrary to my own initial experience with the National Museum all those years ago, shopping and museum-going are not mutually exclusive!)
[This story is produced in partnership with the National Heritage Board.]