Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Tan Teen Zhen

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! 


Tan Teen Zhen is a third-year Chinese Studies student from Nanyang Technological University. As the Resource Library and Curatorial Intern, Teen Zhen researched and devised strategies for the display and organisation of the Museum’s library collection.

As the Resource Library and Curatorial Intern, I was paired up with another intern, Xu Xi, to work on curatorial strategies and assist in organising materials in the NUS Museum Resource Library.

My first week with NUS Museum started not with the museum library itself, but with visits to libraries around Singapore. Xuxi and I sought inspiration from other libraries and to see what is it that we could do differently. Some of the things we took note of included the classification system used in the libraries, the type of material that was sorted and the way shelves were arranged.

The Resource Library is made up of gifts and donations to the museum, purchases made over the years by curators as well as books inherited from the Nantah Collection. These materials include books, exhibition catalogues and encyclopaedias amongst others. Cataloguing and organising the materials had been a great learning experience as I explored a myriad of topics in art history, Chinese art and archaeology that I had never known about. 

Some of the books/subjects I read about

We were also tasked by Kenneth, our supervising curator, to research and find out more about classification systems in libraries. How else can books be sorted if not by categories or by the Dewy Decimal System? Through this process, I began to develop an awareness and sensitivity to the use of different classification systems in libraries. Here I quote from one of our readings, intercalations 1: Fantasies of the Library, “Library classification systems are rational structures inherently motivated by a “fear of being engulfed by this mass of word s,” and yet, even if they are powerful enough to suppress this fear, in so doing they proliferate other limits, cracks, and misguided trajectories.” (pg 25). Perhaps there will be no truly objective library classification system, for the narratives that form as a result of books interacting with one another on the shelves carries with it a certain bias, shaped by the system itself. Understanding how libraries, depositories of human knowledge, are shaped and structured will allow us to be more conscious of the ways we think and learn.

Kenneth encouraged us to think about classification systems for the Chinese collection which could facilitate new connections between different subject matter as well as provoke thought about library systems. Hence, instead of simply arranging materials by subject matter and using established classification systems, Xuxi and I sought other methods of arranging which would reflect the content and type of library materials. We also wanted to explore possibilities of surfacing existing debates in Chinese scholarship through our work. The content of library materials and the fact that they were library materials, however, both limit and liberate the possible connections we can make. We experimented with alternative ways of classification and eventually decided to arrange the collection by— visit to find out! 

Usual work at the Library

Aside from working in the library, many other activities kept me busy during the internship. One of which was the Internship Dialogues. It was an opportunity for us to pursue our research interests with a presentation as an end product. Looking back now, trying to accommodate research interests of everyone in the group was what prompted me to step out of my comfort zone and tackle my topic on Chinese art history from a different direction and perspective. I also learnt a lot from the presentations by other interns and subsequent discussions that followed. 

With Diyanah after the Dialogues

Another aspect of the internship which I enjoyed were the curator tours around museums in Singapore. Starting with the Museum and Baba House, Siang, Su Ling and Kenneth brought us interns on curator tours around exhibits such as the Vietnam War exhibits (“Who Wants to Remember a War?” and Lines), Archaeology Library and Ng Eng Teng: 1+1=1, just to name a few. We were also privileged to hear Kenneth talk more about the ideas behind the upcoming exhibit in NX1, consider it a sneak peek if you will! I also enjoyed the tour by Ailing at the Substation very much. This is partly because I had never been to the Substation, and partly because I appreciated knowing more about the position of smaller local arts institution or spaces in Singapore and their struggles to keep true to what they want to achieve for local arts.

I want to thank NUS Museum for providing me opportunities to listen in on worthwhile experiences of curators, filmmakers and conservators. I would also wish to thank Kenneth for always asking thought-provoking questions and giving me opportunities to initiate and learn. Special thanks to Michelle, Trina, Johnathan, Philip and Donald for guiding and accommodating me for the past 11 weeks. Last but not least, I would like to thank my fellow interns: Xuxi, Chutong, Diyanah, Mary Ann, Nicole, Joshua and Zhien for the lovely conversations, discussions and company throughout this internship. 


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