Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Leong Yee Ting
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!
Leong Yee Ting is an alumni of Raffles Junior College and will be entering Oxford University this Fall as a History student. She joined the NUS Museum in July 2015, assisting in NUS Museum and NUS Baba House Outreach events, including research for the Baba House Conservation Project. In this blog post, Yee Ting shares her experiences assisting in various aspects of the NUS Museum and the NUS Baba House.
My experience over the past two months has been a mixed one in many ways – I was attached to both the NUS Museum and Baba House teams; I did research, administrative, warden, photography and housekeeping tasks. Hence, I dabbled in the curatorial, outreach and logistical aspects of running a museum. Overall, I am thankful for the invaluable and well-rounded exposure I have gained.
As an Outreach Intern at the NUS Museum, I performed warden duties and helped out at film screenings and the Istana Art Event. It was always a pleasure to see people absorbing and responding to the museum’s collections or programmes. Before this internship, a huge question that I had was how to make heritage and the arts relatable to ordinary Singaporeans, because I believe they have the potential to hold more meaning for our society. I don’t think I am confident of fully answering this question yet, but I have learnt a lot from how the NUS Museum positions itself to reach out to students and academics. The exhibitions here have a fair amount of text, and are curated to be intellectually challenging, at a level more suited to the educated. The outreach team also collaborates with professors keen to bring their students around and actively publicises events on campus. To reach out to non-NUS students who might be interested in art, they try to establish link-ups with other schools and hire interns such as myself.
I brought the same questions with me to the Baba House. Personally, my first encounter with it was a magical one. I was intrigued by the ornate and beautiful furniture, the grand and solemn ancestral altar, the mysterious and searching portraits of the Peranakans who had lived here. Even simple, inconspicuous, everyday items were dated back to the 1920s, such as a pail, shampoo bottle or National Geographic magazine. Like a fairy tale, it transported me to another time and place, yet enough of it remained familiar to me, for it to feel intimate and relatable.
Coming back to the questions of accessibility, perhaps the greatest difference between the Baba House and the NUS Museum is that the former is an artefact in and of itself, whereas the artefacts in the latter are behind glass display cases. Hence, the Peranakan heritage that the Baba House embodies is more accessible to visitors, since their experience here is more immersive, as opposed to the mental leaps needed to appreciate the art at the museum. Nevertheless, a regrettable observation I made was that most of our tour-goers were Caucasian tourists, despite the fact that the Baba House has much to offer the Singaporean. Its Peranakan blend of Chinese, Malay and European elements is a microcosm of the diversity of backgrounds that Singaporeans come from. It reminds us that such diversity is a reality we must accept, given our geographical location at the crossroads of many important routes, past and present.
At the Baba House, my job scope was more varied. Other than the research I helped to do for the new conservation gallery, I also did simple tasks like washing dishes, opening and closing windows, turning on and off the fans and lights, and answering tour-related emails. These gave me deeper insights into the maintenance of a heritage house. For instance, I initially thought that opening of window panels was as simple as opening all the window panels for maximum ventilation and leaving them that way. However, Fadhly later taught me how to open them in a way that best maximises ventilation for the artefacts and the safety of visitors walking around, and minimises damage done to the other furniture pieces should there be a breeze. He said that he had achieved this formula through trial-and-error over time. I was impressed by the amount of thought dedicated to performing a simple task well.
During one of the events, a visitor had remarked to me that the Baba House seemed palpably more run-down with faded colours and murals compared to its immediate post-restoration appearance six years ago. She expressed concern for the future upkeep of the house, given that this is not cheap. I also noticed that repainting works were going on during my stay there. Cleaning and pest control take place twice a week and once a month respectively. All these drove home the point that conservation is a continuous process, rather than a static end-goal.
Part of the reason why my work was so random and miscellaneous, I think, was due to the challenges of running a not-for-profit organisation like the Baba House. Due to our tight budget, there is sometimes more types and quantity of work to handle than the staff can manage. Often times, my supervisors were too busy themselves to set me tasks to do. Furthermore, given the temporary nature of my stint there, it was difficult for me to help them with anything really meaningful.
Another valuable feature of this internship was the reading sessions. The recommended readings provided a good overview of local art and curation, and interesting ideas for us to interact with, especially for someone with no background in art history like me. Although I could only attend two sessions, I enjoyed the discussions with fellow interns, curators and outreach supervisors. In our final session, we tried to define the elusive and amorphous term of “curation”. To do so, we asked ourselves questions such as “How is curation being taught in universities? Can it be taught?”, “What is the job scope of a curator?”, “What makes one exhibition more well-curated than another?” I liked that this was intellectually challenging, and deepened my understanding of the industry and its workings.
Having reached the end of this internship, I am very thankful for this opportunity. I am particularly grateful to my supervisors (Fadhly, Michelle, Poonam, Su Ling and Trina) for their kindness and patience towards me, as well as my fellow interns (Chenwei, Derong, Emma, Jeanette, Jiayi and Venessa) for their warm and bubbly company.
Caption: A candid moment where I am equal parts amused and perplexed at what the other interns are doing.
It was on one unremarkable day that Jiayi turned to me in the office to share her serendipitous and exciting discovery that the back of our $50 dollar note featured artworks by two of the big four names in local art – Drying Salted Fish by Cheong Soo Pieng and Gibbons Fetching the Moon from the Water by Chen Wen Hsi.
Caption: The image on the top right is the painting “Drying Salted Fish”, whereas the one to its bottom left is “Gibbons Fetching the Moon from the Water”. A quick Google search revealed that the musical instruments on the far left are a kompang, veena, violin and pipa. These were chosen as they represent the different cultures in Singapore.
This felt like a quiet triumph to me. After all this while reading and learning about local art, whose potential seemed underestimated, here was an affirmation that art actually means something to us as a nation. Looking back on this internship, I am not sure that I have done very much to advance this perspective; I was definitely not indispensable in the tasks that I took on. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have had the chance to see more and learn more, and I am sure that this will equip me to do more in future.