Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Xu Xi

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! 


Xu Xi is a third-year Political Science student at NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. As a Resource Library and Curatorial Intern, Xu Xi worked alongside her fellow intern Teen Zhen on the research of various approaches and strategies in organizing the museum’s library collection.

Much of my 10 weeks of internship is spent in the NUS Museum's resource library, where Teen Zhen and I assisted with the organization of the Chinese collection. We were tasked to work on introducing a system of classification for the books that can facilitate new encounters, such that they are not being constrained by the traditional method of the Dewey decimal system or the Library of Congress Classification which lumps books containing similar subject matter together.

Our search for the best strategy was an adventurous and arduous one – definitely not words one would usually associate with 'library classification'. It started out with a fieldtrip to various libraries to observe the different classification techniques and layouts of library space. We ventured from NUS Central library to the ADM library and Chinese library at NTU (TZ's homeland where she kindly gave me a short tour around her campus), and also to multiple public libraries around Singapore. Initially, the task to find the Best Classification Strategy seemed easy, and we were quick to identify several different ways of classifying the books. Little did we expect that there were actually many considerations to take note of, and we ended up taking quite a long time to decide on the most ideal strategy. We realise that whilst there may be many options available, we must make sure that the chosen option is able to accurately relay our intended message. It is essential to keep questioning ourselves 'why?' and 'how?' while testing out the various methods. Throughout the whole process, Kenneth gave us a lot of space and ideas to try out various methods and strategies, and provided us with reading materials that helped to frame our train of thought. Really am thankful to have him as our supervisor! 

Featuring a blurry TZ who photo-bombed my attempt to capture the layout of CLB Chinese Library. Glad to have TZ together with me as we endured through the cold and the dust!

Featuring stressed me as I stare at the endless pages of Excel file of Chinese book titles

The collection of books we dealt with the most are the Chinese collection, which TZ and I have grown to be really fond of (especially for TZ, the Chinese Studies major). It surprised me that almost the entire collection came from donations, and equally fascinating was the immense variety of books available. There are books that are dated from as far back as 1929, many of which were bounded by the traditional Chinese bookbinding technique.  The library also contain all sorts of periodicals, auction catalogues and compiled collection of paintings and stamps etc. The wide range of content available was especially impressive – these books cover many areas and forms of Chinese art, ranging from contemporary and ancient paintings to specific art forms such as Buddhist art. There were even books on Chinese weaponry! Avid fans of Chinese art or people interested in that discipline should definitely drop by and visit once the resource library is open to the public!

Antique-level books that can be found in NUS Resource Library :O

Our beloved Chinese collection.

A major part of the internship I found intriguing was the various fieldtrips to museums, which were arranged by Michelle. This internship provided me with wonderful opportunities to get in touch with Singapore's art scene and to understand them from the perspective of curators. Sidd and Kenneth often ask us questions after the tours to enhance our understanding of the exhibits and introduce alternative point-of-views, allowing us to explore beneath what's under the surface. This definitely changes the way I will be looking at museums and exhibitions in future. Moreover, visits to places such as the Substation forces one to reconsider the role of art institutions in Singapore amidst the increasingly vibrant art scene. 

NUS Baba House – one of my favourite trips which highlighted the importance of conservation in Singapore in preserving these rare cultural heritage sites.

Last but not least, the internship dialogues – it is a new initiative to ensure that the interns were able to maximise our learning here, whereby we were tasked to come up with our individual research topics and present the results of our findings to the rest during the bi-weekly sessions. It was a fulfilling and enriching experience to be involved in discussions with the fellow interns, who are an interesting mix of people from different majors – ranging from Chinese studies major, Philosophy to Global studies major. The dialogue was a great platform for a battle of wits, exposing us to the differing perspectives regarding issues dealing with museum and art, especially since each of us has different areas of research interest.

Wefie after staff outing – thanks for all the joy and laughter throughout the past 10 weeks! (Missing Chutong in this pic ): )

All in all, this internship had been a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience for me, that had allowed me to come in touch with the various behind-the-scenes of museum work and experience a small part of life as a curator. It has been such a great honour to have been given the chance to intern here, allowing me to discover this hidden cultural gem we have right here in NUS.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Wang Chutong

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! 


