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Film: Risk taking – choice or necessity?

Jervais Choo is Senior Assistant Director at the National Museum of Singapore, this presentation was made at MuseumNext Melbourne in February 2017.

In this presentation Jervais shares the National Museum of Singapore’s considerations of the risks, challenges and opportunities faced in the adoption of not just technology, but also new ways of presenting and sharing their stories with visitors.

Jervais Choo: Thank you Jim. First, I’d like to acknowledge the tradition owners of this land, as well as the custodians past and present. Now, well, thank you, all of you, for being here to listen to me. I’m from Singapore, and in case people do not quite know that, it’s actually not in China. We get that quite often. It’s a tiny island state that was … gained independence 50 years ago, 51 this year … but the National Museum actually has a long and varied history. What you see on the image right there is actually the original rotunda, on the left, which was created … the museum building itself was actually constructed in 1887, so we celebrate 130 years this year …and the glass rotunda, which you see on the right, is actually an architectural response to the original rotunda, and that came about in 2006.

And just a brief run-through, I guess, in terms of some of the images associated with the museum, the original building, right at the front, right at the start, on the top left and all the way down, and essentially, we underwent a revamp of our galleries in 2015, when Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence. That being said, the museum was … and had actually undergone a previous revamp in 2006, so it was, I guess probably a period of about 10 years, since our permanent exhibitions were opened at the National Museum of Singapore in 2006, and until we underwent another revamp in 2015. In those 10 years, also, a lot of things had changed. The iPhone wasn’t invented, or wasn’t proliferated, in 2006, and behavioural patterns has actually been evolved in that time-frame, and so when we underwent the task of essentially revamping our permanent galleries, we had to consider these factors: how do people’s behaviours change, what are the expectations of a museum … and we are a social history museum. We started off, really, with a large natural history and ethnographic collection, but along the way, we have evolved with the times, and became pretty much a social history … talking about 700 years of Singapore history … yes, 700 years, dating back all the way to the 14th century … and I guess what I’m trying to say, essentially, is that we tried to move with the times, to remain relevant, and that was very much underpinning most of our considerations for this revamp in 2015 that we underwent.

And audiences, as I mentioned, had changed; we have now acknowledged that we have many audiences, from children, young families, academics, of course visitors, in terms of overseas visitors, they comprise about 50% of our visitorship to the National Museum; we receive about 800,000 per year, in terms of [footfall], and with these changes, we realise we have to connect to our audiences at different levels, varying levels, and not necessarily just informative, not necessarily just cognitive; a lot of it is really about connecting with them at an emotional level. People want, and we see that bearing out quite often … they want social connections. That could be something that’s driven by the behaviour we see nowadays, with social media, but also simply because we feel very strongly … or we felt very strongly, at that time, and still do, that museum-going should not be a solitary experience, and that can underpin everything. We want people to be able to connect with each other, to be able to have conversations when they meet with … encounter different objects, different experiences. It’s not about finding information about an object; you can get that through Google, through the internet, quite easily. So, our role is really to provoke questions, and as we’re undergoing this process, we’re very conscious we can’t present the entire range of narratives for the Singapore history, but we want people to leave with more questions than they have when they entered, and that was really, I guess, really the starting point for us. We don’t profess to have the full knowledge of every single thing, there are different alternative perspectives of history … as you know, it can be contentious.

And so that was really our starting point, and we want people to experience those stories. There are different mechanisms that we took on to kind of achieve that, so with the revamp in 2016, we tried a few, I guess really, digital or technological means: we started doing projections on objects … the conservators had a … went out of [unintelligible 00:04:44] [for it] but we insisted. You know. In a safe manner, of course, but we wanted to really kind of bring the objects to life, adding layers, adding life, adding context to what visitors see. And the image on the right, you see, are smell stations, sense stations. Once again, the conservators were not too happy, but pretty much we wanted people to be able to experience it through different senses, and what you see on the right in terms of that particular sense station is the scent of the Singapore river, before it was cleaned up. So things like that, we try to provoke, I guess, really, to elicit a different response.

And which brings me to, I guess, really, a little bit of a … side-track into us going into digital, and we were very conscious, as well, we were trying to balance it off, really, to what extent do we include digital into the permanent galleries. Does digital or new media distract from the object? And hence, I guess really, in our consideration, it should really add and enhance to that experience, understanding of the object. Pretty much, I think one of the ironies of being an object-based museum is that the … by wanting to conserve and protect the object, we often put in many physical barriers that prevent people from really appreciating, viewing clearly, to understanding what the object means. And so, through simple [interactives] we try to encourage people to see, to look closely at the objects, to see greater detail in that. And of course, along the way, we will be exploring other means, VR or otherwise, to try to just get people to understand a little bit better stories that we would otherwise not be able to tell very clearly without the [guide] experience.

