Monday, 10 February 2014

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Flora Toh

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 research for the In Search of Raffles' Light exhibition and the TK Sabapathy Collection of books and artworks. 

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Flora Toh is a fourth-year student, currently working on her honours thesis, at the Department of Geography at NUS FASS. She worked on the TK Sabapathy Collection of books and artworks, conducting curatorial research and cataloguing the collection.


“[M]useums have long been regarded as cathedrals to material culture, places where visitors come to worship the revered collections on display.”
Hilary Geoghegan (2010: 1466)

As with Geoghegan, museums do and perhaps always will hold me rapt. From the outset, museums have never had humble origins; they began in wealthy Western homes as collections of curiosities that were of interest not just in themselves, but how they reconfigured their sites, curators and viewers. While visits to museums have shown me how this continues to be so, the past month at the NUS Museum has revealed that in many ways, museums are increasingly emerging against the grain of didactic intellectualism and expertise as sites of immense possibilities and futures. Šola (1992: 394) suggested that we may then “tal[k] about the future of our entire past: how will it proceed, in what shape and with what purposes”; where the past, present and future may take on productive and exciting synergies.

At the close of my second year, I visited the NUS Museum for the first time for a tour of Camping and Tramping through the Colonial Archive: The Museum in Malaya. The exhibition, curiously, threw the museum in itself into sharp relief by considering its role in knowledge mobilisation and production in colonial Malaya. While extremely short, the visit left an intense impression that has remained with me in my explorations of heritage and collective memory in my own undergraduate research. This single visit is also the reason I leapt at this internship opportunity: I sought answers to the many questions I had left with previously.

Adventures in the prep-room:
An exciting, exploratory and unpredictable space where “things…may or may not happen”

Filipovic (2013: 78) posited that the exhibition is a “site where deeply entrenched ideas and forms can come undone, where the ground on which we stand is rendered unstable”. This as I have found, is perhaps the premise of the prep-room, where I spent most of my internship working in. With another intern, Syairah, we sifted through a collection of books donated by Singaporean art historian T.K. Sabapathy. In attempting to use the repository in a meaningful and productive way, we explored the possibilities of curating a book collection to flesh out the shifting ideas surrounding definitions of Southeast Asia and modernity. In 1972, John Berger, in his highly acclaimed series ‘Ways of Seeing’, suggested that a painting becomes a corridor, connecting the moment it represents with the moment at which you are looking at it. We discovered that encountering the books was a similarly inter-subjective endeavour. As such, we delved into the tension that seemingly lies between the curator and the museum visitor: How far was too far? Were we leaving room for the visitor to tell his or her own story? Or more interestingly, would this dialogue between visitor and curator ever cease?

Realising that curating could be and might always have been about conversation –
not just between curator and object, but also with visitors.

The five weeks at the NUS Museum seemed too short, but was extremely rewarding and fulfilling. Apart from learning more about curatorship and museology, I also got fascinating glimpses into conservation work, museum outreach, exhibition installation and the immense work that is invested into developing an exhibition. This is in no small part due to the wonderful people I had the fortune to meet and talk to over the course of my internship – fellow eager interns Syairah, Clarence, Natalie and Alissa; my inspiring, patient and passionate mentors Kenneth and Michelle; and of course the extremely warm and helpful staff at the NUS Museum.

It perhaps is unsurprising that I left the museum with more questions than answers. 18 months on from my first encounter and hopefully not too belatedly, I am arriving at my first answer yet. The NUS Museum is precisely the ‘conversational’ prep-room. It is precisely the inter-subjective artwork or book collection. Things may or may not happen here; and that, I certainly revere.

References

Filipovic, E. (2013). What is an exhibition? In Hoffman, J. (ed) Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating. Milan: Mousse Publishing.

Geoghegan, H. (2010). Museum geography: exploring museums, collections and museum practice in the UK. Geography Compass4(10), 1462-1476.

Šola, T. (1992). The future of museums and the role of museology. Museum Management and Curatorship, 11(4), 393-400.

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