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Tattoos and a tiara

By Agatha Koh Brazil, TODAY
18 May 2007 1117 hrs

SINGAPORE: The man who runs Singapore’s museums has an anecdote he relishes telling.

One day, Michael Koh got into a cab outside the Ministry of Finance building at High Street. The friendly cab driver asked if Koh worked for the ministry. So, the CEO of the National Heritage Board (NHB) told him what he did.

“Then, the cabby told me how much he appreciated the many exhibitions we brought into Singapore,” said Koh. “He said he did not have to travel; that we made it easy for him and his family to see them.

“I asked if he found the charges expensive. He said if we wanted to bring the world’s best to Singapore — for us to learn — he understands he has to pay for it.”

The taxi-driver (Koh never got his name) does not fit the profile of a museum visitor but he struck a chord with his passenger that day.

Said Koh, 46: “The national collections are for the people of Singapore … We want to curate shows to help Singaporeans and visitors understand the richness of the collections, and through this, to understand the history and ancestral heritage.”

This is the far-reaching message NHB wants to bring to a broader audience profile; beyond school groups and better-educated adults that make up the majority of its visitors. In its sights are young working adults and the nation’s heartlanders.

As a legendary baseball player said to Kevin Costner’s character in Field Of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” But where our museums are concerned, not without adding some “local flavour”, it seems.

In the case of the National Museum, NHB has integrated a trendy restaurant (Novus) and a hip bar (Muse Bar) into its premises. It has extended the opening hours of some galleries to accommodate diners.

But more than that, NHB’s museums have curated exhibitions that include items from popular culture to make them more accessible to the man in the street.

Take the on-going Beauty In Asia; 200 BCE to Today exhibition at The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). A show with a Pan-Asia focus, it features more than 300 artefacts including a 11th century Indian bronze and incorporates — for the first time in an exhibition — contemporary artworks.

There is a painting of Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai, a lithograph by local lensman Russel Wong, a life-sized nude statue by Chinese sculptor Cai Zhisong, and local women’s magazine covers and a tiara from the Miss Singapore World pageant.

The exhibition concludes with an educational display with a computer interactive which invites the visitor to put together different facial features to form the most beautiful face.

Popular touches to boost attendance numbers? The museum makes no apologies. On the contrary, it is all deliberately done to “build bridges”, said Dr Kenson Kwok, ACM’s director.

Building Bridges

“Being a young society, not everybody is interested in history. What we are trying to do is build bridges to the public, so that people will find it easier to understand the things we do.”

ACM has always sought to “contextualise” what it puts on show, said Kwok, 57, citing the example of its 2005 exhibition, Journey of Faith: Art and History from The Vatican Collections as another example.

“It illustrated the story of Christianity, not only the story of Jesus, but what happened after,” he said. “We put in a section that was quite novel —Christianity In Asia. This included materials from churches in Singapore which ‘localised’ the whole show.”

The museum also displayed a Peranakan altar which had been used for Taoist ancestral worship. But after its owners converted to Christianity, they continued using it, only this time as a Christian altar.

“That way, visitors were able to connect to the exhibition. Journey of Faith was an imported show, but we gave it a twist that enabled people in Singapore to contextualise that story.”

ACM hopes to attract 100,000 visitors, both locals and tourists, to this five-month long exhibition.

“We don’t apologise for trying to reach out to new audiences,” Prof Tommy Koh, NHB’s chairman, told TODAY. But he added that (popular) exhibitions and visitorship figures are just one part of what makes a museum good.

“There is no replacement for solid scholarship,” he said. KPIs — key performance indexes — must also include recognisation in the form of reviews, invitations for curators to conferences, and requests for the museum to display its artefacts in international exhibitions overseas.

He added: “The next big ambition then is to export shows.”

Recognition & Reputation

When favourable reviews appear, they are all the sweeter because, as CEO Koh put it: “Museums need time to establish themselves. To start up, get curation going. Also to build up a collection. These are critical parallel aspects.”

ACM is particularly chuffed by a review by Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London Group and chairman of the UK unit of the International Council Of Museums during President George W Bush’s visit to Singapore in November last year. “It’s not a museum of the past, it’s a museum of the future,” he wrote of ACM.

“I think it is tremendous recognition for what we are trying to do,” said Kwok. Such kudos are valuable because they can be used to bring the message home to the people in Singapore. “Sometimes you don’t realise what you have at home. We think overseas is always better.”

Good press also means recognition for a museum’s curators. Following the success of Journey of Faith, Kwok was asked to speak at a prestigious international conference last year.

Overseas accolades also help a museum establish its reputation so that overseas partnerships and alliances can be forged more easily.

“Many of the bigger museums (overseas) have units of staff who just work on exporting shows,” said Kwok. “Maybe we will work towards this some day.”

Ties That Last

ACM is not doing too badly on this front. In February, it exported a full show, The Peranakan Legacy, to the Ayala Museum in Manila.

“While we have loaned several of our pieces for display in museum exhibitions overseas, this is the first time that we are exporting a full show from our collection,” said Kwok.

A showcase of the rich material culture of the Peranakans, the show features 170 objects from the ACM’s Peranakan Collection. At the Ayala, it is part of a larger exhibition, Chinese Diaspora: Art Streams from the Mainland, which showcases the diversity and uniqueness of overseas Chinese cultures in South east Asia.

“The Peranakan Legacy has a multicultural message that may be relevant to countries exploring this peaceful assimilation of culture,” said Koh.

Building bridges again — this time from Singapore to the world. Bridge-building, emphasised Koh, is a key aspect of NHB’s “soft power”.

“These people-to-people ties form the first layer of culture,” he said. “These are the ties that last.”

Our museums, he reiterated, bring the world to Singapore and Singapore out to the world.

“We bring in a show and we hope our people can learn and appreciate being global citizens. It is important because not every one in Singapore can travel.”

And this is where his anecdote about the appreciative taxi driver fits neatly in. - TODAY/fa

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