One area of risk, I guess, that we really went into is the incorporation of contemporary artworks within the permanent galleries. I emphasise here that we are not a contemporary art museum; we are really a history museum. To a certain extent, it’s very didactic, because we do have to, I guess, serve the bulk of our audience, which is the schools, and they come in with a particular curriculum that we need to address. But at the same time, what we wanted to do is that understanding that we do not comprehensively present or represent the entire narrative for some of our history; and hence to make us relevant, really, to a new audience, it’s really about working with artists and getting them to come in and provide their perspective of Singapore history, and this particular installation … I’m sorry, I don’t have the video for this … but it’s a projection artwork, a 3D mapping on a scale model, and where we got a local artist [unintelligible 00:07:25] to have their response at the end of the gallery to what are their views of how Singapore has progressed over 700 years. So that’s one example.

This is another artwork, as well, that we brought in. I’ll back-track a little bit … when the museum was actually … we opened to the public in 2006; the new wing was added and there was an artwork by Suzanne [Victor], comprising [of eight chandeliers] that were hanging in this particular passageway. When we did this revamp in 2015, we wanted Suzanne to actually relook at her artwork and to really respond to how the museum has developed, as well, we wanted her to grow with us, so it’s not just her presenting an interpretation, but taking into consideration how the museum has evolved, how [trains] have evolved over the past 10 years … what would be her response to this. And these are essentially some images of how this particular artwork is, [it’s got] [unintelligible 00:08:23] of [a rich manoeuvre], and it’s really chandeliers comprising of 14,000 Swarovski crystals … Swarovski was a sponsor for this, of course, … but essentially, it’s really Suzanne’s interpretation of having nine different patterns that would swing in a glass atrium, and really representing, I guess, really, her response to the architecture, to the building and to the history of the building, and these chandeliers will swing on the hour, every hour, and there’s a public interaction component, so there’s actually a digital, I guess component, where visitors can put in a particular lighting effect or pattern that they want, that will kind of come out at the designated hour.

So, this is one way that … I guess, really, to us it’s really working with the artists who have grown with us along the way, and develop something new. We have continued to explore, really, I guess, the dynamics between contemporary art and the museum, and this is credited to the Singapore Benali … it’s one of the commissions of the Benali, and it’s really a case where we encourage opportunities for local artists to work with the history of the museum or history of Singapore, and come up with works that respond really well to them as well as to our audiences. This is another work of the Benali, by [Subu Gupta], called [Cooking the World], and we thought that was really interesting. Food is very much a part of the Singapore heritage, and it’s really one of the main interests, as well. But this work, particularly, shows the diversity, essentially, of cultures coming together. And another work of the Benali,which is interesting because this particular work by local artist [Dabiding] was sited within the history gallery, so it was really at the end of the Singapore History Gallery, after you had gone through everything, you encountered this shelter; it’s a bomb shelter that is mandated to be incorporated in all our houses in Singapore, and it’s left deliberately obstructive, in that sense, because we wanted to see … to really show, I guess, how a policy, if you will, has impeded or affected people’s lives on a daily basis, how something structural and something built up, that has in all probabilities very low likelihood of us going to war, but still it is something that has intruded into our lives. And we thought … and it was apt for this work to be presented in the history gallery, as well, and we took … we went out on a limb there, because we were not sure how people will respond to something like that. It’s one thing to have an installation in a public space; it’s quite another to have it smack in the middle of the History Gallery.

Now, back to, I guess, one of the main works that we undertook as part of the revamp: this was the glass rotunda that I explained earlier. One of the mandates for 2015 was that we wanted to change visitors’ experience coming in, and this glass rotunda that you see here used to be the entrance to the Singapore History Gallery, so for visitors who had come in from 2006 to 2014, you would have entered into this rotunda, walked through a spiral passageway with no content, only in the dome, and before that, you enter into the History Gallery. So, when we underwent the revamp, we decided to separate this entire space, and create it into an installation piece, a space for us to work with, and we decided to really convert the entire space.

Now, a bit of context: this decision was taken quite late. The museum was supposed to be completed, or the revamp was supposed to be completed, in 2015; we actually only decided on this entire conversion late 2013, which left us barely, I guess, a year and a half to put it together. It was delayed to a certain extent; we only opened last year, but at the same time, we felt strongly that this was a major change that we wanted to do, and coming into a project like this, it was a risk that we had to take. So, if you look at the red line in there … I’ll draw your attention to it later again … but if you look at the red line dome, a snowglobe-like dome, we had to construct that entire … reconstruct that entire surface in Tokyo, and to do the testing, [tore it down] there, bring it back to Singapore, reconstruct it, in order for it to come up with … to create this installation.

