Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Loo Zhi En

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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Loo Zhi En is a third-year European Studies student at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Zhi En was greatly involved in the exhibition ‘Who Wants to Remember A War?: War Drawings and Posters from the Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Colleciton’ where he assisted our curators in researching and compiling content descriptors for the artworks in the collection. 



There was always work to be done on my allotment – the museum’s collection of over 1200 works of war art from the Vietnam War(s). This work involved the compilation of content descriptors for each work and their subsequent entry into the appropriate spreadsheets. This compilation would facilitate the potential research queries made by researchers using the museum’s collection. You may think of this entire task as one of data entry combined with the opportunity to examine some rather interesting subject matter. Attention to detail was the day job.

A preliminary compilation done by going through each work individually showed a staggering array of descriptors that could be gleaned from the first few spreadsheets alone. Grand historical paintings furnished numerous details that required minute examination to tease out. However, even a simple portrait could come loaded with a dense backstory in the caption that would similarly inflate the number of possible of descriptors beyond any manageable number. My supervisor (Chang Yueh Siang) and I had already agreed that the range of descriptors ought to be as broad as possible so that researchers did not need to be tied down to a heavily curated selection. It nevertheless became rapidly clear that thickening the spreadsheets by going through the works one at a time would render the overall task of creating a usable database both unmanageable and unbearable. It seemed like a convenient cop-out at the time but I then decided that the first step in breaking the task down would be cataloguing the place-names that appeared on each work. I told myself that it was just as well that I didn’t know much about Vietnam anyway (I still find it strange that they let a European Studies major loose on the collection), so a sort of orientation was very much in order.



Preparing the videos for the exhibition was a welcome diversion, though.

Many place-names in the collection were easily traceable to real places, and Google Maps was an indispensable tool in this regard. Other place-names were harder; in many cases, old US Army topographical maps had to be consulted to look for place-names that would match those mentioned in the works. (Enough ink has been spilt elsewhere on the value systems behind cartography; it would be unwise to dwell on that matter.) These would often appear with a different spelling, raising the worrying possibility that the captions were ridden with transcription errors or the results of faulty memory. Phou Lennik in Laos turned up in the collection as ‘Phulonic’. Ngok Bơr Bêang in Kon Tum ended up being rendered as ‘Ngoc Bo Pieng’. In some cases, the provinces mentioned in some captions did not exist after 1975, having either been a province of the defeated government or having been amalgamated with other provinces. These difficulties had to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis so that the categorisation system of sets and subsets remained more or less coherent. After the place-name survey was completed half-way through the internship, frequency tallies of various topics of interest in the collection needed to be produced: tallies of works containing anything remotely related to aviation, the navy, women at war and many other topics. I had thought this would take far less time than it did, but things like small fishing boats were very easy to miss.


Back in the classroom for a wee while.

But what, you might ask, about the Museum? What about the big picture? To be honest, I can’t really answer that coherently just now. I had applied for the internship wanting to learn something about the craft of museology – how to begin thinking about the presentation of narratives and museum objects, and on how to link space and work in interesting ways. I have had glimpses of that sort of thinking in various places: the gallery visits, the tours, the never-ending internship dialogues that moved from the office into the Celadon room and back. On my front, however, the only ‘idea’ I could manage to ponder over in direct relation to my main work was that of trying to put the place-name survey to use in the gallery space. The locations depicted in the works displayed could have been mapped out; Vietnam could thereby not just be remembered as a war, but as a real place in the real world. Or something approaching it. Who would have known? Both lines of thought fizzled out as the necessity of hammering on with the descriptor compilation became more and more pressing as the end of the internship loomed ahead. I reckon there will be other times for the big questions. Perhaps they are of the sort that can only be answered after years of thought and experience at curatorial decision-making. For the beginner, I can only say that throughout this summer, I have found this to be true; that the trick is to pace yourself, and to carefully tend the plot.



oh, and never forget to curate the playlist.

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