Sunday, 4 October 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Austin Chia

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information! 


Austin Chia is a Secondary 4 student studying at Raffles Institution. He joined the NUS Museum for three weeks in September 2015 as part of RI's annual Gap Semester programme. Austin was attached to the Curatorial team, assisting in research for upcoming projects, the installation of Sheltered: Documents For Home at NUS Museum and at the National Library Board. In this blog post, Austin shares his experiences about his time with us.

“An eye-opening experience in the 16 years of my life”. This is how I would describe my 3-week long curatorial internship at the NUS museum. During these 3 short weeks, I have experienced and learnt not only about the life of a curator but also gained a broad view of the general workings of the museum.

When I first joined as an intern under Kenneth, I was under the impression that the curator is merely a conductor, one who arranges all the artworks to form a collective performance revolving around a theme, but I was soon to be proven wrong. Under Kenneth, I learnt about the various types of curators (those with a collection and those without a collection) before I was sent to examine and compare the differences between the curatorial practices of the NUS Museum and Singapore Art Museum. Through this exercise, I learnt about the curatorial practices of NUS Museum and SAM (choosing a theme, placement of descriptions and arrangements of works) and grew to appreciate the curator’s effort behind every show, most aptly shown by Kenneth’s mantra, which has been lodged into my brain, “every detail in a show has a purpose”. I also learnt how to appreciate a show rather than only the artworks within it, an enlightenment, albeit quite late, that has and will continue to enhance my appreciation of art exhibitions.

This photo depicts some of Ng Eng Teng’s sculptures and I like these sculptures as they are able to capture the state of mind of people with minimal body parts.

After learning about the curatorial practice of setting up an exhibition, it was time to apply what I had learned. I had the good fortune to experience setting up a show in NLB. While I must confess that at times some of the tasks were drudgery (transcribing an article and manual chores), they were also meaningful as not only was I able to assist Kenneth with the limited skills and knowledge I had but I also gained an insight into the not-so-fanciful-aspects of being a curator.  Along the way, Kenneth also gave me a lot of tips on planning the arrangement of the show such as using perspective to lead the viewers to the show and the use of contrast to attract attention. From the learning to the application, I learnt that the curator is not only a conductor but also one who imbues the artworks with more relevance and significance to the audience, just like multiple bridges that connect the public to the artworks.

Setting up the exhibition at the National Library.

The use of perspective to direct visitors to the exhibits is employed here through the placement of the bookshelves. The difference between the colours of the exhibit bookshelves (white) and the NLB bookshelves (grey) helps to create a contrast that emphasizes the exhibits to the visitors.

While bridges are important to the public, an island is equally important to the public, without which, bridges are useless. I learned about the process of acquiring artworks through a quick chat with Siang, another curator working at the Museum. Works in NUS Museum are acquired through loans or donations and Siang told me that rather than knocking on the doors of art studios to ask for donations, they would rather make friends with artists or collectors and let them donate when they feel like. Personally, I feel that this is an exemplary method to acquire works as the donors may donate more generously and willingly while the circle of friends of the NUS Museum expands.

Expanding too would be my circle of friends, apart from admiring and steeping myself into the huge collection of works and the various shows in the museum, I also had the opportunity to make many new friends who share common interests with me. First, the people at the museum: Peter, Philip and Jonathan, all of whom taught me about the maintenance of the museum and showed me the various nooks and crannies of the museum (for example, the staff pantry). 

This photo depicts a machine that measures the temperature and the pH in the museum, with it the caretakers would be able to check if the environment is conducive for the artworks. Hence, the works are kept in their best conditions. 

Second, the people at the office: Siang, Sidd, Michelle (thank you for giving me this opportunity), Trina, Flora, Greg, Francis, Ahmad, JJ, Devi and Donald, both of whom showed me how they maintained and recorded incoming works. Third, the people at the NUS Baba House, Su Ling, Poonam and Fadhly, who gave me a warm welcome when I came for the tour. 

Donald and I checking the conditions of incoming loans.

Last but not least, Venessa my good friend who brought me lots of laughter and Kenneth my mentor who dedicated extra time and effort to teach me about the curatorial practice. Thank you all for having me, a sixteen-year-old still trying to figure out what he wants to do in the future, as your intern and friend!

To end of my blog, I would like to quote the terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back”.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Leong Yee Ting

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!  


Leong Yee Ting is an alumni of Raffles Junior College and will be entering Oxford University this Fall as a History student. She joined the NUS Museum in July 2015, assisting in NUS Museum and NUS Baba House Outreach events, including research for the Baba House Conservation Project. In this blog post, Yee Ting shares her experiences assisting in various aspects of the NUS Museum and the NUS Baba House.

My experience over the past two months has been a mixed one in many ways – I was attached to both the NUS Museum and Baba House teams; I did research, administrative, warden, photography and housekeeping tasks. Hence, I dabbled in the curatorial, outreach and logistical aspects of running a museum. Overall, I am thankful for the invaluable and well-rounded exposure I have gained.

