Monday, 27 January 2014

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Clarence Ng

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. If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!

As part of our December 2013 cohort of interns, 3 undergraduate interns from NUS joined us for five weeks trawling through books, papers and catalogue conducting on research for the In Search of Raffles' Light exhibition and the TK Sabapathy Collection of books and artworks. 

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Clarence Ng is a third-year NUS History major. Having experienced the In Search of Raffles' Light exhibition through the module HY3256 Brides of the Sea: Asia's Port Cities, Clarence joined the museum to further pursue his research interest in maritime history and conduct further research on the archival materials showcased within the exhibition.

Introduction

Not all those who wander are lost - J.R.R Tolkien

It’s a very apt quote to describe my December internship with the NUS Museum, and quite nicely summarises my experience here.

When I first took HY3256 Brides of the Sea, I did not expect it to be the beginning of a journey that would lead me here, to a curatorial internship with the NUS Museum, working on In Search of Raffles’ Light - an exhibition I first visited as part of the module’s requirements. But I am grateful it did, for it is a truly enriching experience.

Experience


As a curatorial intern working on In Search of Raffles’ Light, my brief was simple: Research and come up with ideas for activities to ‘value-add’ to the existing exhibition. Or, as my supervisor Kenneth said at my interview, come up with ‘footnotes’ for the exhibit.

My corner, and my work

With this brief, I engaged myself researching for possible ideas for activities. I was initially unused to the very liberal nature of the job, in the sense that there were almost completely no restrictions placed on my research. Thus, I was quite free to run off in almost any direction I wanted, and one of the early difficulties was to focus on a topic long enough to be able to produce something useable for an activity. I was fortunate to have been able to work with a very open-minded and supportive boss, who I could bounce off crazy ideas without being shot down instantly. Furthermore, coming from a different academic background (Literature), he was able to provide a different spin on many of my ideas, allowing me to refine them further.

9 binders of primary material - and that’s just the beginning!

The other big challenge I faced was the lack of material for certain topics. This was in part due to the fact that I worked primarily with online archives, which were often limited in the depth of their online collections, as much primary source material had not yet been digitized. This forced me to be extremely resourceful and creative in hunting for material, and would lead me to countless websites, always hunting for the elusive fact.

Nevertheless, despite the intensity of the job, it has its perks. As interns, we were given guided tours of all the current exhibitions of the NUS Museums, with the curators themselves conducting these tours. These visits were a valuable chance to pick the minds of the exhibit organizers, and learn about their thinking when they curated the artefacts.

Another benefit for me was succeeding in finding and developing a viable Honours Thesis topic. A key concern of mine since the previous sem, it was a great relief to have been finally able to discover a topic both original and with lots of potential, which even my professors are excited about. Honours Year, here I come!

Lessons

Looking back, perhaps the biggest benefit of this museum internship was the debunking of several ideas I had pre-internship. For one, a museum career is not only for History majors. Among the interns I worked with, I was the only History major, with the rest coming from disciplines as diverse as Geography and Political Science. My supervisor himself was a Literature graduate, giving the lie to the stereotype that only History majors work in the Museum.

For another, museum curators rely on more theoretical concepts than just history. During the course of my work, I found myself often dealing with more Literature concepts than History ones. Ideas such as Freud’s Uncanny, the privileging of light etc are notions more at home within the Literature department than the History ones, and it was refreshing to work with such ideas, a departure from the usual academic trawl.

Another benefit was the breadth of experience gained. Neither purely academic nor purely practical, the role of a curator demands a melange of skills both theoretical and pragmatic, and can be a very surprising road to take. For instance, a curator has to have both the ability to appreciate the concepts being put together in a space, and also to arrange the logistics to transport exhibits and arrange them.

Epilogue

And at the end, I am glad that I stumbled upon this opportunity to intern at the NUS Museum. Truly, not all who wander are lost, and if you ever do have the chance, give it a go, and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll find. 


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