Thursday, 15 September 2011

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Melinda Susanto

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!

Melinda is currently a 4th year Art History and Curatorship major from the Australian National University. Her internship was part of the IARU Global Internship Programme. NUS Museum has been welcoming interns from this programme for the past three years and we look forward to more in the future. If you would like to find out more about this programme, please click here.




When I started my internship at the NUS museum, little did I know how much I would gain from it! I got a crash course in Singapore history and the colonial museum through researching, tried my hands on some practical museum work, went on exhibition-related day trips and even attended a museum conference. The research experience itself was enriching, and oddly enough, resonates with a kind of past-present parallel. The colonial archive may well be a site of memory, but as I researched for Camping and Tramping, a tale of contemporary endeavours also unfolded before me.


‘Exploring the unknown’
Colonial Malaya, with its ‘exotic’ and then-unfamiliar people and locales, was an object of exploration and a space for imagination. Explorers chronicled their adventures, scientists illustrated newly-discovered species of flora and fauna, ethnographers recorded local folklore and collected artefacts, be it a keris or a basket. Malaya beckoned to people of varied backgrounds, where piqued interests provoked deeper research.

Similarly, Camping and Tramping as an exhibition presents an exploratory complex. As visitors to the museum each bring with them their own perceptions and world-views, they also come away with different thoughts. Artefacts are simply labeled with numbers -with further details provided in a gallery guide and much more in reference binders- rewarding those who seek further information, just the way once-upon-a-time expeditions played out. Witnessing a fortuituous school visit also showed me the youthful drive for knowledge: students armed with papers to draw, write and explain their interest and understanding of artefacts, echoing the inquisitive process of explorers, scientists, and ethnographers traversing through colonial Malaya.



‘Glimpses between the texts’
Through my internship, I spent much time delving into existing texts, research that made up the current exhibition – from writings of jungle and cave explorations, through records of mystic magic, to elucidation of flora and fauna – it all fascinated me how the history of Singapore and the rise of the colonial museum is filtered through the lenses of the writers of these texts.

These historical texts provide a glimpse, no matter fragmentary, into the personalities involved in establishing the colonial museum and the lives of the local population. Yet it is with a random thought that I realised, so does the exhibition and the existing stacks of research I was diving into. They too, tell a story of the researchers who compiled the mass of sources – the scribbles in the margins, the annotations in the bibliographies, are abound with curious and insightful thoughts on the research. While annual reports may reflect the interests of an official and what directed the priorities of the colonial museum, the stroke of a pen, a colourful splash of highlighting, reveals what each researcher considered significant and presented me with signposts as I sifted through the texts.

The acquisitions of artefacts reflected the efforts and mindsets of colonial officials; equally, amassing the range of books, newspaper articles and reports attest to the hard work and research-paths of last year’s interns. While an intriguing newly-discovered artefact or species may wow its then-audience, I am fascinated with an obscure reference found, thinking, “How did he/she find that!?”, a sentiment surely echoing that of past audiences.

The only difference in the texts’ function as archive of memory in the historical versus the contemporary sense is that I actually met some of the interns in person, while the gap between historical reality and the mirage of personalities glimpsed between the texts perhaps necessarily remains nebulous.



‘Intrigue. Search. Collect.’
The colonial archive may be seen as a product of accumulation. Many writers of these texts acknowledged that there was much more to know; they sought to record even more encounters as they explored the region, with the certainty that more knowledge will yield greater significance sometime in the future.

Then, it occurred to me that I, too, was gripped by some kind of fervour which drove me to fill up gaps and follow up trails of references to find something new, assembling heaps of papers and collecting links of relevance. I knew not where it would go, but that it mattered for me to keep being thrilled at new discoveries and adding to the collection of research, texts ranging from colonial artistic impressions of Singapore to the development of the Nanyang arts movement.

And then, just as the archival texts contained lists and tables attempting to organize the scientific and ethnological knowledge gained about the colonial environment, so too it seems the exhibition’s binders and lists of bibliographies denote previous researchers’ task of compiling and making sense of the research intended for this exhibition. To this, I also added my humble two cents’ worth: updating bibliographies and generating timelines plotted along the milestones of Singapore history, the development of the arts, the interactions between local communities and the colonial institution.

‘Peeling back the layers’      
By the end of two months, I have come to realise that there are many layers to what is known as the colonial archive. I emerged from the internship with an appreciation of the complexities of postcolonial discourse, the histories of colonialism and its institutions. I also gained a valuable insight into the day-to-day work of the museum, from the process of engaging with research and generating scopes for exhibition content, to the installation process of an upcoming exhibition. All in all, it was a rewarding experience to be part of the NUS Museum’s internship program and I found it more than worthwhile to have swapped the wintry streets of Canberra for the sunny shores of Singapore during this break.

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