Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Caroline Ang
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!
Caroline Ang is a third-year History student at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. As our Archaeology Research & Programmes intern, Caroline conducted research on techniques and technologies used in archaeology, analysis of ceramics as well as further research on the Dragon kilns in Singapore
As a NTU student, it had been a foreign experience for the past three months as I headed to NUS for the period of the internship - although admittedly, the NUS campus is located much closer to home. However, now that the internship has come to an end, I find myself reluctant to part from this experience.
I had initially decided to apply for the NUS museum internship because of the archaeological programme position that was available, due to my personal interest in historic ceramics and the study of it. However, despite the original scope of the position - researching the various techniques and technologies used in the archaeology and analysis of ceramic sherds – the direction I took in my research shifted when I decided to focus on kilns, and then specifically, the dragon kilns in Singapore. Thankfully, my supervisor Su Ling was very open to let me head the direction of my research. Thus, as I ventured further into the process, I moved on to look at the commercial pottery industry in Singapore as a whole.
It was through this process of investigating this history of the dragon kilns, brick kilns, and pottery industry in Singapore that made me realised some of the underlying assumptions that I have been making so far. By holding onto the assumption that pottery only includes cups, pots, jars, but not other wares made of clay such as bricks, clay pipes, or even tiles, I had already ignored a large part of material and information that was available to me. Furthermore, whenever I think about ceramics in Southeast Asia, I would automatically limit the time period to one before the 15th or 16th century, and that had automatically excluded the pottery industry in 20th century Singapore.
But this exclusion, both in terms of wares and time period, does not only seem to be limited to myself. With an awareness of my assumptions, I tried to do a search on this 20th/21st century pottery industry. But beyond finding a few exhibitions and articles that mentioned the dragons kilns involved in the industry in a manner that was more focussed on preservation and nostalgia, there appears to be a dearth of research into this industry that is simultaneously modern, in comparison to the historic artefacts, and yet rapidly disappearing into the recesses of history.
Perhaps 30-40 years ago, knowledge of the pottery industry would have been commonplace, an everyday industry that no one thinks twice about. Today, with the expired land lease threatening the existence of the last two dragon kilns in Singapore, public interest has spiked as those involved in the preservation have sought to spread information about the significance of a pottery industry that no longer has any current day relevance. But 20, 30, or even 50 years down the road… would the knowledge of this industry even survive? Or would the insignificance of this knowledge, in the face of the larger ‘Singapore Story’, simply vanish into the dark spots of time?
In an attempt to find out more, I spent the past few months digging deeper into the archival sources available online. Old newspapers were my predominant source, as I went through the database searching for any mentions of kilns, bricks, pottery, ceramics, etc. Other sources that I had to look at also included the oral histories recorded by the National Archives, along with its repository of old maps, building plans, pictures, and even business records. I tried to look for possible connections, with Su Ling pointing out various directions that I could approach the topic from. Looking beyond simply mentions of the kilns and the wares, I also looked at the supporting industries – rubber plantations, nurseries, public works and the labourers, etc., to try to see how various factors had affected the rise and decline of the industry.
It was interesting to see how everything was related, how the rapid redevelopment of the economy and the land dealt a swift blow to the numerous smaller industries that we now dub ‘vanishing trades’. The usage of words like ‘heritage’ and ‘nostalgia’ today – a topic that my fellow interns and I had debated extensively about during our post-field trips discussions (and random breaks dispersed throughout the day), to fight for the continual existence of these fast disappearing industries, buildings, customs, etc. appears to be flung around almost carelessly. But to what end would the preservation of these trades and practices bring about beyond ultimately being transformed into a spectacle and performance, away from its original purposes?
Work desk mess?
Now that the internship has come to an end, the sources that had been collated from my research still remains without a perspective or means to mould it into a more comprehensible ‘lump’. The question remains – how can we present this knowledge of the pottery industry in Singapore without resorting to the similar narratives of heritage and nostalgia? Could we look at it from the materials’ perspective, where we focus upon the objects – such as the bricks, cups, pots, and jars – to tell this story? Or perhaps from the kilns’ perspective, one that is simultaneously over-explored and overlooked, to understand how these cornerstones of the industries had came about, and transformed over time, rather than continually circling around the histories of just one or two dragon kilns?