Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Joshua Lim
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!
Joshua is a third-year History student at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Science. As an Outreach intern, Joshua was instrumental in researching and sourcing for film and documentaries for upcoming exhibition programmes. He also assisted with education outreach activities.
“What did you expect a museum to be?”
Other than the standard “what have you learned” debrief, there was another question I found myself grappling with as my summer internship with NUS Museum drew to a close:
“What did you expect a museum to be?”
Several answers flooded my head when I first heard this question towards the end of the final Internship Dialogue (note: the Internship Dialogue is when each intern has to present and lead a discussion on a topic related to museums. Yes, even in the summer, there is no escape from readings, assignments, and *gasp* presentations). Was the museum supposed to be a fun place, or a serious one? Should they be grand palaces with state-of-the-art technology or small, simple galleries? Are they places of learning or glorified storerooms with curiosities for the public to gawk at? Perhaps they are some combination of the above and more?
Believe me, I’ve had an easier time setting up Double Vision (an ongoing exhibition) than contemplating this question.
The question was an unexpected end-of-internship debrief. As someone on a museum internship and as someone who visited museums frequently, this was something I should have considered and have a prepared response for. I didn’t and I don’t. It would seem that I had taken the idea of the museum for granted, and simply assumed that they existed. If I hadn’t considered this question as a layperson, I now have to think about it from the eyes of a museum’s showrunners.
It is also fitting that the question coincided with me spending my internship with the NUS Museum’s outreach team under Michelle. After all, these outreach programmes, often organised to raise awareness of a museum and its collections, do go some way in shaping one’s expectations of what a museum is.
So, after twelve weeks of research, (not so) heavy lifting, cataloguing, presentations, field trips, discussions, and shuttling between the museum and the office, what have I come to expect in a museum?
One word: Fun! (Note: I’m on the extreme left)
As a student of history, I have come to see museums as windows to the past. This applies not just to the exhibits, but the institution as well. The way museums were organised and curated in the past says much about what people valued at the time. Looking back at the research I did for my own Internship Dialogue presentation, which was a chronology of Singapore’s museums after 1965, I noticed a common thread linking the museums of the past and museums today. Sure, the values and methods differed, but they all exhibited things they believed were valuable. These institutions tapped onto the very human instinct of collecting and preserving valuable items for future generations.
And it’s also the reason why I capture snapshots of museum events with the Outreach team’s camera – to record for the record.
The items that are selected for collection and display in a museum are, of course, carefully consolidated by the curators. I’ve had the privilege of helping Sidd, one of the museum’s curators, to set up Double Vision, an exhibition on Filipino experimental film that had been months in the making. This led me to ask: what was the difference between Double Vision, and the film series for the Vietnam War drawings and sketches exhibitions that I was working on?
There is a fine line between mere selecting and curating. On one hand, the films I selected for the film series brought together films that were tangential to the themes presented in the two ongoing Vietnam War exhibitions, LINES and Who Wants to Remember a War? These themes ranged from conflict to separation to memory, among many others. To curate an exhibition like Double Vision, with all its layered narratives and meanings and collaboration with the films’ makers, is a whole different ball game. Clearly, there was a method to the curator’s madness, and it was one that twelve weeks in a museum couldn’t fully impart to me. Whatever this fine line was, it was the difference between Double Vision and the extended film series I was working on.
So, what is the purpose of collecting and conserving these items? That they may be kept under lock and key in a climate-controlled storeroom, never to collect dust or the curious gaze of the public? That’s not the case, although the cataloguing work that I’ve done for a section of an ongoing exhibition at the museum’s Ng Eng Teng gallery shows that museums generally display a small handful of its collection at any one time.
Me when I realised the museum had more of this than it was showing. Also, me when cataloguing (feat. Ng Eng Teng. Anticipation II, date unknown, stoneware, 7 x 7.5 x 7.5cm)
I digress. The point is that these items have been collected and put on display, both to educate and to entertain. More often than not, these exhibits will convey a certain message or narrative that it wishes for visitors to take away. Either that, or it invites visitors to form their own opinions about what is being presented. One would thus expect the museum to be more than just a place where very valuable things are kept and displayed.
I’ve also come to expect a museum’s education efforts to extend beyond the artefacts and text of the exhibition galleries. It’s safe to say that almost all the education-related activities I’ve attended had something to do with the existing collections being exhibited. There were the talks and lectures, which occasionally featured local art scene heavyweights like local art historian T.K. Sabapathy and National Gallery curator Dr Phoebe Scott. And then there were the more fun, family-friendly things like the Chinese ink-painting workshops conducted over the June holidays. And finally, no museum calendar would ever be complete without the occasional field trip by schoolchildren. It is all these activities that contribute to what people would expect a museum to be.
If there was one thing about education in a museum that I did not expect, it would be how the museum building itself could be used to teach. I suppose the best way to learn about risk management is to actually plan a visit to a museum for a large group. The building did most of the work when several classes from Republic Polytechnic came over for exactly that purpose. All I did was merely introduce their teacher for the day (i.e. the museum itself).
“No, the dinosaurs aren’t here; they’re across the road. No Pokémon here either, but you’re not here for those, right?”
Ultimately, what is expected of a museum will vary from person to person. What I experienced in the twelve weeks with NUS Museum are mine and so, some of the points I put forth about what I expect a museum to be may not resonate so easily with others. Also, these expectations are subject to change over time. The definition of what a museum is offered by the International Council of Museums has changed over four times since 1946.
While expectations may vary and change, I sincerely believe that there are some things that make a museum a museum. I invite you, dear reader, to find out for yourself what these things are.