Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Rachel Tan

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!

In December 2014, 8 interns joined us to work with the curatorial and outreach teams, conducting research for upcoming exhibitions and programmes in 2015 at the museum and the NUS Baba House. Besides those involving our collections and recent acquisitions, the interns prepared for upcoming exhibitions surrounding the work of alumni artists, the T.K. Sabapathy Collection, as well as SEABOOK. They also assisted with ongoing happenings at the museum, including exhibition installation and programme facilitation.

Rachel Tan is a third-year English Literature student at NUS FASS. In December 2014, she interned with the Outreach department, assisting in research for various ongoing and upcoming programme series including Malaya Black & White. She also assisted in the organising and execution of Outreach events and responsibilities.

“What a museum chooses to exhibit is sometimes less important than how such decisions are made and what values inform them.”
- Martin Filler

This quote by Filler resonates greatly with my learning experience over the past five weeks as an Outreach intern at the museum. Having just returned from an exchange programme in June 2014, I visited many museums in Europe and the various exhibitions really fascinated me. I began wondering about how an exhibition is conceptualised as well as how it comes to fruition and I realised that I had a very limited scope of knowledge with regards to curatorial work. Thus, I decided to apply for an internship at the NUS Museum to get a better understanding of the internal workings of a museum. 

Although I was not attached to any particular curatorial project, I felt that the position as an Outreach intern gave me a very comprehensive overview of how the museum was run. Listening to the exchanges between my supervisors and the curators provided me with an interesting picture of the thought processes behind how certain ideas are conceived and carried forward (or not). The scope of work that the Outreach department deals with is actually a very wide one that includes publicity, marketing, programming, logistics and all sorts of enquiries. Of course, there was also event planning and management which was another key aspect of their job scope.

As an Outreach intern I realised that aside from the nitty gritty details of logistics planning, understanding the subject matter of the various projects is another key aspect. In a sense, my supervisors, Michelle and Trina were like middlemen who had to first obtain a firm understanding of what they were dealing with before they could liaise with the curators and discuss the logistic arrangements.

During my internship, I was mainly involved in the programming of two projects, first of which is a new segment in an ongoing film screening series, Malaya Black & White. My work was focused on researching the films and trying to secure a copy of them. This included either watching the films if they were available or reading the texts that they were based on. Procuring the films was not easy because there was little information about them and some were either unreleased or not produced in playable formats. As a Singaporean, this film series departs from the usual thread of post-independence Singapore and her struggles towards becoming a developed nation. Instead, the series provided me with an unconventional view of our country through the lens of the developed world and further enriched my understanding of the social tensions during that period of Singapore history. 

The other series that I worked on was the Foundation series that is tied to the current exhibition titled Between Here and Nanyang: Marco Hsu’s Brief History of Malayan Art. This series includes panel discussions, film screenings and tours in conjunction with the exhibition. I was involved in researching the films for this series which features prominent films from the 1950s to 1960s as well. This series pursues the question of identity and freedom against the background of the strict social conventions of the time. Some films are shot on various locations aside from Singapore, including Hong Kong and Cambodia. However, the key issues highlighted are all closely related to the Singapore’s own social climate and history.

On top of that, I worked with fellow intern Gui Shuen on the designs of e-flyers for these film screenings. I researched the films and advised him on the key themes of the film and what could possibly be featured in the design. As such, I was also given the opportunity to write the blurbs for these films! It was a new and very fun experience for me because it deviated from the usual serious academic style of writing that I was used to. This experimentation with a different style of writing was one of the aspects of the internship that I greatly enjoyed.

Apart from research work, I have also worked on other aspects such as planning for field trips and signage measurements. The latter was done in preparation for the new museum’s new Resource Gallery opening. It was a different side of the job that I was engaged in and it was something that showed me how dynamic the job scope was for the Outreach team. It was definitely not about sitting at our tables the whole day because there was constant back-and-forth between the office and the museum. 

In my final week at the museum, the Curating Lab: Phase 03 exhibition opened and I experienced event hosting for the first time in my life! Admittedly, I was a ball of nerves before the start of the exhibition but a few rehearsals beforehand and the advice from others really helped ease the tension quite a bit. I fumbled a few times during the actual run under the pressure of over 140 pairs of eyes but it was nevertheless a very good first experience for me and I am truly grateful for this chance. 

I don’t think that I will ever look at museums in the same light again after the past one month. It was a really enriching experience that threw light upon many of the areas that I was unfamiliar with and now I truly appreciate the sheer amount of hard work that goes into tying everything together so as to present an informative, coherent and interesting exhibition. Of course, none of the above mentioned would have ever been possible without my awesome supervisors Trina and Michelle as well as the rest of the museum staff and I would really like to thank them for their guidance, patience and the laughter that they bring. It has made my stay at the museum a truly enriching and enjoyable one. I hope to be back again someday!

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