As an Outreach Intern at the NUS Museum, I performed warden duties and helped out at film screenings and the Istana Art Event. It was always a pleasure to see people absorbing and responding to the museum’s collections or programmes. Before this internship, a huge question that I had was how to make heritage and the arts relatable to ordinary Singaporeans, because I believe they have the potential to hold more meaning for our society. I don’t think I am confident of fully answering this question yet, but I have learnt a lot from how the NUS Museum positions itself to reach out to students and academics. The exhibitions here have a fair amount of text, and are curated to be intellectually challenging, at a level more suited to the educated. The outreach team also collaborates with professors keen to bring their students around and actively publicises events on campus. To reach out to non-NUS students who might be interested in art, they try to establish link-ups with other schools and hire interns such as myself.

I brought the same questions with me to the Baba House. Personally, my first encounter with it was a magical one. I was intrigued by the ornate and beautiful furniture, the grand and solemn ancestral altar, the mysterious and searching portraits of the Peranakans who had lived here. Even simple, inconspicuous, everyday items were dated back to the 1920s, such as a pail, shampoo bottle or National Geographic magazine. Like a fairy tale, it transported me to another time and place, yet enough of it remained familiar to me, for it to feel intimate and relatable.

Coming back to the questions of accessibility, perhaps the greatest difference between the Baba House and the NUS Museum is that the former is an artefact in and of itself, whereas the artefacts in the latter are behind glass display cases. Hence, the Peranakan heritage that the Baba House embodies is more accessible to visitors, since their experience here is more immersive, as opposed to the mental leaps needed to appreciate the art at the museum. Nevertheless, a regrettable observation I made was that most of our tour-goers were Caucasian tourists, despite the fact that the Baba House has much to offer the Singaporean. Its Peranakan blend of Chinese, Malay and European elements is a microcosm of the diversity of backgrounds that Singaporeans come from. It reminds us that such diversity is a reality we must accept, given our geographical location at the crossroads of many important routes, past and present.

At the Baba House, my job scope was more varied. Other than the research I helped to do for the new conservation gallery, I also did simple tasks like washing dishes, opening and closing windows, turning on and off the fans and lights, and answering tour-related emails. These gave me deeper insights into the maintenance of a heritage house. For instance, I initially thought that opening of window panels was as simple as opening all the window panels for maximum ventilation and leaving them that way. However, Fadhly later taught me how to open them in a way that best maximises ventilation for the artefacts and the safety of visitors walking around, and minimises damage done to the other furniture pieces should there be a breeze. He said that he had achieved this formula through trial-and-error over time. I was impressed by the amount of thought dedicated to performing a simple task well.

During one of the events, a visitor had remarked to me that the Baba House seemed palpably more run-down with faded colours and murals compared to its immediate post-restoration appearance six years ago. She expressed concern for the future upkeep of the house, given that this is not cheap. I also noticed that repainting works were going on during my stay there. Cleaning and pest control take place twice a week and once a month respectively. All these drove home the point that conservation is a continuous process, rather than a static end-goal.

Part of the reason why my work was so random and miscellaneous, I think, was due to the challenges of running a not-for-profit organisation like the Baba House. Due to our tight budget, there is sometimes more types and quantity of work to handle than the staff can manage. Often times, my supervisors were too busy themselves to set me tasks to do. Furthermore, given the temporary nature of my stint there, it was difficult for me to help them with anything really meaningful.

Another valuable feature of this internship was the reading sessions. The recommended readings provided a good overview of local art and curation, and interesting ideas for us to interact with, especially for someone with no background in art history like me. Although I could only attend two sessions, I enjoyed the discussions with fellow interns, curators and outreach supervisors. In our final session, we tried to define the elusive and amorphous term of “curation”. To do so, we asked ourselves questions such as “How is curation being taught in universities? Can it be taught?”, “What is the job scope of a curator?”, “What makes one exhibition more well-curated than another?” I liked that this was intellectually challenging, and deepened my understanding of the industry and its workings.

Having reached the end of this internship, I am very thankful for this opportunity. I am particularly grateful to my supervisors (Fadhly, Michelle, Poonam, Su Ling and Trina) for their kindness and patience towards me, as well as my fellow interns (Chenwei, Derong, Emma, Jeanette, Jiayi and Venessa) for their warm and bubbly company.

Caption: A candid moment where I am equal parts amused and perplexed at what the other interns are doing.

It was on one unremarkable day that Jiayi turned to me in the office to share her serendipitous and exciting discovery that the back of our $50 dollar note featured artworks by two of the big four names in local art – Drying Salted Fish by Cheong Soo Pieng and Gibbons Fetching the Moon from the Water by Chen Wen Hsi. 
Caption: The image on the top right is the painting “Drying Salted Fish”, whereas the one to its bottom left is “Gibbons Fetching the Moon from the Water”. A quick Google search revealed that the musical instruments on the far left are a kompang, veena, violin and pipa. These were chosen as they represent the different cultures in Singapore.

This felt like a quiet triumph to me. After all this while reading and learning about local art, whose potential seemed underestimated, here was an affirmation that art actually means something to us as a nation. Looking back on this internship, I am not sure that I have done very much to advance this perspective; I was definitely not indispensable in the tasks that I took on. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have had the chance to see more and learn more, and I am sure that this will equip me to do more in future. 

Monday, 21 September 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | The Exacting Demands of Curation: An observation of setting up the Conservation Studies installation at the Baba House

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!  