So this was the short version of the video … there are a lot of wonderful videos out there … and this installation is entitled Story of the Forest. We worked with [Team Lab]; some of you might be familiar… [Honor], definitely … and we kind of approached them in 2013 to talk about this project, and the brief we gave them was, can you work with the collection? We are, after all, a collections-based museum, and to us, the starting point for all our decisions has to be, how do we enhance the collection, as I mentioned earlier. It has to be something relevant to us. And we have a collection of 477 drawings, entitled The [William Fargher] Collection of Natural History Drawings. They are a 200-year-old collection … you probably saw some of the images at the start of the picture … and the brief we came to … together, I guess, with Team Lab, is that, can you bring it to life? The collection of drawings were originally drawn by a local artist, and some of them were actually imagined, to a certain extent, they not all would have been … not all of them had actually seen the animal that they had actually drawn. But what we wanted Team Lab to do was that now, as contemporary artists, as technologists, multi-disciplinary in that sense, can you re-imagine that collection and bring it to life for contemporary audiences? And this was something that we thought was meaningful, and they did a wonderful job of it, but once again, like I say, it’s really, how do we breathe new life into a collection that is otherwise viewed to be perhaps a bit stuffy, a bit old, and never-changing.

So that … the Team Lab installation is now an alternative entrance to the Singapore History Gallery, so visitors have the option to go through that first, to kind of, I guess, really experience that eco-system of Singapore … or Malaya, rather, in … 200 years back … re-imagined by contemporary artists, and it leads into another contemporary work, which is Singapore [Very Old Tree], by Robert [Changwan], also a local artist. And for him, it was really about bringing out the stories and connections that people have with trees in Singapore, and hence, I guess, really, for us, it’s a curator experience, where first we lead people into an overall immersive experience, before going into … to kind of prep their minds to kind of encounter the stories and connections that individuals have with trees and plants in Singapore. And from this, you then enter into the main Singapore History Gallery, and thereafter, you start your journey of Singapore history, starting from 14th century, all the way till, I guess, the 2000s.

Now, Gallery 10 is … well, before entering into Gallery 10, I want to just [gel] a little bit about some of the risks of this approach, in that sense. First of all, in order for us to have even embarked on this required a little bit of organisational risk, almost. The National Museum decided to really restructure our … how we went about doing things, so we started embedding the curators full time, [helping] them into programmes, for instance. So you have curators kind of embedded within each of the separate divisions, and this is really to encourage cross-disciplinary interaction, beyond silos. So we started having a lot of all these discussions and interactions. I mean, for myself, my portfolio covers actually a fair bit in terms of I oversee exhibitions, marketing and comms, business development, operations, volunteers management … well … and some others, and projects like these, digital included. So, to a certain extent, I think I definitely see the value of it. I wouldn’t recommend it to any one of you, but I definitely see the value of being able to look at this from different lenses, and from an organisation point of view, that’s what we wanted to encourage in our people as well, so we restructured and started putting people around in uncomfortable portfolios, just so that they have interesting lenses to play. So we have a contemporary art curator, that was working on some of these projects, and he had to really work closely with the historians and history curators to pull together these wonderful experiences, and we felt that that’s something we need to have gone into in order for this to have worked.

So a gallery … well, I’ll let the image speak for itself. So Gallery 10 is a new experimentation that we recently embarked on. It’s an experimental space, where we wanted to create, to allow for, I guess, interesting projects to spawn out of … not necessarily working just with artists, but with technologists, working with sound, working with projection [dining], so it’s a purpose-built space, essentially, that … a white box, if you will … that will allow for different kinds of works to be presented. So I’ll just show you a quick video.

So, this work itself, it’s entitled [Art of the Rehearsal], and we wanted to work with a young contemporary artist, Sarah [unintelligible 00:21:28], and we wanted her to really work with traditional art forms, as a way of her interpretation of what excites her most about traditional art, and in this case, traditional dance. And for her, she picked up on the aspects of … the commonalities between different, I guess, cultures, and different traditional dance forms … in that the process of rehearsal was interesting to her … how do they actually prepare themselves, and I guess, really, the work tries to capture their individual essences of the dance form, but also the people who are practising it, and this is a way, I guess, really for us to really once again engage with the young, contemporary, relevant audiences and … and artists, sorry … and the space itself is experimental, in that it is convertible, the work by nature, being digital, can be looked, can be paused, can be freezed, we can convert the space, and we have converted the space, for several events, for instance, and allowing for different works to happen in there.

