Monday, 3 February 2014

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Syairah Azimi

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. 


Syairah Azimi is a fourth year student from NUS FASS, pursuing a major in Political Science and a minor in History. Alongside Flora Toh, she worked on the T.K. Sabapathy Collection of Books and Artworks, conducting research and cataloguing them to make sense of this new collection. The T.K. Sabapathy Collection of Books and Artworks is currently located in the prep-room on the Lobby level of the museum.

I spent my last semester break as an NUS undergraduate doing an internship with NUS Museum, a small building tucked away in the south of NUS Campus. I was attached to Assistant Curator Kenneth Tay as a Curatorial Intern where I engaged with the present collection of publications and artworks from Singapore’s foremost art historian, curator and critic, T.K. Sabapathy. I was blessed with the opportunity to immerse myself in the different aspects of museum industry. My experience can be summed up in these 3Cs: Collection, Curatorship and Camaraderie.


Museums are the acquirers and holders of the stored material culture of the past. My preconceived opinion of museum collections was limited to objects that confer aesthetic pleasure such as artworks, paintings, sculptures, relics and ceramics. This notion altered as I delved deeper into my internship that mainly involved working with publications. 

Arriving in uniform storage boxes from the house of Mr T.K. Sabapathy, the collection I dealt with was nothing short of diverse. His present collection of publications spans disciplines and subjects such as Southeast Asia historiography, canonical accounts of Western Art History, architecture, cultural studies, artists’ monograph and exhibition catalogue. These once private treasures will become public resources to facilitate the research of Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art. 


With over 1000 publications in T.K. Sabapathy’s collection, there was a need to organize and make sense of it. A catalogue was drawn up to enumerate, record bibliographic data, describe and categorize the publications. I spent several days cataloguing these publications at the prep-room, a space conceived for the exploration of curatorial methods with another intern, Flora.

 The next task was to interpret and present the collection of materials to the public in insightful ways. It was challenging as I found myself grappling with various questions. How do we go about classifying or arranging the books? Do we consider time periods or epochs, strict chronology, disciplines, subject matter, authors or locations? Given the limited space and the abundance of publications, what gets displayed? By exploring these issues, I acquired greater understanding on why and how curators experience their collection. 

I gained greater exposure of other aspects of curatorial practices such as exhibition-making when I assisted Kenneth in setting up the exhibition Etcetera that features the works by artist Ng Eng Teng. The recontextualization of museum collections and audience reception are just some of the considerations in producing critical and thought-provoking exhibition. This introduction to curatorial practices and the art scene in Southeast Asia was intense and can only be understood through direct involvement. 


Apart from acquiring work skills, I enjoyed a unique sense of camaraderie working with other interns from NUS and Junior Colleges. We exchanged perspectives and views on curatorial methods which gave way to new ideas and insights. NUS Museum staff also played an integral role in shaping my internship experience and orienting me to the museum culture. Several staff had put aside their time to provide engaging tours for me and the other interns to experience the different exhibitions within NUS Museum and at the NUS Baba House during the first few days of our internship. I am most grateful to my supervisor, Kenneth for introducing me to the different aspects of the museum industry and Southeast Asian art. Interning at NUS Museum during my final semester break as an NUS undergraduate was indeed a fulfilling journey.

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