Sunday, 4 October 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Austin Chia

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! 


Austin Chia is a Secondary 4 student studying at Raffles Institution. He joined the NUS Museum for three weeks in September 2015 as part of RI's annual Gap Semester programme. Austin was attached to the Curatorial team, assisting in research for upcoming projects, the installation of Sheltered: Documents For Home at NUS Museum and at the National Library Board. In this blog post, Austin shares his experiences about his time with us.

“An eye-opening experience in the 16 years of my life”. This is how I would describe my 3-week long curatorial internship at the NUS museum. During these 3 short weeks, I have experienced and learnt not only about the life of a curator but also gained a broad view of the general workings of the museum.

When I first joined as an intern under Kenneth, I was under the impression that the curator is merely a conductor, one who arranges all the artworks to form a collective performance revolving around a theme, but I was soon to be proven wrong. Under Kenneth, I learnt about the various types of curators (those with a collection and those without a collection) before I was sent to examine and compare the differences between the curatorial practices of the NUS Museum and Singapore Art Museum. Through this exercise, I learnt about the curatorial practices of NUS Museum and SAM (choosing a theme, placement of descriptions and arrangements of works) and grew to appreciate the curator’s effort behind every show, most aptly shown by Kenneth’s mantra, which has been lodged into my brain, “every detail in a show has a purpose”. I also learnt how to appreciate a show rather than only the artworks within it, an enlightenment, albeit quite late, that has and will continue to enhance my appreciation of art exhibitions.

This photo depicts some of Ng Eng Teng’s sculptures and I like these sculptures as they are able to capture the state of mind of people with minimal body parts.

After learning about the curatorial practice of setting up an exhibition, it was time to apply what I had learned. I had the good fortune to experience setting up a show in NLB. While I must confess that at times some of the tasks were drudgery (transcribing an article and manual chores), they were also meaningful as not only was I able to assist Kenneth with the limited skills and knowledge I had but I also gained an insight into the not-so-fanciful-aspects of being a curator.  Along the way, Kenneth also gave me a lot of tips on planning the arrangement of the show such as using perspective to lead the viewers to the show and the use of contrast to attract attention. From the learning to the application, I learnt that the curator is not only a conductor but also one who imbues the artworks with more relevance and significance to the audience, just like multiple bridges that connect the public to the artworks.

Setting up the exhibition at the National Library.

The use of perspective to direct visitors to the exhibits is employed here through the placement of the bookshelves. The difference between the colours of the exhibit bookshelves (white) and the NLB bookshelves (grey) helps to create a contrast that emphasizes the exhibits to the visitors.

While bridges are important to the public, an island is equally important to the public, without which, bridges are useless. I learned about the process of acquiring artworks through a quick chat with Siang, another curator working at the Museum. Works in NUS Museum are acquired through loans or donations and Siang told me that rather than knocking on the doors of art studios to ask for donations, they would rather make friends with artists or collectors and let them donate when they feel like. Personally, I feel that this is an exemplary method to acquire works as the donors may donate more generously and willingly while the circle of friends of the NUS Museum expands.

Expanding too would be my circle of friends, apart from admiring and steeping myself into the huge collection of works and the various shows in the museum, I also had the opportunity to make many new friends who share common interests with me. First, the people at the museum: Peter, Philip and Jonathan, all of whom taught me about the maintenance of the museum and showed me the various nooks and crannies of the museum (for example, the staff pantry). 

This photo depicts a machine that measures the temperature and the pH in the museum, with it the caretakers would be able to check if the environment is conducive for the artworks. Hence, the works are kept in their best conditions. 

Second, the people at the office: Siang, Sidd, Michelle (thank you for giving me this opportunity), Trina, Flora, Greg, Francis, Ahmad, JJ, Devi and Donald, both of whom showed me how they maintained and recorded incoming works. Third, the people at the NUS Baba House, Su Ling, Poonam and Fadhly, who gave me a warm welcome when I came for the tour. 

Donald and I checking the conditions of incoming loans.

Last but not least, Venessa my good friend who brought me lots of laughter and Kenneth my mentor who dedicated extra time and effort to teach me about the curatorial practice. Thank you all for having me, a sixteen-year-old still trying to figure out what he wants to do in the future, as your intern and friend!

To end of my blog, I would like to quote the terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back”.

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