Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Fiona 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. Besides working hard and fast in their cubicles, our interns have travelled to Bandung and Malacca, organised symposiums, waded through tons of historical research and pitched in during exhibition installations. It was definitely no ordinary internship for them! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!

A fourth-year history major at the National University of Singapore, Fiona is currently on her second internship with the NUS Museum. Her first stint took place from May-July 2010 and today she will be sharing about the research she conducted last year. Her 2010 internship was attached to our current permanent collection exhibition Camping and Tramping through the Colonial Archive: The Museum in Malaya. Look out for her next blog post about her current research for an upcoming exhibition!

The title of the exhibition, Camping and Tramping, itself pretty much sums up my internship experience with the NUS Museum for this particular project. While I did not have the opportunity to travel beyond the shores of Singapore, the discovery of documents from the past was just as exciting travelling to a foreign land, as any history-aficionado might tell you.

First allow me to address the “camping” aspect. Besides the very literal camping out in the usual haunts of a researcher, including the libraries, the national archives and the online databases thanks to recent digitization of some archival documents, there is a metaphorical aspect to camping as well. There was a need to engage with the vast amount of material amassed, perhaps in a non-conventional way. As I had laboriously read through all the Annual Reports of Raffles Museum and Library, squinting at the faint projections from the microfilm reader in the National Library or leafing precariously through the browned and tattered pages of bound volumes in the NUS library, it was suggested that I should write a fictitious piece instead of an official history based on these Annual Reports, a task which had been undertaken by more distinguished authors.

That was when I had to now temporarily live and “camp” in the minds of the directors who wrote them. Richard Hanitsch’s immense frustration at the lack of funding; John Coney Moulton’s ambitious desires for the Museum; Frederick Nutter Chasen’s meticulous recordings of its annual actitivies; I reread the Annual Reports with a new frame of mind, focusing on the authors rather than their subjects. Perhaps what I submitted failed to capture the director’s idiosyncrasies adequately, but the attempt was truly an enriching one.

The second aspect of the internship experience is the “tramping” that we did. I was apprehensive when I first started because of the broad scope of research that needed to be done, both in terms of the time period we were looking at (since the inception of the museum in the early 19th century) and the different themes that were involved in the formation of colonial knowledge and collection. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I’m glad that we cast a wide net, for it has allowed the exhibition to be so malleable and appealing to people with different interests.

The different kinds of texts, ranging from official reports, lectures, guidebooks and even scientific journals also meant that we really were tramping all over the libraries. Added to this was a sense of freedom to sidetrack and detour which “tramping” entails. One text led to another and yet another. Lo and behold! We had a board filled with texts not merely about museums, but also on paradigms of colonial knowledge which fed into the museological project.

Just as any literal camping and tramping excursion is memorable because of the people who embark on it and the people who might have helped along the way, I’m immensely grateful to have been able to be part of this metaphorical “camping and tramping” experience. Thanks to the librarians and archivists who helped with out with the retrieval of material, the various museum curators who opened their collection for us to rummage through, the NUS Museum staff who put up with our increasingly cluttered room due to the accumulation of documents, and the fellow interns who I believe will agree when I say that this has been a most unconventional and interesting summer internship.

Posted by Fiona Tan (NUS Museum Intern)


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