Leong Yee Ting is an alumni of Raffles Junior College and will be entering Oxford University this Fall as a History student. She joined the NUS Museum in July 2015, assisting in NUS Museum and NUS Baba House Outreach events, including research for the Baba House Conservation Project. In this blog post, Yee Ting shares her experience when she participated in the installation of the exhibition Discover, Uncover, Recover at the NUS Baba House.

Every piece of curatorial work is a deliberate work of art, from the most prominent to the most minutiae of details. I have had the privilege of observing and participating in the Conservation Studies installation at the Baba House. Underlying our discussions was a very conscious knowledge that all curatorial decisions should be meaningfully made in the context of particular installation objectives balanced against the constraints of the availability of space, time and materials.

This particular installation was designed to be a three-year study on the conservation of the Baba House and its surrounding area, through different lenses such as land development, architectural paint and archaeology. Beyond merely informing visitors about past and present conservation efforts within and without the Baba House, it sought to inspire them to create their own related research projects. To that end, curatorial decisions were geared towards simulating a laboratory space, where what are conventionally regarded as finished display items are portrayed to be in a constant state of flux. For example, cork boards will be used for the main wall panels, suggesting that these pieces of information could be taken down and altered at any point in time, and replaced with something else. The resource materials, which shed more light on each topic, are placed standing in a box rather than laid out flat on the worktable, again suggesting that they are works in progress.

Like every other installation, the perspective of visitors is a major consideration, right from the moment when they set their eyes on our work: What would they first notice about our installation? Do we want them to be faced with something spacey or cluttered? Do we want their attention to be focused on one particular area? How would we want them to walk through the installation? The lighting was an important means of controlling the ways visitors approached our exhibition.

Even seemingly trivial matters like the colour of the displayed papers have to be carefully pondered over. Do we want the content on certain papers to stand out from the rest? Or do we want to use complementary colours that enhance the aesthetic coherence of the whole installation? The costs of the different coloured papers were also raised in this discussion, pointing to the existence of pragmatic considerations as well.

We laid out the posters to figure out a suitable position for them in relation to each other within this given space. Su Ling, the curator, told us that the trick was to leave it for some time before returning to it with fresh eyes, and if it still feels right, it is good to go.

Our artefacts may have been the remains of mundane, everyday objects like glass bottles, terracotta pipes and plastic wrappings, but much thought was put into their selection and display. In the choice of artefacts, we considered the capacity of our display area, and the range of perspectives contained within a range of artefacts. For example, some of the glass shards had an iridescent surface, due to exposure to moisture in the soil and hence deterioration over the years. Our curator, Su Ling, had considered cleaning up the glass shards before displaying them, but we later decided to preserve their current appearance, so as to educate visitors on the process of deterioration of buried glass. Even her choice not to remove the detailed labels written in archaeological speak from the artefacts on display was a deliberate one, to give visitors an idea of the meticulous care archaeologists put into the documentation of their work.

The glass shards came in labelled boxes like this. Regrettably, the iridescent appearance could not be captured in photography.

Ultimately, this has taught me to appreciate an installation as a multi-faceted experience abounding with infinite possibilities on many planes, ranging from the physical content and structures to the more intangible processes such as the organisation of space, lighting effects, and selection and display of artefacts. This installation is thus a particular intersection of these possibilities, engineered as such by the curator. There is no end to these possibilities; each day, the maintenance of this ongoing study brings questions such as the type of details to be added to the information box, and the kind of tours docents will be trained to give to visitors here. I am thankful for this experience, for it has sharpened my sensitivities to the exacting demands of curation.

Discover, Uncover, Recover is available for public viewing during the free NUS Baba House Heritage Tours. Tours available four times a week and by reservation only. Please email or call 6227 5731 for more enquiries and to book your spot!

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Heritage Community Series | The Peranakan Wedding: Cheo Thau Ceremony

Bride and Groom during a Baba wedding. Photo courtesy of Alvin Teo.

Date: 23 September 2015, Wednesday 
Time: 6.30pm – 8.30pm
Venue: NUS Baba House
Limited to 30 pax. To register, email

With its elaborate rituals and sumptuous feasts, a Baba wedding was a major affair. No expense was spared for this impressive 12-day celebration as it was an essential rite-of-passage for the young Peranakan Chinese in the early half of the 20th century. The rigorous preparations required to make the wedding a reality was a whole-family affair – sewing of bridal garments, decorating the house with resplendent textiles, and making a generous selection of dishes and colourful kueh.

Amongst the rituals throughout the 12-day process, the cheo thau is said to be one of the most significant and most sacred. This highly symbolic ceremony also serves as a reminder to the couple of the duties and responsibilities they need to carry out as they enter married life. Join Baba Alvin Teo as he explores the intricacies of the cheo thau ritual, and illuminates the different aspects that make up the elaborate and spectacular Baba wedding.

About the Speaker
Alvin Teo is a Peranakan and grew up in a traditional household which embraced Taoism and ancestral worship practices. He has been in the main committee of The Gunong Sayang Association of Singapore (GSA) for four years and currently serves as the First Vice President. Alvin is very passionate about wayangs and therefore acts as the Chairman of the Show Committee. Proud of his Baba roots, he is especially interested in the community’s traditional customs that were practiced in the yester years and shares his knowledge through talks at the Peranakan Museum. 