Wang Chutong is a fourth-year Marketing student at the NUS Business School. Chutong joined the Outreach team where she undertook various research tasks and event organisation, providing her with with more insight on the Museum’s outreach operations and programming.

This summer, I spent a meaningful 10 weeks with NUS Museum as an outreach intern. Out of the 8 interns from my batch, I was the only one who was in year 3 (going year 4), and the only one who's from business school while the rest are all from arts and social sciences. Being the unique one of the gang, my personal experience proves that so long as one has a passion for art and culture or the passion to advocate them, one can gain from this internship. The internship experience has been truly an eye-opening one which brought me to see the multiple aspects of the art and culture industry in Singapore. Prior to the internship, I was a passionate outsider; after the internship, I became on track of exploring this industry as a partaker.

My post as an outreach intern has been a mystery to many of my friends. People had problem understanding what the post meant. Even my intern friends at NUS Museum asked me what I do in outreach. At the beginning, I tried to put it really simply and said: " It's like being in the marketing and PR department of the museum." As time passed, I felt that rather than relating it simply to the marketing aspect, using the below analogy would have been more accurate: If NUS museum was a book and its exhibitions were its contents, the outreach team would be the one that designs the book cover, invites renounced people for its recommendations, writes its introduction and postscript and edits a summary with suspense at the back cover, finally the outreach team plans the look launch party and the media conference. A book that sits on a bookshelf is silent and passive as it can't shout out to promote itself. The outreach team then does everything to support, to package, to market and to convey its value to the audiences out there.

One routine of the outreach team is to give museum guided tours to various visitor groups. As an intern, I was tasked to do the same. My guided tour experience started with a short 8-minute introduction tour on NUS Museum's background information and progressed into a 2-hour full museum tour covering 3 permanent exhibitions and 2 temporary exhibitions. At the end of the Internship, I could even give a guided tour in Mandarin to a group of immersion programme students from Sichuan, China. Well, before there were good results, there was also a good deal of suffering at the preparation stage. My challenge was that other than having attended several curator's tours of the museum's exhibitions, I wasn't equipped with any additional information or tour script at all. While I was preparing my own tour script, I had to read through many artists' archives, documentary books and other online materials in order to to pick up interesting stories and facts to build up the details of my script. It was also important for me to keep on cross-referencing, validating and substantiating the facts that I wanted to elaborate on in order to improve the accuracy and reliability of it. In addition to a script, I had to prepare around 30% more materials so that I could answer the impromptu questions raised by visitors. Slowly through this intensive research and writing process, I eventually established a strong personal connection to the museum and its exhibitions. My passion towards the artists and artefacts grew each time I read about them.  Understanding the exhibitions also made me salute our curators even more. I came to realise that the process in which the curatorial work brings life to an exhibition is an artwork in itself. Thank to this preparation process, I was able to lead my own guided tour with a tinge of my personal flavour. Imagine if I were given a readymade script and a tour SOP at the beginning, I wouldn't have been able to give such passionate and affecting depiction, but a rather dry and robotic one.  

This was me giving a full tour of the museum to a group of my friends. Thank you Trina for letting me invite them over! (With regard to giving guided tours, I have to say how I admire Michelle and Trina who are able to vary their tone and styles to tailor to different visitor groups while maintaining a high level of professionalism.)

The execution and facilitation of various museum events is another important task of an outreach intern like me. Events such as exhibition opening, movie screening and exhibition closing talk bring crowds to the museum and generate good marketing resources. To the interns, an event night could as well mean a welfare night. Not only do we get to listen to the guest speaker giving an in dept analysis or leading a meaningful discussion on the exhibition topic, we also get to enjoy the reception after the event while chatting among ourselves and networking with other participants.

