Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Emma Fung

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!  

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Emma Fung is a 3rd year Philosophy major from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. In May 2015, she joined us as the Ng Eng Teng Collection Curatorial Intern, where she assisted in the the research and re-working of the current permanent collection exhibition Sculpting Life. In this blog post, Emma shares her thoughts and reflections of her time with us.


On the last day of my internship, my supervisors asked, “So how did you find this internship?”. My frenzied, inarticulate self started to recount the sort of activities we took part in, choked out a few lines about the dilemmas of conservation and curation, and finally ended with “I wish I spoke up more often.”


What exactly is this ‘voice’ they speak of? How strange is it that there are multiple, garbled voices in my head, yet none exists in the world where everyone else is in? In this post, I will attempt to assume “the voice” - the crystallised embodiment of the nervous sounds that bounce about my skull. This voice is the chunk of me from 11 May - 16 July 2015. Well, it tries hard to be.

Gazing at "Red Face".

I was the Ng Eng Teng Collection Curatorial Intern. The Ng Eng Teng Gallery houses the donated works of the late Singaporean artist, whom I had briefly studied about in A' Level Art several years back. While I do not claim to know entirely what the “curator” is, I know parts of a curator in NUS Museum. It will take years to know and be a curator, a work-in-progress, so here is my brief but insightful encounter at the museum.

The curator’s voice is embedded within the narratives of the exhibitions, in this space very unlike other state museums or private galleries. This museum is unique as it serves as an educational platform for curatorial practices - not just to disseminate information, but to probe us to extensively question the methods behind the exhibition. (I often imagine these exhibitions to be physical representations of thesis papers on curating). Thus, my supervisor Kenneth had reminded us of his mantra multiple times, “Everything is done with an intention”.

The gallery, June 2015.

That means I’ll have to read into everything right? “I could do that, my favourite word is ‘why’”, I thought. You notice the general placement and the sequencing of the works, you look specifically at the individual pieces and the wall texts. Why did you walk left instead of right, did you feel comfortable looking at the wall text from this height, did you notice a colour scheme? You then think of what is not there, why it is not there, and if its absence means something or is simply laziness. Halfway through all such ‘excessive’ thinking, I got a little lost - I was not sure about how to deal with all the questions in my head and how to string them into a cohesive sentence. The greater question was, so what if I knew?

The question of authority was difficult to navigate for someone as uncertain as myself. While Kenneth had constantly reminded me, “you will find out that this exhibition will never happen without you”, and “I got you on board precisely because you are not an art historian,” I could not figure the contents of the title “Ng Eng Teng Curatorial Intern”. In short, I did not allow myself to develop a voice despite my supervisor’s prompts, because I could not fit mine with his.

I am the reactive sort, and the kind that writes the afterthoughts. What I needed was to know clearly what Kenneth had in mind so I could react to him, but I did not ask for what was required. Either way, the sessions ended up with me learning a lot from asking him questions and trying to figure out his research interests. Of course, there is a limit to which one could simply absorb and not talk, so I was given the space to ‘figure (myself) out” after a while. Time was ticking, but you make do with whatever is left of it.

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Even though I had missed out on the chance to fully experience the practice of a curator, I still learned a lot about what one does. With more space, I could attempt an essay on what curating is (to me, at that point in time), or “a portrait of a curator”. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Kenneth for being the supervisor who says the most precise things, and speaks volumes through his lack of words or actions at other times.

The 10 weeks of my internship can be very clearly mapped by the reading material. It was great to have these readings and tasks as clear signposts for the period. The general theories on the haptic, the conversations between Ng Eng Teng and T.K.Sabapathy, Singapore’s art history, the methods of curation - we needed to constantly step back and forth from the artwork we were dealing with during the conceptualisation, for there is both the grander narrative and the physical objects to consider.

As a practice, I was tasked to visit Singapore Art Museum to analyze their methods, and transcribed an annotated bibliography of Ng Eng Teng which helped provide a larger picture of where Ng Eng Teng stood in the art world and Singaporean society.


Pictured are proof of my tendencies towards the hands-on things such as inventing this contraption (for transcription) out of laziness, and doing very rough sketches when tasked to come up with 12 of Ng Eng Teng’s representative works. I wouldn’t mind being hired to help out with exhibition set ups in the future! 


The massive amounts of freedom this internship allows is greatly appreciated by someone like me who is terrible at staying put at a spot for long hours. It simply does not sit well with me. On several occasions, the gallery desk became mine when I needed to familiarize myself with the space. Familiarizing is not just about memorizing the floor plan, it is a direct, physical interaction with the works and spaces, and noting down the pauses you make at each spot.


Playful observation and forcing the “fright” sculpture to surrender with my shadow pistol proved to have contributed to my work as well, for it was this moment where I experienced how the position of the work in relation to the audience greatly influences how the work can be read.


This gallery will hopefully be revamped by December, so please visit before the works get shifted around or removed from the exhibition! 

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The internship programme here is excellent - we were also given the opportunity to attend several field trips to observe how the different roles in the museum interact, and discuss about them during reading sessions. The conservation workshop posed important questions about the methods of conservation, and how these may cause conflict with the curators. For example, if we decide to let audiences touch the “rocker series” in our gallery, how should the conservator pick up the mess, or when does the conservator step in to tell the curator it might not be preferable? Visiting different institutions helped us compare ourselves to others, so as to figure our role as a university museum.

Here is a conservator, Mr Lawrence Chin, explaining the processes of painting conservation.

Thank you Michelle for putting in so much effort into planning such a great programme, I appreciate your aim in building our characters on top of preparing us for the job. Your presence and genuine interest in making this place known shows very clearly in your detailed planning. This isn’t a usual internship where interns exist just to be a helping hand - the focus is on the growth of the interns in NUS Museum, to help them figure if working in a curatorially intensive museum is what they want. In return, we wish to help out in whatever way we can, to make this place known.

Lastly, I would like to thank my wonderful intern-mates (inmates?) for the easiest jokes and conversations, and for being unique and brilliant individuals you are. Cheers to more nonsense and future musings about life over extended meals. (probably when we face an existential crisis upon graduation)

The day we got closer after a performance lecture by Tisna Sanjaya, and over catered food.

The Baba House shot that little blogposts will miss.


Ng Eng Teng Collection Curatorial Intern, signing off.



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