Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Eddie Koh

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!

Eddie Koh is a fourth-year History major from the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at NUS. Eddie's first internship with the NUS Museum ran from May-July 2010, where his research centred upon important figures in the Museum's history. Eddie joined us once again for the summer of 2011 for a second round to delve into the history of the NUS Museum. During this second internship stint, Eddie has taken to keeping a diary, meticulously recording his thoughts and impressions as he engages with research on William Willets, the museum's second curator . Let's all take a little peek into his notes and find out what he thinks of Willets.

Ever since my foray into art history as a result of my experience in the Camping and Tramping exhibition, William Willetts has become something of a person of curiosity for me. From knowing next to nothing about the individual, I became acutely aware of the tremendously important role he played as the National University of Singapore Museum's second curator. The fact that he had been credited by some to be the person who revolutionalized Southeast Asian art history underscored how influential he must have been during his time. This entry shall be my attempt at recording all my musings and thoughts about Willetts as I work my way through another project concerning the man himself.

30th May 2011
William Willetts is obviously a very complex person. From a Scientific background, he then transited into becoming an Art Historian due to a particular life changing experience for him in a Chinese Art Exhibition. He has remarkably profound knowledge of many types of art, Chinese and Southeast Asia art for example. This knowledge stretches from historical understanding of each art down to the minute technical details regarding the production of the art. Intriguingly, Willetts also highlights that there is an intuitive level towards the appreciation of artwork and there is no avoiding this particular ‘sense’. Only through a balance of intellectual and intuitive appreciation of the artwork, can a richer understanding be attained. While this seems to be Willetts’ claim, it would appear that Willetts leaned more heavily towards the intellectual analytical side of artwork appreciation, as seen from his elaborate technical description of many artworks.

6th June 2011
Despite all his knowledge, Willetts, in most of his work, refrains from making symbolic or aesthetic judgment on any artwork. He seems to strongly believe in allowing his audience to form their own opinions about the artwork. While he highlights that artwork tend to reflect the society the artwork was created in and even illustrate for the reader the historical background of the artwork, he often stop short of making the final connection between the two, leaving the reader to make the connection themselves. Michael Sullivan once remarked that Willetts believed in the idea of an “art historian’s neutral ground’, could this be what he was referring to? Perhaps this could also explain for why Willetts goes to such great lengths in expounding every single detail of any artwork to the reader, both historical and technical? Perhaps hoping to give his audience all the necessary information to formulate their own perspective on the artwork?

16th June 2011
A great deal of what Willetts came to be known for, during his time in Southeast Asia, has much to do with what he wrote in his first publication titled Chinese Art. His elaborate description of the art pieces, his search of the appropriate words to describe them and his specific interest in particular art fields are such examples. While many such idiosyncrasies have stuck with Willetts, unchanged, there exists one such exception. Willetts originally rejected the use of Ceramics as a terminology to describe the art work he was examining in Chinese art; however, this seemed to have changed when he moved into Southeast Asia art. With the change in terminology usage, there was also a change in focus regarding the description of artwork.

20th June 2011
Willetts was involved in the separation of the University of Malaya Museum collection in 1962/3. It was very likely that he separated the collection in such a way so that the collection would in one way fulfill separate objectives and would also represent the location the respective separated museums were situated in. Therefore most of the bronze, sculptures and other artwork related to this genre were moved over to Malaya. Singapore retained a few but these were only token representation of different forms of bronze work and sculptures. The paintings were divided equally between the two museums, however the content varied greatly. The Singapore collection reflected works about the country or works that came from the country mostly. The Malaya collection represented more of the Southeast Asia world, with a number of paintings depicting various scenes from Malaya. The pottery collection seems to have been separated equally as well but how it was done so, that remains to be seen.

28th June 2011
After finally getting my hands on some of the works written by William Willetts in India, it would appear certain notions I have had about him is beginning to solidify. One of these notions was his interest in fields that his contemporaries had not yet ventured into. Being far from a behind the desk art historian, he would take great efforts to go out of his way to particular temple sites in India that has yet to be explored thoroughly by his contemporaries and examine them. This is perhaps one side of him that stuck with him and eventually pushed him to examine Southeast Asian Ceramics (another field that was not well known during his time) later on in his life. Suffice to say, Willetts was not a conventionalist when it came to art history. Perhaps this remained true until the later part of his life, when he returned back to his first love, Chinese Art.

9th July 2011
My time here at the museum is coming to an end. Yet another 2 months worth of holidays has passed by remarkably and regrettably fast. The project on William Willetts is coming along unexpectedly well, marked with greater prospects than what had been initially conceived. If all works out well, I would be able to get my hands on more materials written by Willetts, opening yet more doors for me to explore this great individual’s past. I am not ashamed to admit that finding out more about this fascinating character is fast becoming a deep interest (obsession…?Nah...) of mine!  

Check out Eddie's first post here.


  1. I first encountered Willett's two volumes of Chinese Art in the Melbourne University Baillieu Library in 2005. Needless to say, published in 1958, these two volumes are now unfortunately out of print. The books are a fascinating read and extremely erudite and are definitely worth reading if you haven't read them.

    Since the books was published in 1958 (and a further updated in the 1960s), few comprehensive surveys of the like have been published (for example, Michael Sullivan's book on Chinese art). At least for the amateur or general reader, Willett's book is indispensible to anyone who wants to properly understand Chinese art.


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