I still vividly remember the opening talk that we held for the two Vietnam exhibitions Lines and Who Wants to Remember a War. Our curator Siang invited Phoebe Scott from National Gallery Singapore to come down and give a talk on the struggle and the development of Vietnamese art during and after the Indochina Vietnam war period. I have always been an admirer of Ms Scott who co-curated Reframing Modernism with Centre Pompidou Paris at National Gallery and I was charmed by her passion for art since the opening day of National Gallery when she gave a talk on Raden Saleh, an Indonesian artist. Having heard that she has been confirmed to be the guest speaker, I started looking forward immediately and hoping to be able to speak to her. On 14th July, the event date, I was preparing the registration list and I realised that even the participating guests were big shots in the art industry: there were staffs and curators from National Gallery, university professors and researchers in the relevant fields. I felt grateful and honoured to attend the same event with them. In fact, during the Q&A session, all the interns learned so much from the interaction of the guests and the speaker Ms Phoebe Scott. Right after the event, I walked up to Ms Scott and had a short conversation with her. She is a friendly person who did not hesitate to share. Though we couldn't talk more due to the many other people awaiting, I value this networking experience as I could finally come out of my comfort zone and make an effort to participate in the art industry that I always wanted to be in. 

I was super excited before talking to Ms Phoebe Scott

I rarely have that nervous-happy-smile in photos

Here are my lovely friends/colleague. Together, we invented jokes that only we could understand.

Lastly, I want to thank Trina and Michelle for their guidance during the 10 weeks. Thank you Trina for letting me tag along in many events and meetings that I showed interest in and advising me on my career path that I'm always concerned with. Thank you Michelle for the abundance of information, resources and network that you shared with us. I feel very blessed to have been working in the same office with two of you!

Friday, 4 November 2016

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Tan Teen Zhen

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! 


Tan Teen Zhen is a third-year Chinese Studies student from Nanyang Technological University. As the Resource Library and Curatorial Intern, Teen Zhen researched and devised strategies for the display and organisation of the Museum’s library collection.

As the Resource Library and Curatorial Intern, I was paired up with another intern, Xu Xi, to work on curatorial strategies and assist in organising materials in the NUS Museum Resource Library.

My first week with NUS Museum started not with the museum library itself, but with visits to libraries around Singapore. Xuxi and I sought inspiration from other libraries and to see what is it that we could do differently. Some of the things we took note of included the classification system used in the libraries, the type of material that was sorted and the way shelves were arranged.

The Resource Library is made up of gifts and donations to the museum, purchases made over the years by curators as well as books inherited from the Nantah Collection. These materials include books, exhibition catalogues and encyclopaedias amongst others. Cataloguing and organising the materials had been a great learning experience as I explored a myriad of topics in art history, Chinese art and archaeology that I had never known about. 

Some of the books/subjects I read about

We were also tasked by Kenneth, our supervising curator, to research and find out more about classification systems in libraries. How else can books be sorted if not by categories or by the Dewy Decimal System? Through this process, I began to develop an awareness and sensitivity to the use of different classification systems in libraries. Here I quote from one of our readings, intercalations 1: Fantasies of the Library, “Library classification systems are rational structures inherently motivated by a “fear of being engulfed by this mass of word s,” and yet, even if they are powerful enough to suppress this fear, in so doing they proliferate other limits, cracks, and misguided trajectories.” (pg 25). Perhaps there will be no truly objective library classification system, for the narratives that form as a result of books interacting with one another on the shelves carries with it a certain bias, shaped by the system itself. Understanding how libraries, depositories of human knowledge, are shaped and structured will allow us to be more conscious of the ways we think and learn.

Kenneth encouraged us to think about classification systems for the Chinese collection which could facilitate new connections between different subject matter as well as provoke thought about library systems. Hence, instead of simply arranging materials by subject matter and using established classification systems, Xuxi and I sought other methods of arranging which would reflect the content and type of library materials. We also wanted to explore possibilities of surfacing existing debates in Chinese scholarship through our work. The content of library materials and the fact that they were library materials, however, both limit and liberate the possible connections we can make. We experimented with alternative ways of classification and eventually decided to arrange the collection by— visit to find out! 

Usual work at the Library

Aside from working in the library, many other activities kept me busy during the internship. One of which was the Internship Dialogues. It was an opportunity for us to pursue our research interests with a presentation as an end product. Looking back now, trying to accommodate research interests of everyone in the group was what prompted me to step out of my comfort zone and tackle my topic on Chinese art history from a different direction and perspective. I also learnt a lot from the presentations by other interns and subsequent discussions that followed. 

