Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Lin Derong

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!  


Lin Derong will be a 3rd year Architecture student at the NUS School of Design and Environment. In May 2015, he joined the NUS Baba House as a Baba House Conservation Intern to conduct research on the notes, images, drawings from the Baba House conservation project to put together a display highlighting the conservation work that had been carried out from 2006-2008. In this blogpost, Derong shares his experience working on the exhibition Discover, Uncover, Recover.

When I received the task for this job, it was a single liner: Conservation Intern: To perform research studies on the conservation works done to the house from 2006-2008 with the aims for an exhibition. To reduce this further into 2 words, I am tasked to exhibit conservation, which I thought was interesting: conservation + curatorial. Before I go any further, perhaps I need to introduce myself a little first. I applied for this job after finishing my 2 foundational years of architecture education. As design students, we are trained to be sensitive towards site and context. Singapore is land scarce but we are rich in heritage and we are not a Tabula Rasa (Koolhas, Singapore Songlines, 1998). Conservation itself is a contestable topic and it gets interesting as our island state progresses beyond modernity. I thus set out in search for the meaning and definition of conservation in Singapore.

Conservation – conserve for what? For nostalgia, for memories, for culture, for heritage? In conventional circles, the word itself has a connotation of the old, being garang guni and boringly unnecessary. Thus, this internship at 157 Neil Road provided me the context to study conservation.

During this 12 weeks stint at 157 Neil Road, I had the opportunity to work with the Baba House Curator, Foo Su Ling, to conceive an exhibition based on the conservation works of Baba House. It demands quite a bit of independent work – which is an important soft skill for architecture school. It would also require me to understand the house first and to fully immerse in the context before creating something else for it.

[Beyond monumentality and staged dramas, there is a challenging understanding of local heritage. This is a house where someone lived here before….there are traces of existence…this house is subjected to vicissitudes of time and context. (Lilian Chee, 2009, essay domesticity and monumentality, from the exhibition “of fingerbowls and hankies”)]

I got to experience the whole process of conceiving this project from scratch to something. There was a lot learnt and I would say it was in 2 stages: research and design. I would share them with you in brief.

The first stage of this internship entails readings – lots of it, from articles, legal documents, emails, contracts, meeting minutes, accounts, reports, videos, images et cetera dating from 2005 onwards. Basically it was purely research. During architecture school last semester, we had a curatorial exercise where design deadline was in 6 days. So we had to cramp everything for completion and any extra time given to research was luxury. However, this first stage lasted a month this time. It was a period of rediscovery. There were tons of background work being done to the house and there were a myriad of methodology adopted during the conservation and restoration process. It gave me a further understanding of the house beyond what was already presented. I admit that I was rather lost initially and I had no idea what I was producing other than relentless reading and amassing all these documents about the house.

However, the ultimate aim for this research is to come up with an exhibition about it. That was the design brief. Conservation itself, as I mentioned earlier, is misunderstood in my opinion. This exhibition is aim to bring all these works into public acknowledgement and credit. The questions here is that with all these masses of works done, methodologies and different parties of people involved, how do we exactly exhibit them all to people. The majority of the population understands the house with respect to its Peranakan culture. It is the soft cultural landscape that is in general public interest. Very little credit is given to acknowledge that it is the physical house and architecture that frames this culture. Architecture affects people subconsciously and with this we would like to bring it forward – to see the house again from another perspective, from its hard landscape. Other questions would also be how to present the “Science” of conservation that is not only helpful for researches but also generates a general public appeal.

The second stage is to “curate” or rather put these documents together. With the existing information, things would have to be put into broader perspective, to question what conservation really is. As traces of a large cultural existence, things are conserved not only for nostalgia sake – but because they have values and knowledge for us, for us to progress and for us to learn so that we could apply it in the future. There is within conservation these embedded values. From the information gathered during stage 1 research, conservation doesn’t end with the restoration and renovation. It is a never ending learning process as we progress. In addition, even the actual works are incomplete around the house. For example, the wall murals at the air well are still pending colour and 3D-motif restoration. Technology will constantly evolve and its works will be in progress. This leaves the conserved house to be in a constant state of flux.

Thus, after having all these information, what came out is the idea of presenting conservation as a process from the point of view from the different parties involved. A factual presentation was not needed as what is already done to the house, is done, it is evident around the house. Instead, it entails dialogues from various people while welcoming further studies to be added on. Fast forwarding, this exhibition Discover –Uncover–Recover: Studies at 157 Neil Road is envisaged where students, researchers and industry professionals are invited to propose and engage with the house while utilizing existing information from the conservation works. This conservation gallery is opened up for other interpretations of the house where different people with different subject matter of interest could add on to or invite debates to the knowledge pool. The gallery thus becomes a study laboratory with simultaneous studies running instead of a static conventional display exhibition. This house now thus embodies not only the Peranakan domesticity, but also open knowledge.

All in all, throughout this process of conceiving this exhibition, I guess I answered my question a little bit about what conservation means and the works behind it. In brief, it has been a fruitful 12 weeks. I am appreciative (I would mention this again) to be given this rare opportunity to work with Su Ling to conceive this exhibition. Curatorship is a rigorous exercise and I am grateful to be under her guidance and she gave me a chance to hone my graphic skills and sensitivity during the design period. I would like thank her for her kindness and creative trust during this process. The ability to work independently was greatly demanded as well and I am glad that I harnessed it a little bit more and learnt a little bit more about myself. I would not say that I have the perfect definition of conservation, but at least I think I understand it better than before and it would definitely be useful to my design processes in future. Knowing what exactly we need to conserve, why to conserve and how to conserve is an integral part of retaining and developing Singapore’s culture. We are neither a Tabula Rasa nor an artificial nostalgia of the past, and therefore for Singapore, conservation is.

p.s. special thanks to Michelle and all other fellow interns during this period – Emma, Jeanette, Jia Yi, Chen Wei, Venessa and Yee Ting – for the lunches, cupcakes talks and the saba parties.

Discover, Uncover, Recover is available for public viewing during the free NUS Baba House Heritage Tours. Tours available four times a week and by reservation only. Please email babahouse@nus.edu.sg or call 6227 5731 for more enquiries and to book your spot!

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