Venessa Tan is a second year History of Art major at University College London. Venessa joined NUS Museum as the Ng Eng Teng Collection Curatorial Intern, assisting in research for the new permanent Ng Eng Teng Collection exhibition, conceptualisation of an accompanying publication project, and the exhibition preparations for Sheltered: Documents For Home. In this blogpost, Venessa shares and reflect on the process of her work.
My internship with the NUS Museum began with a stack of readings that Michelle had prepared on the museum’s history and museology in general. Her selection of texts highlighted Singapore’s curious position – a Southeast Asian heritage, a colonial intervention, and a subsequent post-colonial existence that I find very hard to understand. The tone seemed to be set that, as people aspiring to work in the ‘cultural sector’, the road would be paved with not just difficulty, but contradiction. As if to acknowledge this, the museum’s permanent collection begins with Michael Sullivan bemoaning the unsustainability of art history in Singapore, equally a resignation and invitation. It seems to be the one Western inheritance that does not rub quite as easily with the general public.
As a ‘curatorial intern’ to Kenneth, I was given a mix of practical tasks (like editing videos, transcribing, photocopying and scanning) together with those of a more cerebral nature (critiques of current exhibitions, suggestions for programmes). I assisted him with Sheltered: Documents for Home, an exhibition involving the response of 5 NUS Architecture and Geography alumni to 03-Flats, a film produced by their former professor, Dr. Lilian Chee. A lot of the conceptual groundwork had been laid, in fact Sheltered had been brewing for a year, and is all part of Kenneth’s larger intention to create exhibitions that possess a continuity or relevance to each other rather than existing as standalone events.
I put together a timeline of our public housing history, aimed at highlighting the importance of this particular trajectory in shaping our political, cultural, and social landscapes. It was a small project but nonetheless one that required time and consideration. I made the ‘mistake’ of writing it in present tense, but Kenneth and I decided to keep it as such, given its ability to suggest the present-ness of the past. We decided to leave out Singapore’s independence year as well. Such decisions, we hoped, would be noticeable even if they were minor.
I also assembled newspaper clippings to supplement this timeline. Although they only involved rudimentary cropping and editing skills (on Microsoft Word no less) I must say that it excited me to have objects that I had worked on displayed in the exhibition. The process involved sieving through Dr. Chee’s selections and choosing those I found to be of relevance to the timeline, whether as a qualification, refutation, or complement. Kenneth then made some edits to my selections based on the kind of message he wanted to send (not uncritical, not overly critical, generative and productive seemed to be what he was going for). By the end of the flurry of exhibition prep (where I was more preoccupied with assisting architect Debbie Loo for her part of the exhibition) the arrangement of the timeline turned out to be very different. It was interesting to see Kenneth’s final curatorial decisions and to be a small part of the massive process involved in putting it together.
Austin and I doing the little that we could before opening night.
There is also an upcoming satellite exhibition of Sheltered at our National Library, for which I had a list of books, plays, literature, and films, to locate. I added on to this list with discoveries of my own, and got a little carried away sometimes with all the interesting material I found. For example, I had not known about how vibrant the Singaporean feminist movement has been – since the 70s, women writers have productively compared the economic, political and legal differences Singaporean women experience, and a more recent title characterises feminism in Singapore to be in ‘a state of ambivalence’. I am not sure what impact the micro-decisions I made will have on the overall exhibition, but I hope that if someone stumbles upon one of the titles I have chosen they might find some nugget of interest.
Another interesting dimension of the museum that I got to engage with was the museum’s two ‘Prep Rooms’, in which upcoming and potential exhibitions are worked on, realized on a small scale, and made transparent to the public. Open Excess looked at bibliographies, forewords, and prefaces as significant texts in the context of Singapore’s art history, of which T.K. Sabapathy is the central figure. While it is difficult to summarise the exhibition because it is rather composite and experimental, in essence Kenneth had gathered the art historian’s books and arranged them to simulate a library experience, where curiosity often leads us upon chance encounters. The shelves, however, were severed from touch by transparent glass panels, which was both a security feature and something that fitted his intentions. I made suggestions to ‘open up’ the space in various ways and activate it as a site of exploration, but even though Kenneth was sympathetic there were other practical issues to account for.
Nevertheless, I felt lucky to have been given the opportunity to engage in these discussions with Kenneth. Given the historical backlog and continuous nature of his programmes, it was very generous of him to attempt to translate what he did to me. On a related note on meaning transfer, it must be difficult to juggle contemporary curatorial practice with the needs of a public that might not have entirely inherited this ‘way of seeing’. In fact, if we want to go all the way back, the exhibition format had its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was a highly imperialistic venture. Contemporary attempts to de-colonialise the medium are theory-laden and heavy with the struggles of history, which sometimes means that museums are engaged with more as symbols of cultural knowledge than as an active social tool and means of communication. As I continue my education abroad, I hope to dig deeper into how concepts of Art are configured in our country, and see how I can meaningfully contribute in the coming years.
I would like to thank Kenneth for always being receptive to my thoughts even though I was often a disruptive and confused presence. He and Michelle were concerned about my learning and development as an intern – when I was feeling anxious about what I wanted to do in the future, Kenneth actually took time out from his insane schedule to share, straightforwardly and honestly, the joys and trials of being a curator working in his particular contexts. Indeed, there are intellectual, mediatory, and practical elements to the job, and it is anything but easy, requiring not just theoretical rigour, creativity, and logistical aptitude, but, even more demandingly, an acceptance of permanent ambivalence. It’s conceding the vulnerability of meaning-making while at once being responsible for it and having faith in it, and it’s not a job for the weak-willed or easily exhausted.
I would also like like to thank Emma, Jeanette, Yee Ting, Jia Yi, Derong, Chen Wei, and Austin, my fellow interns, for filling my days with happiness (and sometimes delirium). I am immensely grateful that I was able to meet and fall in love with these funny, kind, intelligent, borderline-neurotic people through the internship.
We probably had too much fun – I missed them so much when they were done with their internships!
The NUS museum’s unique institutional contexts/constraints, importance in providing an alternative narrative to Singapore’s history, concern with taking up its own past (“There are too many episodes of people coming in here…”) and interest in speculation about the future (Debbie Ding’s The Library of Pulau Saigon), all make it a really interesting and valuable museum. I can’t be more grateful to have played a small part in an organization made up of down-to-earth, capable, and committed people toiling daily to create sound programmes and expand their reach.