Heritage Community Series
Encouraged by the growing community of Singaporeans actively committed to exploring history and raising cultural awareness, the Heritage Community Series is introduced as a platform where independent researchers, heritage enthusiasts and collectors share their encounters, perspectives and experiences.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Emma Fung

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!  


Emma Fung is a 3rd year Philosophy major from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. In May 2015, she joined us as the Ng Eng Teng Collection Curatorial Intern, where she assisted in the the research and re-working of the current permanent collection exhibition Sculpting Life. In this blog post, Emma shares her thoughts and reflections of her time with us.

On the last day of my internship, my supervisors asked, “So how did you find this internship?”. My frenzied, inarticulate self started to recount the sort of activities we took part in, choked out a few lines about the dilemmas of conservation and curation, and finally ended with “I wish I spoke up more often.”

What exactly is this ‘voice’ they speak of? How strange is it that there are multiple, garbled voices in my head, yet none exists in the world where everyone else is in? In this post, I will attempt to assume “the voice” - the crystallised embodiment of the nervous sounds that bounce about my skull. This voice is the chunk of me from 11 May - 16 July 2015. Well, it tries hard to be.

Gazing at "Red Face".

I was the Ng Eng Teng Collection Curatorial Intern. The Ng Eng Teng Gallery houses the donated works of the late Singaporean artist, whom I had briefly studied about in A' Level Art several years back. While I do not claim to know entirely what the “curator” is, I know parts of a curator in NUS Museum. It will take years to know and be a curator, a work-in-progress, so here is my brief but insightful encounter at the museum.

The curator’s voice is embedded within the narratives of the exhibitions, in this space very unlike other state museums or private galleries. This museum is unique as it serves as an educational platform for curatorial practices - not just to disseminate information, but to probe us to extensively question the methods behind the exhibition. (I often imagine these exhibitions to be physical representations of thesis papers on curating). Thus, my supervisor Kenneth had reminded us of his mantra multiple times, “Everything is done with an intention”.

The gallery, June 2015.

That means I’ll have to read into everything right? “I could do that, my favourite word is ‘why’”, I thought. You notice the general placement and the sequencing of the works, you look specifically at the individual pieces and the wall texts. Why did you walk left instead of right, did you feel comfortable looking at the wall text from this height, did you notice a colour scheme? You then think of what is not there, why it is not there, and if its absence means something or is simply laziness. Halfway through all such ‘excessive’ thinking, I got a little lost - I was not sure about how to deal with all the questions in my head and how to string them into a cohesive sentence. The greater question was, so what if I knew?

The question of authority was difficult to navigate for someone as uncertain as myself. While Kenneth had constantly reminded me, “you will find out that this exhibition will never happen without you”, and “I got you on board precisely because you are not an art historian,” I could not figure the contents of the title “Ng Eng Teng Curatorial Intern”. In short, I did not allow myself to develop a voice despite my supervisor’s prompts, because I could not fit mine with his.

I am the reactive sort, and the kind that writes the afterthoughts. What I needed was to know clearly what Kenneth had in mind so I could react to him, but I did not ask for what was required. Either way, the sessions ended up with me learning a lot from asking him questions and trying to figure out his research interests. Of course, there is a limit to which one could simply absorb and not talk, so I was given the space to ‘figure (myself) out” after a while. Time was ticking, but you make do with whatever is left of it.


Even though I had missed out on the chance to fully experience the practice of a curator, I still learned a lot about what one does. With more space, I could attempt an essay on what curating is (to me, at that point in time), or “a portrait of a curator”. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Kenneth for being the supervisor who says the most precise things, and speaks volumes through his lack of words or actions at other times.

The 10 weeks of my internship can be very clearly mapped by the reading material. It was great to have these readings and tasks as clear signposts for the period. The general theories on the haptic, the conversations between Ng Eng Teng and T.K.Sabapathy, Singapore’s art history, the methods of curation - we needed to constantly step back and forth from the artwork we were dealing with during the conceptualisation, for there is both the grander narrative and the physical objects to consider.

As a practice, I was tasked to visit Singapore Art Museum to analyze their methods, and transcribed an annotated bibliography of Ng Eng Teng which helped provide a larger picture of where Ng Eng Teng stood in the art world and Singaporean society.

Pictured are proof of my tendencies towards the hands-on things such as inventing this contraption (for transcription) out of laziness, and doing very rough sketches when tasked to come up with 12 of Ng Eng Teng’s representative works. I wouldn’t mind being hired to help out with exhibition set ups in the future! 

The massive amounts of freedom this internship allows is greatly appreciated by someone like me who is terrible at staying put at a spot for long hours. It simply does not sit well with me. On several occasions, the gallery desk became mine when I needed to familiarize myself with the space. Familiarizing is not just about memorizing the floor plan, it is a direct, physical interaction with the works and spaces, and noting down the pauses you make at each spot.

Playful observation and forcing the “fright” sculpture to surrender with my shadow pistol proved to have contributed to my work as well, for it was this moment where I experienced how the position of the work in relation to the audience greatly influences how the work can be read.

This gallery will hopefully be revamped by December, so please visit before the works get shifted around or removed from the exhibition! 


