Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Lim Jia Yi

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!  


Lim Jia Yi is a 2nd Year student part of the University Scholars Programme, and is pursuing a double major in History and Japanese Studies. In May 2015,
 she joined us as an Education Outreach intern, assisting in the research, compilation and consolidation of our educational resources for current exhibitions and collections. In this blog post, Jia Yi shares some of her adventures at the museum, and some helpful advice for future interns.

If you enter the Museum by the Alice Lee Plaza, which looks across the road to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (Yes, the dinosaur one! No, the NUS Museum is not the dinosaur museum!), pause a moment outside the sliding doors of the NUS Museum and imagine a red-skirted registration table in front of it, stacked with exhibition catalogues and brochures. Envision exactly three clipboards with guest lists behind these stacks, and one overexcited outreach intern, ready to do her job and reach out to people coming to attend the talk (because they have to be registered). A few early birds had already arrived, and invited to check out the rest of the museum while the talk was still being set up. Suddenly, a woman marches purposefully up to the table.

Overexcited intern: “Hi, are you coming for the talk?”

Woman: “I’m giving the talk.”

-cue embarrassed apologies, question-answering, and hand waving in the general direction of the doors inviting her to go on in-

15 minutes later, a man walks past the registration table on his way into the museum.

Overexcited intern: “Hi, excuse me, are you coming for the talk later?”

Man: “Oh, my wife’s giving the talk.”

-cue more embarrassment and general hand waving-

To all future outreach interns, even if you are as bad with names and faces as this intern (which may or may not have been me) was, it might help to at least be able to match the names of speakers or guests of honour with their faces. Google is always helpful! Alternatively, try to keep either Michelle or Trina (your friendly Outreach supervisors) in eye contact at all times, so you can discreetly signal/whatsapp for help.

Reaching out to education, as part of my job scope as an Education Outreach intern.

Like many other adventures in my first year of university, the decision to apply to NUS Museum started with a simple “Ooh, that sounds interesting!”.

I am a first going on second year History student, which to many people seems to set me up for a lifetime career in teaching, dusting off yellowed books in archives (but having visited the National Archives during my internship, I can tell you that dust has absolutely no place in an archive, or a museum for that matter. Everything is carefully sealed and climate-controlled, in order to preserve the materials stored there), or digging up Stone Age axes (okay maybe not Stone Age, in Singapore). Well, beyond the fact that history is really a general degree that directs but does not limit you to certain careers, there is also museums! 

I have always been interested in visiting museums, but never understood much about how museums actually work, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to plug that gap.

And fill it I did: this internship was a learning experience beyond the factual sense. I learnt so much about subjects ranging from ancient Singapore’s trade links with the rest of Asia, the specifics of ancient boat-building, the different types of textiles and textile patterns found in South and Southeast Asia, the missing island of Pulau Saigon, to the struggles of conservation, and people skills as I interacted with various museum-goers during outreach events.

Did you know this batik pattern of interlocking spirals is called parang rusak and was once reserved exclusively for Javanese royalty? Now used to wrap rice buckets at celebratory lunches.

A woodblock from the Museum’s collection, handily propped up for curious interns to peer at and photograph.

I am thankful for a lot of things and a lot of people during this internship: for the opportunities to learn about things and visit places I normally might not even have thought about; for the company and hilarity of my fellow interns Chen Wei, Emma, Derong, Jeanette, Venessa and Yeeting (thank you for putting up with my jokes!); and for the willingness of the friendly Museum staff to share their vast array of knowledge and experience with us or simply to chat, especially for the patience of Michelle, my supervisor, in guiding me along!

Even though the intern work desk was at the CFA Studios, I spent a fair amount of time in the Museum, helping out at outreach events and doing research. The Archaeology Library and the Library of Pulau Saigon is my favourite place in the Museum, and was probably the one place in the Museum I spent the most time in, having spent the first half of my internship researching on the objects there, the exhibitions as a whole, then writing and giving short tours of the two exhibitions. I actually wanted to be an archaeologist when I was younger, but then I realised that my career would be in ruins. During my research, I spent quite a bit of time studying the Belitung Shipwreck (also known as the Tang shipwreck due to the large quantity of Tang wares found in the ship), and considered going into marine archaeology, but then I realised it would probably sink me.

The Shipwrecks stop in my Archaeology Library tour. I didn’t wreck the tour, thankfully!

On a less punny note, I am interested in stories and identities (of people and objects), and both Libraries, especially the Library of Pulau Saigon, lend themselves to the attempt at piecing together a fragmented porthole into the past. We can never truly understand and experience how the past was even with extremely specific accounts of the past, simply because the mindset and viewpoints we bring with us are of the present, and this necessarily changes the way we see things. The stories the Libraries tell us are incomplete, much like the object themselves, but to me, this is where the fun is. If I make up a story (I don’t tell these to the tour groups, of course!) about the broken Chinese bowl having fallen off a basketful of ceramics while being transferred from the trade boat to the shore, how close to the truth am I? What if the rest of the bowl is still in the ground somewhere, buried together with Pulau Saigon? How mundane are these miscellaneous objects in Pulau Saigon, really? Must they have some special significance?

Perhaps due to the amount of time I spent researching Pulau Saigon, most of the interesting quotes I collected throughout my internship (from my research and readings) have to do with the creation of historical narratives and the mundane. My favourite one (from Debbie Ding’s Library of Pulau Saigon catalogue) reminds me why I chose to study history, and can perhaps tell you more about my internship experience with the NUS Museum.

“To consider the mundane is to be reminded that all objects have their own history, detached from the context they might be residing in at the moment, a context that can be unravelled and deconstructed.

I could tell you stories about these objects.”

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