With Diyanah after the Dialogues

Another aspect of the internship which I enjoyed were the curator tours around museums in Singapore. Starting with the Museum and Baba House, Siang, Su Ling and Kenneth brought us interns on curator tours around exhibits such as the Vietnam War exhibits (“Who Wants to Remember a War?” and Lines), Archaeology Library and Ng Eng Teng: 1+1=1, just to name a few. We were also privileged to hear Kenneth talk more about the ideas behind the upcoming exhibit in NX1, consider it a sneak peek if you will! I also enjoyed the tour by Ailing at the Substation very much. This is partly because I had never been to the Substation, and partly because I appreciated knowing more about the position of smaller local arts institution or spaces in Singapore and their struggles to keep true to what they want to achieve for local arts.

I want to thank NUS Museum for providing me opportunities to listen in on worthwhile experiences of curators, filmmakers and conservators. I would also wish to thank Kenneth for always asking thought-provoking questions and giving me opportunities to initiate and learn. Special thanks to Michelle, Trina, Johnathan, Philip and Donald for guiding and accommodating me for the past 11 weeks. Last but not least, I would like to thank my fellow interns: Xuxi, Chutong, Diyanah, Mary Ann, Nicole, Joshua and Zhien for the lovely conversations, discussions and company throughout this internship. 

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Nicole Lin

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! 


Nicole Lin is a third-year English Literature student at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. During her time as a NUS Baba House Outreach Intern, Nicole was involved in the daily operations and maintenance of the Baba House, and research and execution of programmes.

When I first applied for the internship I was expecting the typical internship experience, like shadow the curator, learn how they conducted research for exhibitions, behind the scenes preparation for events, and maybe attend a couple of talks on the mechanics of the museum as an institute. What I got out of the internship were all of these, and so much more.

Currently an undergraduate majoring in English Literature, my interest is in the ‘people’s’ literature. I am fascinated by the depth of culture that we can glean from these stories, and their society of the times built through the what is written, explicitly or not. Being accustomed to translating from words to reality, where my work revolves around writing the intangible concepts of life, the experience of working in the Baba House, amidst the physical landscape of such a rich peranakan culture, was truly amazing. To work in this recreation, which perfectly encapsulate the spirit of their times — a 1920 peranakan household and community — was like stepping into the text that I have always been so preoccupied with. And that is what the Baba House is exactly. The text of history is delineated in each and every carefully curated artefact in the heritage house. Understanding the stories behind the architectural features, aesthetics and layout of the house is at the same time like having an intimate understanding of the family of peranakans who lived there, as their desires and way of life quietly manifests in their surrounding crockery, accessories, furniture etc.

A Baba House pantun recited during our talk on Baba rhymes and verses

I did not glean all of these merely from the stack of readings Poonam and Michelle provided me the first day I stepped into my workplace. Rather it is through working with the Baba House team daily, through observing their meticulous care of the decade old house, their enthusiasm when interacting with the heritage tour visitors, and the extra step they never fail to take to preserve the culture in this society now that is so preoccupied with change and advancement.

The trips to various museums, art galleries, and artist lodges packed into our schedule during the internship were equally insightful. As the curators explained their exhibitions to us, or when we get lucky, the artists themselves would tell us the story of their art, the level and sense of appreciation walking through the exhibit was as if we now had the creator’s vantage itself.

Ongoing work on sketches for the annual Istana Art Event

Me with the other interns at the Baba House.

The internship allowed me to understand the museum through its groundwork, through participating in the concrete preparations, before the final grand product that we normally see as the eye-catching exhibition can become a reality. It also granted me the opportunity to converse with many inspiring curators, and learn from their way of work, especially from their intense demand for creating comprehensive displays of humanity and social concerns in their exhibits. Last and definitely not least, the 10 weeks working with the NUS museum team has left me thoroughly enamoured by, what I’d call, the museum culture — that all work and effort is ultimately crystallised in the core of the pedagogical museum itself. My final words would be to express my sincere thanks to the Baba House team, Poonam, Fadhly and Suling, and also the NUS Museum team who have been so compassionate and accepting of an amateur intern like me.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Mary Ann Lim

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! 


Mary Ann Lim is a third-year Philosophy student at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Soc.ial Sciences. Mary Ann was part of the planning and research for exhibitions associated with the Museum’s South & Southeast Asian Collection

And it hardly looked like a novel at all,
I hardly look like a hero at all
And I’m sorry, you didn’t publish this
And you were white as snow; I was white as a sheet
-          Hold Your Horses!

