Monday, 29 September 2014

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Rie Ong

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. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!

For Summer 2014, we have 6 undergraduate interns working with the curatorial and outreach teams, conducting research into the Museum's collections as we prepare for our upcoming Resource Gallery, the new T.K. Sabapathy Collection of books and artworks, the archaeological sherd collection housed in the Sherd Library as well as conceptualising and running Outreach events at the Baba House and the NUS Museum.


Rie Ong is a third-year undergraduate at the School of Humanities & Social Science at Nanyang Technological University. Rie joined the Curatorial team as our Archaeological Sherds Research Intern, assisting in documenting the materials in the Museum's Sherd Library and conducting research for new displays of the sherd collection.

For the last fourteen weeks, I was the Archaeology Sherds Research Intern at the NUS Museum. In general, my internship at the NUS Museum has been at times rigorous, but all in all, fulfilling.

As part of my internship, I had to achieve several objectives. First, I was required to conduct research for the refresh of the Sherd Library display. Through my research, I became increasingly intrigued by the fact that Singapore had a rich history way before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. I also learnt that Singapore had an extensive network with various polities of the region during the 14th century, and this does mirror what we know of Singapore today as a bustling trading hub for the region and the world. 

Second, I had to catalogue the archaeological sherds that were in the existing Sherd Library. This was not an easy task as there was no existing system of cataloguing for the Sherd Library. This certainly put my ceramic identification skills to the test, as I had to identify the ceramics based on the features that I have observed behind the glass screens, as opposed to identifying it close up. Moreover, there were many types of sherds from various parts of the region and of different time periods, which made the identification of ceramics even more challenging.  

Third, I had to prepare for the deinstallation of the current Sherd Library as well as the installation of a temporary exhibition, the Archaeology Library: prep room, that would serve as a preview to the new Sherd Library to be installed at the end of this year.

As easy as this might sound, the process of curating an exhibition involves many steps and procedures. What I found most interesting about the whole process of learning how to curate an exhibition, is the idea that the curator often takes on many roles in the course of preparing for an exhibition. The curator is:

  • A researcher- one that gathers the information behind the artifacts in an exhibition
  • An archivist- one that manages and organises a collection of objects and documents of the past
  • An architect- one that utilises space to construct something
  • A storyteller- one that narrates a story
  • A handyman- one that does the odd jobs such as taking measurements and moving heavy objects.

After going through the preparation behind taking down and putting up the exhibition, I also had the privilege of seeing it come to fruition. First, we had to pack the artefacts from the existing Sherd Kibrary into crates. The detailed process of packing is illustrated below:

After the packing was completed, the artifacts were moved up to the VEG, which is the location for the temporary installation. As there were many pieces to choose from and a limited space to display them, certain artefacts were selected based on site. I ensured that there was at least one sample of the wares that characterised each site chosen in each display. Su Ling explained that the wares selected did not necessarily have to be the most beautiful pieces of each site- it was more important to ensure that there were variations in the types of pieces selected. After the pieces were selected, they had to be rearranged on their designated pedestals.

Besides being involved in the above, I also had the opportunity to learn more about
museums in general through various activities that were organised for the interns. This included curatorial tours of the Baba House as well as a former exhibition Inherited and Salvaged: Family Portraits from the Straits Chinese Collection. Through these tours, I was able to gain a greater understanding of the curatorial direction behind the exhibitions, as well as the historical background behind them. I also attended a Conservation Workshop, which taught me more about how art works are restored and preserved. This was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.

Though my journey at the NUS Museum has come to an end, the memories of the people that I have met and the lessons that  I have learnt still remain.  My colleagues and my fellow interns have been instrumental in helping me to adjust to life in NUS - from showing me the best food in canteens around campus, and getting round from place to place on the Shuttle Bus. They have also been a great source of support and companionship throughout this journey and I am thankful for their camaraderie. I would also like to thank Dr John Miksic and Dr Goh Geok Yian for teaching me about Archaeology in Singapore and also for answering the queries that I had about ceramics.

Last but not the least, I am also grateful for my supervisor, Su Ling, who has taught me a great deal about curating exhibitions as well as widening my knowledge about ceramics. She has done an immense job in doing so, and has been an inspiration to me as an aspiring curator. 


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