Monday, 4 August 2014

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Elysia Teh

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!

For Summer 2014, we have 6 undergraduate interns working with the curatorial and outreach teams, conducting research into the Museum's collections as we prepare for our upcoming Resource Gallery, the new T.K. Sabapathy Collection of books and artworks, the archaeological sherd collection housed in the Sherd Library as well as conceptualising and running Outreach events at the Baba House and the NUS Museum.


Elysia Teh is a third year History major and part of the University Scholars Programme (USP), pursuing a joint degree with the National University of Singapore and Australian National University. Elysia joined the Curatorial department and was asked to focus on research for the T.K. Sabapathy Collection of Books and Artworks. 

Things that may or may not happen”

When I applied for the T.K. Sabapathy Curatorial Internship, I had a very limited idea of what curators do and, consequently, I knew I had much to learn. The description of the advertised position stipulated that I would be “work[ing] extensively through the collection donated by T.K. Sabapathy, … build[ing] towards a productive reorganisation of the materials, and engage with the potentials and implications of curating as an alternative or parallel form of (re)writing art history”. Beyond this, however, I had no particular expectations of what the three months would entail. My image of curatorship began and ended with that one scene from Ocean’s Eleven (the remake), where Julia Roberts wordlessly appraises a painting in the Bellagio’s art gallery wearing a fabulously high-collared, brocade suit. The whole thing lasts about ten seconds.

What I ended up doing for three months was vastly different. While the ongoing project of reconceptualising the T.K. Sabapathy collection remained constantly in my peripheral (metaphorical) line of sight, I was also lucky enough to be involved in the installation of two separate exhibitions, attend various workshops and symposiums, and assist in the annual Istana Art Event. I sometimes spent my days behind a desk running up a steep learning curve where curatorial theory and practice was concerned, while other times I inhabited half-built exhibition spaces, interacting with curators, artists, wardens, deliverymen and visitors. 

My internship began with working on When you get closer to the heart, you may find cracks, the latest installation in a series by the Migrant Ecologies Project that traces ‘Stories of Wood’. Immediately, I got the chance to be involved in the installation of an art exhibition at any and every level. This ranged from working with newspaper clippings in order to collate a documentary archive, to proofreading and editing exhibition essays, to examining wall text (both in terms of phrasing and positioning) and considering the gallery’s space. Following this, I also got a chance to participate in Safe Sea by collating a catalogue of maritime books on loan from Captain Frederick Francis. In this way, the internship launched me behind the scenes from the get-go, giving me a view of the research behind two separate exhibitions.

I was also fortunate enough for my internship to coincide with start of CuratingLab 2014’s curatorial intensive. This allowed me to attend some of their events, such as ‘When does an exhibition begin and end?’, a public symposium moderated by Heman Chong, Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna. The provocative symposium prompted me to think about the somewhat intertextual nature of exhibitions. From the examples of In Search of Raffles’ Light and The Disappearance, I saw how the end of one exhibition can lead to the start of another, as well as how historical research and archives can be interwoven with art to create meaning – a particularly resonant lesson for a history major.

The internship program at NUS Museum also offered me opportunities for more structured learning, which I found to be valuable peeks into the facets of a museum that would otherwise have been invisible to a curatorial intern. We attended a Conservation Workshop held by Lawrence Chin of The Conservation Studio, who besides delighting us with UV and infra-red light-related tricks, also emphasised the ethical questions embedded within the practice of conservation itself. We were given a tour of the Baba House on Neil Road, learning about the social history of Peranakan families in 1928 Singapore. Finally, I very much enjoyed the curatorial tours generously led by NUS Museum curators Siang and Su Ling – for the exhibitions Between Here and Nanyang: Marco Hsu’s Brief History of Malayan Art and Inherited and Salvaged: Family Portraits from the Straits Chinese Collection respectively. To hear the thoughts behind the selection and positioning of art directly from the curator allowed me to gain an insight into curatorial perspectives that may differ from that of my supervisor’s – and this spectrum of perspectives is perhaps one of the things I valued most about my time at NUS Museum.

Amidst the intensely busy itinerary offered by NUS Museum’s internship program, I often needed to remind myself of the challenging task actually at hand – to devise a curatorial or conceptual framework within which the T.K. Sabapathy collection can be re-launched in the resource gallery to come. In this, the role of my supervisor Kenneth Tay was invaluable. Kenneth brought both wisdom and possibility to this internship in the readings he pointed me to, the conversations we had regarding curatorship and the advice he shared regarding the modus operandi of NUS Museum. As a university museum, NUS Museum has, in my opinion, a great opportunity to be experimental – to tug on threads that appear interesting or pursue new lines of thought without yet knowing their outcomes. Informed by this mode of thought, I was able to explore various concepts of library in the widest horizon possible, and put some theories that I had previously only read about into practice within a curatorial context. Derrida, Benjamin, Foucault – these oft-cited thinkers do actually play an important role in lending us the ideas and vocabulary with which we can challenge creative boundaries.

Strictly speaking, this internship lasted a mere three months. In both theory and practice, however, I anticipate that I won’t quite be able to let go. The ideas of curatorship and regional art history I have learnt have not only provoked many questions, but have also influenced the way in which I approach those questions. The ongoing projects at NUS Museum continue to draw me to return, to observe and assist wherever I can. Finally, the friendships forged during this time have been wonderful. I thank my fellow interns – Junni, Timothy, Rie, Wei Chang and Lydia – as well as museum staff Flora, for enriching the experience. I also thank the other staff at NUS Museum for their friendly faces and advice, and I especially thank Michelle for her work in making the internship program truly worthwhile, and Kenneth for his words of wisdom and for bringing to my table the many opportunities I’ve had in the last three months. 

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