The internship programme here is excellent - we were also given the opportunity to attend several field trips to observe how the different roles in the museum interact, and discuss about them during reading sessions. The conservation workshop posed important questions about the methods of conservation, and how these may cause conflict with the curators. For example, if we decide to let audiences touch the “rocker series” in our gallery, how should the conservator pick up the mess, or when does the conservator step in to tell the curator it might not be preferable? Visiting different institutions helped us compare ourselves to others, so as to figure our role as a university museum.

Here is a conservator, Mr Lawrence Chin, explaining the processes of painting conservation.

Thank you Michelle for putting in so much effort into planning such a great programme, I appreciate your aim in building our characters on top of preparing us for the job. Your presence and genuine interest in making this place known shows very clearly in your detailed planning. This isn’t a usual internship where interns exist just to be a helping hand - the focus is on the growth of the interns in NUS Museum, to help them figure if working in a curatorially intensive museum is what they want. In return, we wish to help out in whatever way we can, to make this place known.

Lastly, I would like to thank my wonderful intern-mates (inmates?) for the easiest jokes and conversations, and for being unique and brilliant individuals you are. Cheers to more nonsense and future musings about life over extended meals. (probably when we face an existential crisis upon graduation)

The day we got closer after a performance lecture by Tisna Sanjaya, and over catered food.

The Baba House shot that little blogposts will miss.

Ng Eng Teng Collection Curatorial Intern, signing off.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Exhibition Opening | Sheltered: Documents for Home

[Image credit: The Saturday Projects]
Exhibition Opening
Date: 10 September, Thursday 
Time: 7 - 8pm 
Venue: ST Lee Atrium, Lobby Level, NUS Museum

Guest-of-Honor: Professor Tan Eng Chye, Deputy President (Academic Affairs) and Provost
National University of Singapore

Free admission with registration.

Co-organised between the NUS Museum and the School of Design and Environment (SDE), this exhibition grows out of the participating alumni’s responses to the architectural essay film 03-FLATS, conceptualized by Dr Lilian Chee (Architecture, SDE) and directed by filmmaker Lei Yuan Bin (

The title of the exhibition acknowledges that home remains an ambivalent practice of place-making — between the roofs over our heads and the ground beneath our feet — and a conditional transaction between security and uncertainty; familiarity and alienation. Ranging across the mediums of photography, architectural drawing, and installation, projects featured in this exhibition are attempts to trace the assumptions and habits we hold when it comes to Singapore’s domestic urban landscape, particularly as one shaped largely by public housing schemes.

The exhibition consists of three components, each attempting to respond to their respective contexts: the first of which was presented at the URA Centre in late July 2015; the second takes place here at the NUS Museum; and the third component opens as a satellite exhibition at the National Library Board’s Lee Kong Chian Reference Library in early October 2015.

Lee Kong Chian Temporary Gallery, NUS Museum
Exhibition runs till 27 March 2016

Maintaining Heritage Series | From Sansovino to Streamline Moderne: A history of the Singapore Shophouse

Row of Shophouses along Everton Road
Date: 17 September 2015, Thursday 
Time: 6.30pm – 8.30pm
Venue: NUS Baba House
Limited to 30 pax. To register, email

From Sansovino to Streamline Moderne explores the history and development of the Singapore shophouse from the early 19th century to the present day. We will examine the origins of this type of building in southern China and draw parallels with similar styles of architecture in other parts of Nanyang – wherever Chinese merchants established trading ports in times past.  

We will then trace the evolution of shophouse architecture in Singapore from a Chinese prototype through to the final stage of its development in the 1970s, pausing to reflect on the many different architectural styles the shophouse has passed through along the way – Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical and Streamline Moderne, among them – each of which is situated in a historical context. 

About the Speaker
Author and television presenter, Julian Davison, is the son of an architect and grew up in Singapore and Malaysia. He was educated in England and has a doctorate in social anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Julian has edited or contributed to several reference books and his publications include Black and White: the Singapore House 1898-1941 (2005) and Singapore Shophouse (2010). 

When he is not writing books, Julian writes and presents television programmes, including Site and Sound, a local history series. Most recently he has hosted Channel News Asia’s two-part documentary on the life of Sir Stamford Raffles, Raffles Revealed.

Maintaining Heritage Series
The Maintaining Heritage Series explores the varied dimensions of heritage in Singapore and beyond. It aims to create awareness of the challenges and considerations related to the study and management of the constituent elements that make up the heritage ecosystem. Themes on evolving cultural practices and policies, collecting and display, and conservation and urban development are approached through talks and discussions. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Lim Jia Yi

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!  


Lim Jia Yi is a 2nd Year student part of the University Scholars Programme, and is pursuing a double major in History and Japanese Studies. In May 2015,
 she joined us as an Education Outreach intern, assisting in the research, compilation and consolidation of our educational resources for current exhibitions and collections. In this blog post, Jia Yi shares some of her adventures at the museum, and some helpful advice for future interns.

If you enter the Museum by the Alice Lee Plaza, which looks across the road to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (Yes, the dinosaur one! No, the NUS Museum is not the dinosaur museum!), pause a moment outside the sliding doors of the NUS Museum and imagine a red-skirted registration table in front of it, stacked with exhibition catalogues and brochures. Envision exactly three clipboards with guest lists behind these stacks, and one overexcited outreach intern, ready to do her job and reach out to people coming to attend the talk (because they have to be registered). A few early birds had already arrived, and invited to check out the rest of the museum while the talk was still being set up. Suddenly, a woman marches purposefully up to the table.