One often wonders, when wandering through the space of a museum, where the story leads. For as with any good story, there is a hero -- the best ones are often the ones who struggle incessantly, as the world(s) they belong to fail them -- and just as darkness is about to engulf the entire knowable cosmos, our good hero emerges triumphant: the final, desperate burst of light is all that is required to overcome a darkness which must definitely fail. Naturally, the stories that museums tell do not always depict an epic war between the forces of good and evil. Yet, the figure of a hero remains. Though subtle, though perceptibly unreliable, though unrecognizable; the hero exists only because the voice that speaks is necessarily built upon or around the one that is silenced. And such is, the narrative, which plots a coherent line of thought that must, inevitably, leave out.

In this manner then, leaving out is also forgetting. Here, the museum that acts in remembrance of, also acts in forgetting; for that which recalls, recalls what, or who it once forgot. Wandering through the space of a museum then, while one is reminded of the legacies of human triumphs scorched by fire in kilns, figures of men and machine etched on paper with charcoal, of men and women immortalized upon virtual foundations, one is also reminded of that which is forgotten: the museum is nestled in a history that no longer exists, as well as a future of other narratives that can no longer be. Similar to films and their negatives, it is within this presence that we can mark absence, and within absence that all that appears is in memory.

Attempting the performative with Zhi En (Double Vision)

Catching light at Siang's desk; or the office where I spent my days

Interestingly enough, if the same can be said about the archive (which names arkhe, the commandment and commencement, the guardian that chooses to admit and to not admit certain things as it so pleases), then this blog post which I write in now, is a mode of archival through the edition of memory. For what documents the existence of this internship experience is the admission of my writing into visual evidence. And what emerges at the forefront of memory, or what I permit myself and others to remember, are the various curating anxieties and questions that undergirded conversations and readings of the museum that manifested in the above: on representation, on narrative, on authority, on the institution. 

Excursion to the National Gallery

Shenanigans with fellow interns

This is perhaps, where I find myself, as a student of philosophy, caught in the schism that is the praxis of theory. It is apt then, at this juncture where the topic of documentation has been raised, to speak of the museum visually: where the question and answer are both already a framing of sorts, where the clarity of theory is met by my confusion of practice. Thus, in this space of re-appropriated documents that both the museum and I have interacted with, I attempt to highlight my inability to speak for the other who speaks for another, and with equal measure, my inability to speak at all; to articulate the questions, nuances and motifs about curating that throbs and overwhelms my world of memories and forgettings while barely managing a whisper in the world beyond. Yet, maybe, that is where the true beauty lies: in the wanderings between the garbled mess that is the connection from the voice within my head, to the voices that exist outside.

Or as my lovely curator, Sidd Perez, tells me, “there are illuminated things beneath the murky waters”. 

Curating Anxieties I

Curating Anxieties II

With many thanks and fondness to the NUS Museum team, especially Sidd Perez, my curator-supervisor who has been the voice of wisdom, clarity and patience through this internship, as well as to the ever-impeccable Michelle Kuek who has curated this gem of an internship programme. And never forgetting my insane bunch of fellow interns, if not for whom all the conversations, arguments, noise and hysterical laughter would not have permeated through my life otherwise. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Loo Zhi En

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! 


Loo Zhi En is a third-year European Studies student at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Zhi En was greatly involved in the exhibition ‘Who Wants to Remember A War?: War Drawings and Posters from the Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Colleciton’ where he assisted our curators in researching and compiling content descriptors for the artworks in the collection. 

There was always work to be done on my allotment – the museum’s collection of over 1200 works of war art from the Vietnam War(s). This work involved the compilation of content descriptors for each work and their subsequent entry into the appropriate spreadsheets. This compilation would facilitate the potential research queries made by researchers using the museum’s collection. You may think of this entire task as one of data entry combined with the opportunity to examine some rather interesting subject matter. Attention to detail was the day job.