We are exploring things like digital dining, having, I guess, really, that taste component come into a museum setting, which is interesting and exciting for us, one of the principal motivations for the space. Often, people come to the museum, encounter some exhibition on food and start asking, so where can I taste it? You know. You can’t do it in our permanent galleries; the conservators will not let me [have the way] for that, but in a space like this, I can, and it’s really a space for experimentation, which allows for different things to happen, and we don’t profess to be experts in digital, but it’s really getting our feet wet, understanding a little bit about new media, and how can we then evolve from there to learn a little bit more.

And this is another project that we’re doing with Tango, [unintelligible 00:23:12] Science Museum, [Honor] just launched a media project as well, and in our case, we are working with … or we are working with Google on Tango to use that technology to enhance our architectural tours, so getting people to be able to go and understand the history of our building through Tango technology. For those who are not familiar, it’s just a very quick walkthrough; I won’t dwell too much on this, but simply that Tango itself is a platform that allows the device to sense space, because they have depth sensing, so you can actually navigate around objects, or you can physically site and put things on objects, and without the need for external sensors like Bluetooth, as well as wi-fi, it allows people to go through the space. It’s not widely proliferated at this point, but for us, it’s really trying out and experimentation with new technologies, to see what could we do, and once again, it draws back to why we are doing this, because we are celebrating 130 years of the museum’s history this year, and we thought something like this, regardless of technology, to be honest, is interesting for us because people get to still enjoy and understand a bit about the history of the building. This draws back to our original collection, as a largely natural-history-based museum, and visitors through this will get to really go around a virtual model of the museum, and looking at the museum developing over the years, how it has built up, and we will be able to also, for instance, recreate the entire original inner rotunda, to see what were the exhibits that were placed there, and all that.

So, this is something that we are exploring at the moment. And I guess it really draws me then to, I guess, my last two slides, and … which points to this particular question that we ask ourselves … what do we collect for tomorrow? As a collections-based museum, this is particularly compelling and problematic. Where we used to collect, I guess, really, physical [letters], and [games], for that matter, how do we then go about collecting that now? What do we, as a museum, still have to present and preserve? And I think that draws a lot to, I guess, Jason’s presentation, as well as a lot of others that we have gone into, and this is something that we are priming ourselves for, and without, I guess, really having a real solution, we just thought, well, it’s necessary for us to at least understand the media before we kind of look forward to how we can then present it.

And what I would like to say, as well, [so there’s this] idea of the risk of learning to [fill], and I think that’s particularly important. In Singapore, we have this thing where we cannot [fill] … you know, [we have] been known for obviously pushing things at a breakneck pace, and making things … doing things faster, better, cheaper … one of the issues with that is that when you always do well, you succeed, they cut your budget, every time. And you continue to do well, your budget gets cut all the time, you know, and it’s almost like a vicious cycle, for instance. So to what extent do we then [each inculcate] a culture of being willing to say that it’s all right to [fill], and it’s all right to really shout out to say that we are not able to handle this with these current resources. Simply to buy in the understanding that things are just going to get more complex, more complicated, and so are we willing to then really embrace that as a culture? And I guess, to conclude, as the world moves along, basically, we have to decide, essentially, whether there is a choice or a need for you to embrace digital. In my mind, I guess it’s really a choice that individual institutions have to make, it’s probably something that you have to decide when you have to go into, and how you have to go into. We recommend basically just dipping your toes in the water if you’re not ready to plunge in, but at least get your feet wet, so you understand a little bit about the issues that we will need to all confront at some point in time.

And with that I conclude. Thank you. I believe I have time for one question, I think. Yes, please?

Female voice:  Thank you for that wonderful presentation. I just wanted to know, with the history of the trees, the very old trees in Singapore, what was there? We couldn’t … we could see what that display looked like, but could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Jervais Choo:  Yes, well, that was an artwork inspired … so the artist was inspired by a postcard, one of the oldest postcards in the national archives collection, and the original postcard was essentially an image of a guy standing beside a tree, and it was entitled Singapore Very Old Tree. And that really started him off in terms of exploring the relationship between people and trees in Singapore. As you know, Singapore is pretty urbanised, and people tend to forget that we are really an island state, sometimes. It’s a very deliberate and conscious and expensive strategy to remain as a garden city, and so I guess really, the whole idea of connections with trees and our natural history is something that the artist is particularly passionate about. If you know about Robert’s work, he does a lot with photography and natural history. So that was really his starting point, and we thought, really, we acquired the work into the national collection, so it’s now a permanent part of the national collection, and so we do intend to, I guess, really [rotate and] display, I guess, our works from our local artists within a historical context. Thank you for the question. Right, thank you, and …


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