Overexcited intern: “Hi, are you coming for the talk?”

Woman: “I’m giving the talk.”

-cue embarrassed apologies, question-answering, and hand waving in the general direction of the doors inviting her to go on in-

15 minutes later, a man walks past the registration table on his way into the museum.

Overexcited intern: “Hi, excuse me, are you coming for the talk later?”

Man: “Oh, my wife’s giving the talk.”

-cue more embarrassment and general hand waving-

To all future outreach interns, even if you are as bad with names and faces as this intern (which may or may not have been me) was, it might help to at least be able to match the names of speakers or guests of honour with their faces. Google is always helpful! Alternatively, try to keep either Michelle or Trina (your friendly Outreach supervisors) in eye contact at all times, so you can discreetly signal/whatsapp for help.

Reaching out to education, as part of my job scope as an Education Outreach intern.

Like many other adventures in my first year of university, the decision to apply to NUS Museum started with a simple “Ooh, that sounds interesting!”.

I am a first going on second year History student, which to many people seems to set me up for a lifetime career in teaching, dusting off yellowed books in archives (but having visited the National Archives during my internship, I can tell you that dust has absolutely no place in an archive, or a museum for that matter. Everything is carefully sealed and climate-controlled, in order to preserve the materials stored there), or digging up Stone Age axes (okay maybe not Stone Age, in Singapore). Well, beyond the fact that history is really a general degree that directs but does not limit you to certain careers, there is also museums! 

I have always been interested in visiting museums, but never understood much about how museums actually work, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to plug that gap.

And fill it I did: this internship was a learning experience beyond the factual sense. I learnt so much about subjects ranging from ancient Singapore’s trade links with the rest of Asia, the specifics of ancient boat-building, the different types of textiles and textile patterns found in South and Southeast Asia, the missing island of Pulau Saigon, to the struggles of conservation, and people skills as I interacted with various museum-goers during outreach events.

Did you know this batik pattern of interlocking spirals is called parang rusak and was once reserved exclusively for Javanese royalty? Now used to wrap rice buckets at celebratory lunches.

A woodblock from the Museum’s collection, handily propped up for curious interns to peer at and photograph.

I am thankful for a lot of things and a lot of people during this internship: for the opportunities to learn about things and visit places I normally might not even have thought about; for the company and hilarity of my fellow interns Chen Wei, Emma, Derong, Jeanette, Venessa and Yeeting (thank you for putting up with my jokes!); and for the willingness of the friendly Museum staff to share their vast array of knowledge and experience with us or simply to chat, especially for the patience of Michelle, my supervisor, in guiding me along!

Even though the intern work desk was at the CFA Studios, I spent a fair amount of time in the Museum, helping out at outreach events and doing research. The Archaeology Library and the Library of Pulau Saigon is my favourite place in the Museum, and was probably the one place in the Museum I spent the most time in, having spent the first half of my internship researching on the objects there, the exhibitions as a whole, then writing and giving short tours of the two exhibitions. I actually wanted to be an archaeologist when I was younger, but then I realised that my career would be in ruins. During my research, I spent quite a bit of time studying the Belitung Shipwreck (also known as the Tang shipwreck due to the large quantity of Tang wares found in the ship), and considered going into marine archaeology, but then I realised it would probably sink me.

The Shipwrecks stop in my Archaeology Library tour. I didn’t wreck the tour, thankfully!

On a less punny note, I am interested in stories and identities (of people and objects), and both Libraries, especially the Library of Pulau Saigon, lend themselves to the attempt at piecing together a fragmented porthole into the past. We can never truly understand and experience how the past was even with extremely specific accounts of the past, simply because the mindset and viewpoints we bring with us are of the present, and this necessarily changes the way we see things. The stories the Libraries tell us are incomplete, much like the object themselves, but to me, this is where the fun is. If I make up a story (I don’t tell these to the tour groups, of course!) about the broken Chinese bowl having fallen off a basketful of ceramics while being transferred from the trade boat to the shore, how close to the truth am I? What if the rest of the bowl is still in the ground somewhere, buried together with Pulau Saigon? How mundane are these miscellaneous objects in Pulau Saigon, really? Must they have some special significance?

Perhaps due to the amount of time I spent researching Pulau Saigon, most of the interesting quotes I collected throughout my internship (from my research and readings) have to do with the creation of historical narratives and the mundane. My favourite one (from Debbie Ding’s Library of Pulau Saigon catalogue) reminds me why I chose to study history, and can perhaps tell you more about my internship experience with the NUS Museum.

“To consider the mundane is to be reminded that all objects have their own history, detached from the context they might be residing in at the moment, a context that can be unravelled and deconstructed.

I could tell you stories about these objects.”

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Lin Derong

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!  


Lin Derong will be a 3rd year Architecture student at the NUS School of Design and Environment. In May 2015, he joined the NUS Baba House as a Baba House Conservation Intern to conduct research on the notes, images, drawings from the Baba House conservation project to put together a display highlighting the conservation work that had been carried out from 2006-2008. In this blogpost, Derong shares his experience working on the exhibition Discover, Uncover, Recover.