A preliminary compilation done by going through each work individually showed a staggering array of descriptors that could be gleaned from the first few spreadsheets alone. Grand historical paintings furnished numerous details that required minute examination to tease out. However, even a simple portrait could come loaded with a dense backstory in the caption that would similarly inflate the number of possible of descriptors beyond any manageable number. My supervisor (Chang Yueh Siang) and I had already agreed that the range of descriptors ought to be as broad as possible so that researchers did not need to be tied down to a heavily curated selection. It nevertheless became rapidly clear that thickening the spreadsheets by going through the works one at a time would render the overall task of creating a usable database both unmanageable and unbearable. It seemed like a convenient cop-out at the time but I then decided that the first step in breaking the task down would be cataloguing the place-names that appeared on each work. I told myself that it was just as well that I didn’t know much about Vietnam anyway (I still find it strange that they let a European Studies major loose on the collection), so a sort of orientation was very much in order.

Preparing the videos for the exhibition was a welcome diversion, though.

Many place-names in the collection were easily traceable to real places, and Google Maps was an indispensable tool in this regard. Other place-names were harder; in many cases, old US Army topographical maps had to be consulted to look for place-names that would match those mentioned in the works. (Enough ink has been spilt elsewhere on the value systems behind cartography; it would be unwise to dwell on that matter.) These would often appear with a different spelling, raising the worrying possibility that the captions were ridden with transcription errors or the results of faulty memory. Phou Lennik in Laos turned up in the collection as ‘Phulonic’. Ngok Bơr Bêang in Kon Tum ended up being rendered as ‘Ngoc Bo Pieng’. In some cases, the provinces mentioned in some captions did not exist after 1975, having either been a province of the defeated government or having been amalgamated with other provinces. These difficulties had to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis so that the categorisation system of sets and subsets remained more or less coherent. After the place-name survey was completed half-way through the internship, frequency tallies of various topics of interest in the collection needed to be produced: tallies of works containing anything remotely related to aviation, the navy, women at war and many other topics. I had thought this would take far less time than it did, but things like small fishing boats were very easy to miss.

Back in the classroom for a wee while.

But what, you might ask, about the Museum? What about the big picture? To be honest, I can’t really answer that coherently just now. I had applied for the internship wanting to learn something about the craft of museology – how to begin thinking about the presentation of narratives and museum objects, and on how to link space and work in interesting ways. I have had glimpses of that sort of thinking in various places: the gallery visits, the tours, the never-ending internship dialogues that moved from the office into the Celadon room and back. On my front, however, the only ‘idea’ I could manage to ponder over in direct relation to my main work was that of trying to put the place-name survey to use in the gallery space. The locations depicted in the works displayed could have been mapped out; Vietnam could thereby not just be remembered as a war, but as a real place in the real world. Or something approaching it. Who would have known? Both lines of thought fizzled out as the necessity of hammering on with the descriptor compilation became more and more pressing as the end of the internship loomed ahead. I reckon there will be other times for the big questions. Perhaps they are of the sort that can only be answered after years of thought and experience at curatorial decision-making. For the beginner, I can only say that throughout this summer, I have found this to be true; that the trick is to pace yourself, and to carefully tend the plot.

oh, and never forget to curate the playlist.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Joshua Lim

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! 


Joshua is a third-year History student at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Science. As an Outreach intern, Joshua was instrumental in researching and sourcing for film and documentaries for upcoming exhibition programmes. He also assisted with education outreach activities.

“What did you expect a museum to be?”

Other than the standard “what have you learned” debrief, there was another question I found myself grappling with as my summer internship with NUS Museum drew to a close:

“What did you expect a museum to be?”

Several answers flooded my head when I first heard this question towards the end of the final Internship Dialogue (note: the Internship Dialogue is when each intern has to present and lead a discussion on a topic related to museums. Yes, even in the summer, there is no escape from readings, assignments, and *gasp* presentations). Was the museum supposed to be a fun place, or a serious one? Should they be grand palaces with state-of-the-art technology or small, simple galleries? Are they places of learning or glorified storerooms with curiosities for the public to gawk at? Perhaps they are some combination of the above and more?

Believe me, I’ve had an easier time setting up Double Vision (an ongoing exhibition) than contemplating this question.

The question was an unexpected end-of-internship debrief. As someone on a museum internship and as someone who visited museums frequently, this was something I should have considered and have a prepared response for. I didn’t and I don’t. It would seem that I had taken the idea of the museum for granted, and simply assumed that they existed. If I hadn’t considered this question as a layperson, I now have to think about it from the eyes of a museum’s showrunners.

