Monday, 27 February 2017

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Liana Gurung

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! 


Liana Gurung is a fourth-year English Literature at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. As our South & Southeast Asian Collection Curatorial Research Intern, Liana assisted with the research and organisation of information for upcoming Southeast Asian exhibition projects.

Even before my internship, NUS Museum was not a foreign name to me: I’d participated in a writing programme there in my first year, so it was somewhat nostalgic that I would return there in my last one.

Our little nook

Briefly, what our particular batch of interns had to do was very self-directed; we were to write – or curate, more accurately (curate? Accurate? Hmm) – a museum guide for the new permanent exhibit in the NUS Museum, Radio Malaya. I think all four of us were pretty daunted by the task initially (and even now, on hindsight) – how could we, four undergraduates only just beginning to scale the iceberg of all the knowledge we do not even know we do not know, even think to have the authority to frame any sort of historical narrative? But that was precisely the point. The idea of narrative and the implications of popular appeal and reception were driven home for us during that first briefing with Ahmad and in all our various conversations with the rest of the tight-knit museum staff. What I really like about NUS Museum is how it navigates that murky border between down-to-earth accessibility and academic rigour; the emphasis it places on personal lenses, the importance it accords various different viewpoints, and the respect it has for the individual’s gaze.

I visited the Central Library more times in December than I ever have in my entire undergraduate career (I’m not sure what this says about me – take it as you will). As a Literature major, this is some feat; and as a person not quite as well-versed in local literature and the history thereof as I perhaps should be (sorry Prof Holden!), it was a crash course. I spent hours reading in the soft afternoon light, alternately lamenting and praising the selection of local literature available in NUS (there are so, so many amazing plays out there that I didn’t know of before that is c r a z y – please do yourselves a favour and check out Details Cannot Body Wants by Chin Woon Ping, Singapore’s first R-rated theatre production and a beautifully, painfully written one-woman play).

Best Of, by Haresh Sharma – another one-woman play that I am so sad I missed

Those hours were perhaps more effective than any four years doing Social Studies might have been; parsing, yes, through stilted English, but learning so much about the fire that drove so many early poets and playwrights in Singapore. Understanding precisely the intersection between politics and poetry that was the first engine for Singaporean literature. If you take the time to go through Radio Malaya, that hope and fierceness is what I hope you will take away from it; how language was used as fissure and to fuse, and how weighty the word “Malaya” must have been for the people of that era. Wang Gung-wu, a name and poet I’d seen and studied, jumped off the page and into a batik shirt for the opening of the exhibit in January. If I may be so impertinent, he reminded me slightly of my late grandfather, holding himself in what I imagine to be the manner of the English-educated of that particular era; with a slight dry formality, a kind of quiet confidence. He was somewhat soft but clearly-spoken, talking to a room of nodding heads and attentive silence that rippled only during moments of his gentle good humour. He spoke of Malaya and, with a poet’s attenuation to language, of the word “Malaya”, what it had meant to him and his peers, crackling out on the static of the radio. That evening was warmly nostalgic, and a little sad. But often, that’s what my experiences of museums tend to be: my body is facing forward, but my head is turned behind. We must contend with an innate helplessness in the face of history, that perhaps the different branches of the museum deal with, in a way: we curate, to try and dredge new meaning; we catalog, to remember with knifelike precision; and we communicate, to share the former two, and to invite people in, through the threshold.

Lessons from the Museum: Documentation

Lessons from the Museum: The Importance of Framing I

Lessons from the Museum: The Importance of Framing II 

I mentioned to my supervisor Sidd, briefly, that the concept of curatorship appeals to me because of my slight hoarder mentality. Meaning via arrangement, via juxtaposition, also means that nothing – or few things – are ever truly useless or worth discarding; the impulse to reclaim, renew, repurpose is ever-present and ever-possible.

And as Chin Woon Ping writes in Details Cannot Body Wants,

How do you live with flatness? How do you live with plainness? How do you live with ugliness? How do you live with emptiness?

My own answer, which is one that I’m not sure is right, but who really is sure anyway: you don’t. Or you don’t have to. If you can change your perspective, if you can let yourself trust others’ perspectives, nothing need ever be dismissed or perhaps even should be. I’m thinking now of that Romantic/romantic idea of negative capability, or humanity’s ability to live in limbo and in liminality, to be able to grapple with uncertainties, even with all the various anxieties that come with the idea of curating (that a predecessor Mary Ann put so well): “on representation, on narrative, on authority, on the institution.” We leave marks, wherever we go, and on whatever we touch. There are a polyphony of voices, speaking out from any kind of arrangement, or exhibit, something I’ll listen harder for, now that December is done.

Hands I 

Hands II 

Thank you again to everyone at the museum, particularly Sidd, Wardah, Michelle, and my fellow interns Sheena, Jeremy and Clarice, for making my December as fulfilling as it was. All the best to all of you, and stay in touch!

Interns, signing out (our hands represent Clarice, stationed at the Baba House)


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