Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Shiau Yu

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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Shiau Yu is a second year student at the School of Art, Design & Media, NTU. As our Chinese Art intern, Shiau Yu was tasked to organise documentations, conduct research and assist with the development of exhibitions related to the NUS Museum's Chinese Ink collection.

As an art student, a museum goer, a part-time gallery sitter and a volunteering Chinese docent at museum, I’ve always been interested in the dynamics within the museum, between the viewers, between artworks, between viewer and artwork. So, I was pretty excited for the behind-the-scenes when I got the opportunity to intern at nus museum, more excited when I see a position in relation to my topic of interest: Chinese ink art. 


Team work! Helping each other to document

If you are passionate for art and museum, and are considering taking up the internship, get ready to be hit in the face by reality. Working alongside the museum staffs allows a sneak peek into the real work that goes on behind each exhibition, the managing of artworks, the handling of publicity, the planning and execution of exhibition down to every single detail. You get a taste of the bitter side of the job: It is not always passion-driven, it doesn’t always work, and as much as we care about art and museum, some people just don’t. 

And if you made it to this paragraph, just know that those dry and harsh reality is a necessary exposure, they end up as helpful experience for me and only developed my interest in art and museum more by showing me how meaningful the job is. 


Cracking our brains for the work

While walking through the exhibition, "Who Wants to Remember a War?", curated by my supervisor, Siang, I overheard a comment which says that “the exhibition is no longer about the artworks themselves, the group of works are placed together only to deliver the concept or intent of the curator.”

The tone of displeasure probably came from a viewpoint that exhibitions are supposed to be like documentaries, it should serve to exhibit the genuine intention of the artist and the true form of the work, thus the work should be presented in an objective context without any external narrative highlighting or downplaying any aspect of the work. 

I understand the worry that when curators chose to group a collection of works under the same title, certain aspects of the work might be overshadowed by the curator’s concept or the genre of art that the work is being chose to portray. It is possible that the open-ended ways to appreciate the works are being narrowed down by the decision of the curator within the particular exhibition. Like when the aesthetic quality of the sketches being overshadowed by their historical value as war art.

And I would agree with the comment that exhibitions today are always biased, but only because it is almost impossible to be objective. Curators select the works and arrange the placement like how a photographer choose to frame the shot and highlight certain subject. And even with the most genuine intention to stay truthful to the subject or stay objective with the selection of artworks, the moment we look into the viewfinder, the moment we start to consciously make a choice, we deviate from that objective viewpoint. 

And comments like that got me wondering: why is it important to have a curator to choose for us what to look at and plan for us which to look at first? Is there a need to even try to be objective in the museum? (no, I am not attempting to answer these questions)

Museum trips!

Working under Siang, I was impressed by the amount of research that goes on behind the scene, as well as the difference these researches made in the exhibition. A huge part of my job as a research intern is really static. I sit at the table, goes through page after page after page. Absorbing the text that may or may not be useful, evaluating the information. Most of them are not related to art, but provides me with the contextual knowledge, and some helps to embed more meaning to the work in the museum. The viewers today are looking not only at the conventional artistic value such as aesthetic and craftsmanship, they also take into consideration the conceptual value, the historical value of artworks.  One of the intricate job that curators do at NUS Museum is to carefully select the information and text to be presented at the exhibition alongside the artworks. By doing so, bringing out the meaning of the work. But at the same time, finding a balance such that the text does not over shadow the work itself or overwhelm the audience. More often than not, an artwork is not just a piece on its own but attached to the artist, the intention and the social context, it carries the entire background narrative with it. Selecting and arranging these works, then becomes a tactful duty and can almost get political at times. I marvel at the amount of thoughts put into each exhibition by the curators in order to make the show meaningful and thought provoking for the visitors. 

Discussions during lunchbreaks

The thoughts above are as result from not just my work at the office, but also discussions with the other interns, these paragraphs are in fact examples of what we sometimes end up discussing during our lunchbreak. The trips to different museums provides insightful exposure and bring out many interesting topics. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity which would not be possible without Michelle who curated this program, and for the kindness of the wonderful individuals in the office. My supervisor Siang describe herself as a bad mother when she gets too busy to talk to me or my partner at work, when in fact she is really kind and patient with us. Discussion with her doesn’t feel like work but always got me thinking and researching deeper into the topic, and I definitely learnt more than I bargained for.

Good times!

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