When I received the task for this job, it was a single liner: Conservation Intern: To perform research studies on the conservation works done to the house from 2006-2008 with the aims for an exhibition. To reduce this further into 2 words, I am tasked to exhibit conservation, which I thought was interesting: conservation + curatorial. Before I go any further, perhaps I need to introduce myself a little first. I applied for this job after finishing my 2 foundational years of architecture education. As design students, we are trained to be sensitive towards site and context. Singapore is land scarce but we are rich in heritage and we are not a Tabula Rasa (Koolhas, Singapore Songlines, 1998). Conservation itself is a contestable topic and it gets interesting as our island state progresses beyond modernity. I thus set out in search for the meaning and definition of conservation in Singapore.

Conservation – conserve for what? For nostalgia, for memories, for culture, for heritage? In conventional circles, the word itself has a connotation of the old, being garang guni and boringly unnecessary. Thus, this internship at 157 Neil Road provided me the context to study conservation.

During this 12 weeks stint at 157 Neil Road, I had the opportunity to work with the Baba House Curator, Foo Su Ling, to conceive an exhibition based on the conservation works of Baba House. It demands quite a bit of independent work – which is an important soft skill for architecture school. It would also require me to understand the house first and to fully immerse in the context before creating something else for it.

[Beyond monumentality and staged dramas, there is a challenging understanding of local heritage. This is a house where someone lived here before….there are traces of existence…this house is subjected to vicissitudes of time and context. (Lilian Chee, 2009, essay domesticity and monumentality, from the exhibition “of fingerbowls and hankies”)]

I got to experience the whole process of conceiving this project from scratch to something. There was a lot learnt and I would say it was in 2 stages: research and design. I would share them with you in brief.

The first stage of this internship entails readings – lots of it, from articles, legal documents, emails, contracts, meeting minutes, accounts, reports, videos, images et cetera dating from 2005 onwards. Basically it was purely research. During architecture school last semester, we had a curatorial exercise where design deadline was in 6 days. So we had to cramp everything for completion and any extra time given to research was luxury. However, this first stage lasted a month this time. It was a period of rediscovery. There were tons of background work being done to the house and there were a myriad of methodology adopted during the conservation and restoration process. It gave me a further understanding of the house beyond what was already presented. I admit that I was rather lost initially and I had no idea what I was producing other than relentless reading and amassing all these documents about the house.

However, the ultimate aim for this research is to come up with an exhibition about it. That was the design brief. Conservation itself, as I mentioned earlier, is misunderstood in my opinion. This exhibition is aim to bring all these works into public acknowledgement and credit. The questions here is that with all these masses of works done, methodologies and different parties of people involved, how do we exactly exhibit them all to people. The majority of the population understands the house with respect to its Peranakan culture. It is the soft cultural landscape that is in general public interest. Very little credit is given to acknowledge that it is the physical house and architecture that frames this culture. Architecture affects people subconsciously and with this we would like to bring it forward – to see the house again from another perspective, from its hard landscape. Other questions would also be how to present the “Science” of conservation that is not only helpful for researches but also generates a general public appeal.

The second stage is to “curate” or rather put these documents together. With the existing information, things would have to be put into broader perspective, to question what conservation really is. As traces of a large cultural existence, things are conserved not only for nostalgia sake – but because they have values and knowledge for us, for us to progress and for us to learn so that we could apply it in the future. There is within conservation these embedded values. From the information gathered during stage 1 research, conservation doesn’t end with the restoration and renovation. It is a never ending learning process as we progress. In addition, even the actual works are incomplete around the house. For example, the wall murals at the air well are still pending colour and 3D-motif restoration. Technology will constantly evolve and its works will be in progress. This leaves the conserved house to be in a constant state of flux.

Thus, after having all these information, what came out is the idea of presenting conservation as a process from the point of view from the different parties involved. A factual presentation was not needed as what is already done to the house, is done, it is evident around the house. Instead, it entails dialogues from various people while welcoming further studies to be added on. Fast forwarding, this exhibition Discover –Uncover–Recover: Studies at 157 Neil Road is envisaged where students, researchers and industry professionals are invited to propose and engage with the house while utilizing existing information from the conservation works. This conservation gallery is opened up for other interpretations of the house where different people with different subject matter of interest could add on to or invite debates to the knowledge pool. The gallery thus becomes a study laboratory with simultaneous studies running instead of a static conventional display exhibition. This house now thus embodies not only the Peranakan domesticity, but also open knowledge.

All in all, throughout this process of conceiving this exhibition, I guess I answered my question a little bit about what conservation means and the works behind it. In brief, it has been a fruitful 12 weeks. I am appreciative (I would mention this again) to be given this rare opportunity to work with Su Ling to conceive this exhibition. Curatorship is a rigorous exercise and I am grateful to be under her guidance and she gave me a chance to hone my graphic skills and sensitivity during the design period. I would like thank her for her kindness and creative trust during this process. The ability to work independently was greatly demanded as well and I am glad that I harnessed it a little bit more and learnt a little bit more about myself. I would not say that I have the perfect definition of conservation, but at least I think I understand it better than before and it would definitely be useful to my design processes in future. Knowing what exactly we need to conserve, why to conserve and how to conserve is an integral part of retaining and developing Singapore’s culture. We are neither a Tabula Rasa nor an artificial nostalgia of the past, and therefore for Singapore, conservation is.

p.s. special thanks to Michelle and all other fellow interns during this period – Emma, Jeanette, Jia Yi, Chen Wei, Venessa and Yee Ting – for the lunches, cupcakes talks and the saba parties.