It is also fitting that the question coincided with me spending my internship with the NUS Museum’s outreach team under Michelle. After all, these outreach programmes, often organised to raise awareness of a museum and its collections, do go some way in shaping one’s expectations of what a museum is.

So, after twelve weeks of research, (not so) heavy lifting, cataloguing, presentations, field trips, discussions, and shuttling between the museum and the office, what have I come to expect in a museum?   

One word: Fun! (Note: I’m on the extreme left)

As a student of history, I have come to see museums as windows to the past. This applies not just to the exhibits, but the institution as well. The way museums were organised and curated in the past says much about what people valued at the time. Looking back at  the research I did for my own Internship Dialogue presentation, which was a chronology of Singapore’s museums after 1965, I noticed a common thread linking the museums of the past and museums today. Sure, the values and methods differed, but they all exhibited things they believed were valuable. These institutions tapped onto the very human instinct of collecting and preserving valuable items for future generations. 

And it’s also the reason why I capture snapshots of museum events with the Outreach team’s camera – to record for the record.

The items that are selected for collection and display in a museum are, of course, carefully consolidated by the curators. I’ve had the privilege of helping Sidd, one of the museum’s curators, to set up Double Vision, an exhibition on Filipino experimental film that had been months in the making. This led me to ask: what was the difference between Double Vision, and the film series for the Vietnam War drawings and sketches exhibitions that I was working on?

There is a fine line between mere selecting and curating. On one hand, the films I selected for the film series brought together films that were tangential to the themes presented in the two ongoing Vietnam War exhibitions, LINES and Who Wants to Remember a War? These themes ranged from conflict to separation to memory, among many others. To curate an exhibition like Double Vision, with all its layered narratives and meanings and collaboration with the films’ makers, is a whole different ball game. Clearly, there was a method to the curator’s madness, and it was one that twelve weeks in a museum couldn’t fully impart to me. Whatever this fine line was, it was the difference between Double Vision and the extended film series I was working on.

So, what is the purpose of collecting and conserving these items? That they may be kept under lock and key in a climate-controlled storeroom, never to collect dust or the curious gaze of the public? That’s not the case, although the cataloguing work that I’ve done for a section of an ongoing exhibition at the museum’s Ng Eng Teng gallery shows that museums generally display a small handful of its collection at any one time.

Me when I realised the museum had more of this than it was showing. Also, me when cataloguing (feat. Ng Eng Teng. Anticipation II, date unknown, stoneware, 7 x 7.5 x 7.5cm)

I digress. The point is that these items have been collected and put on display, both to educate and to entertain. More often than not, these exhibits will convey a certain message or narrative that it wishes for visitors to take away. Either that, or it invites visitors to form their own opinions about what is being presented. One would thus expect the museum to be more than just a place where very valuable things are kept and displayed.

I’ve also come to expect a museum’s education efforts to extend beyond the artefacts and text of the exhibition galleries. It’s safe to say that almost all the education-related activities I’ve attended had something to do with the existing collections being exhibited. There were the talks and lectures, which occasionally featured local art scene heavyweights like local art historian T.K. Sabapathy and National Gallery curator Dr Phoebe Scott. And then there were the more fun, family-friendly things like the Chinese ink-painting workshops conducted over the June holidays. And finally, no museum calendar would ever be complete without the occasional field trip by schoolchildren. It is all these activities that contribute to what people would expect a museum to be.

If there was one thing about education in a museum that I did not expect, it would be how the museum building itself could be used to teach. I suppose the best way to learn about risk management is to actually plan a visit to a museum for a large group. The building did most of the work when several classes from Republic Polytechnic came over for exactly that purpose. All I did was merely introduce their teacher for the day (i.e. the museum itself).

“No, the dinosaurs aren’t here; they’re across the road. No Pokémon here either, but you’re not here for those, right?”

Ultimately, what is expected of a museum will vary from person to person. What I experienced in the twelve weeks with NUS Museum are mine and so, some of the points I put forth about what I expect a museum to be may not resonate so easily with others. Also, these expectations are subject to change over time. The definition of what a museum is offered by the International Council of Museums has changed over four times since 1946.

While expectations may vary and change, I sincerely believe that there are some things that make a museum a museum. I invite you, dear reader, to find out for yourself what these things are.