Discover, Uncover, Recover is available for public viewing during the free NUS Baba House Heritage Tours. Tours available four times a week and by reservation only. Please email or call 6227 5731 for more enquiries and to book your spot!

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Jeanette Tan

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!  


Jeanette Tan will be a 4th year History student at the NTU School of Humanities and Social Sciences. In May 2015, she joined us as a Museum Outreach Intern where she worked on organising and executing outreach programmes, research and development of content for online and offline platforms. In this blog post, she ponders on the "where/what/whom is she reaching out to" during the course of this internship.

I’ll be honest—I’ve been putting off doing this blog entry for the longest time. Not because I don’t find joy or fulfilment or any of the wonderful things that come with the end of a rewarding experience, but precisely because of said joy and fulfilment and wonder that I feel towards this internship that I am finding so difficult and frustrating to extract from the visceral, and to translate them into the decidedly more cerebral domain of words. What strikes me next is how this strange tension/ambivalence that I am experiencing now is perhaps emblematic of my experiences of art as a whole—how I feel and enjoy it aesthetically, and yet, the accompanying anxiety that almost always tags itself with me trying worriedly to understand it “correctly” and “meaningfully”. This is a persistent issue that I believe I, and other non art-critics/ art students, consistently face when encountering the seemingly highbrow world of art. After spending almost 3 months as a Museum Outreach intern, I can safely say that although I have not come anywhere close to pondering intellectually about the art histories of Ng Eng Teng or Cheong Soo Pieng, I would like to think that I have now at least scraped the surface of understanding the skills and strategies required towards thoughtfully communicating an exhibition to a wider audience, by way of public programmes that complement these curated exhibitions.

At the beginning of the internship, one of the main questions that were provoked during curatorial tours and reading programmes, was the issue of exactly who the NUS Museum was reaching out to? In other words, what was the branding of the Museum and what sorts of people do we want visiting the museum? Was it the “general” public at large? Art lovers and/or an academic crowd? Eventually, upon conversations with curators and my outreach supervisors, the answer that seems to be teased out was that the NUS Museum’s primary crowd would be students and lecturers—members of an academic community. To this end, as a Museum Outreach intern, my main job expectation was to engage participants of the Museum in meaningful and interesting ways, by way of helping to conceptualise and execute programmes such as talks, workshops, and film screenings, as well as generate written publicity material. I see the Outreach team as effectively managing the “middle men” role between understanding the workings of curatorial minds, and translating these complex and dynamic ideas into a manner that suits the purposes and usages of its audience.

Of course, this all sounds like very important and serious desk-bound things to do, which no doubt all adds to an enriching experience for an intern, but on some days, us outreach interns get whisked off to the museum to help out with wardening guided visits and school tours too! These are not only great fun because you get to interact with people ranging from adorable young schoolchildren, all wide-eyed with wonder and natural curiosity, to tertiary students and university professors, invigorating in their thirst to further academic knowledge. This is immensely fulfilling because it is nice to see people be genuinely interested and pondering about art, and honestly, the best sort of workplace fulfilment there is (well at least for me). One of the more memorable times I can recall about these school tours was an overseas visit by a Hong Kong high school. Without warning, me and a fellow Outreach intern, Jiayi, got suddenly roped in to assist as interview subjects to the high school students. This was intimidating to say the least, because there we were, two shy interns, having to be interviewed impromptu about our lifestyles as Singaporean students, and be thrust into an uncomfortable position of temporary-role-models reflecting studious and well-adjusted university undergraduates.

There we were, standing awkwardly, flanked by Hong Kong high school students eager to ask questions.

I jest. It is not all that terrifying most of the time.

In happier times, talking about textiles to the girls from Marymount Convent School!

Apart from observing tours and school visits, I also helped out with writing content for both online and offline platforms. I was tasked to write an article about the opportunities available at the NUS Museum for Artzone, a print publication produced by the NUS Centre For the Arts. This was particularly interesting for me as I had the task of interviewing two former NUS Museum interns who had written their honours thesis sparked off from interest towards the research they had done during the course of their internship. As an undergraduate student about to embark on her final-year thesis, this definitely struck a chord with me. I also enjoyed researching about the history of the NUS Museum and using this information to write an Infopedia page on the NUS Museum, which I hope, will generate interest and awareness of such an underrated treasure as the NUS Museum.

Once, I even helped out as a reception staff!

I would like to think of my time as an outreach intern as having the privilege of attending a buffet table of ideas, experiences, and conversations—at the end of the buffet, I feel extremely stuffed, satisfied, but yet still craving for more the next time. Benefitting from the company of really interesting and bright young interns (Emma, Derong, Jia Yi, Venessa, Yee Ting) also enriched this journey. These are friendships and newly-built networks that have become valuable to me. Not to end this entry on a cliched note, but this experience has honestly opened up my eyes to the industry; the ways and workings of museology. I may have left my internship at the NUS Museum, but I definitely will continue to explore opportunities into art and heritage!

To read Jeanette's article in the latest issue of Artzone, copies are available at the NUS Museum, University Cultural Centre, and CFA / OSA brochure stands around campus!