Sherlyn Goh is a third-year Liberal Arts student at Yale-NUS College. As our Baba House Outreach intern, Sherlyn was involved in the research and development of upcoming public programmes in 2016, and the daily operations of maintaining the Baba House, a heritage home.
Being only 5-weeks long, this is the shortest yet one of the most hands-on internships I’ve embarked on. As an outreach intern at the NUS Baba House, I designed publicity materials, assisted in heritage tours and house operations and managed communications with the public. In-lieu with the house’s current 3-year exhibition Preserve/Conserve/Restore: Studies at 157 Neil Road, I researched on the history of Neil Road which the Baba House sits on and its surrounding neighbourhood. Despite the internship’s short duration, I learnt so much that I wouldn’t have if not for this internship. I gained a first hand insight into how the house is conserved and maintained on a day-to-day basis, how NUS Museum’s unique position as a non-profit university museum informs the way it curates its exhibitions and conducts its outreach and so much more about Peranakan culture by assisting the docents in the heritage tours.
Image 1: DIY session after a trip to IKEA to get stools to accommodate more guests during events.
Image 2: Third floor of the Baba House, converted into a gallery
Being over 100 years old, monitoring and maintenance work happens frequently at the Baba House. Conservation is an ongoing process, and through this internship, I learnt more about the technicalities of architectural conservation. During my last week here, my supervisor Poonam and I noticed black spots, presumably mould, staining the walls of the third level gallery. As a result, we have temporarily ceased using air conditioning in the gallery and started opening the windows to air the area instead. It’s heart-warming to see how much Poonam and Fadhly care about the house: the attention they pay to the handling of the artefacts, their dedication to the maintenance of the house and the worries they have when problmes arise.
Part of my duties involved liaising with the public via email and phone to manage heritage tour bookings, and I often had to turn away visitors when tours are oversubscribed. Due to loading restrictions, the house can only hold a maximum of number of visitors at any point in time. This reminded me of the fragility of the Baba House, not merely a physical fragility, but also a cultural one. People tend to start paying more attention to cultural and heritage sites when these sites face a threat of being demolished or redeveloped. Bukit Brown is a case in point. Appreciation shouldn’t just stem from nostalgia, neither should conservation from impending loss. We have places rich in culture and heritage that exist in Singapore, and we have people who put in years to restore, conserve and maintain built heritage. Supporting existing cultural or heritage sites by visiting, volunteering and spreading the word sends a strong message to the powers that be (i.e. URA) how significant these places are to us, which is why I find outreach incredibly important. While managing tour bookings and assisting as warden during the tours, I noticed that most of the visitors to the house are Caucasian tourists. I hope that in time, more people in Singapore would come to know of, appreciate and support the Baba House.
Baba House brochures now up for grabs at the University Cultural Centre and NUS Museum.
As an outreach intern, I also assisted in developing public programmes for the ongoing exhibition Preserve/Conserve/Restore: Studies at 157 Neil Road in the Baba House gallery. This exhibition aims to explore the history and urban development of the neighbourhood the house is located in and engage with technical conservation of built heritage. When doing research on Neil Road, I learnt that it was originally called Silat Road, a slang usage of selat, meaning strait in Malay. It was renamed Neil Road in 1858 by the British Municipal Council in honour of Scottish military officer James George Smith Neill who died during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The books and online articles I read described the officer as a one of the “heroes of the Indian Mutiny”, when he is actually infamous for indiscriminately humiliating and killing native Indians including innocent civilians during the uprising. Some of his forces even revolted when they saw his brutal massacres. Dubbed a hero for bringing ‘peace’ during mutinies, he was appointed a colonel and an aide-de-camp to his queen and subsequently had a road in Singapore named after him. British imperialism and colonialism was a recurring theme that popped up during my research, from street names and architecture to land development policies and urbanisation.
A photograph of a rickshaw parked along Silat Road, now known as Neil Road.
While looking through journals in the library, I came across a quote that struck me: “But as most of the residents are aware, the names given by the Municipality to the various streets are only used by the European portion of the population, and the Chinese, Tamils and Malays have names for the streets very different from their Municipal titles.” — Haughton, H T (1889), ‘Notes on the names of places in the island of Singapore and its vicinity’, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 20.
I am particularly interested in resistance, both conscious and unconscious resistance — the ways in which the colonised, the seemingly powerless resist. I never thought I would find resistance in the adoption of street names. A month of research has taught me so much, yet beyond learning, I also find myself more attuned to the urban spaces around me, curious about street names (what they mean, whether an English street name is named after a brutal war ‘hero’) and appreciative of the cultural influences on architecture that I’ve long taken for granted — the the shophouses near my best friend’s neighbourhood and the temples I pass by when I go to Chinatown.
Five-foot way libraries beneath shophouses. Right: the popular Yan Kit Swimming Pool. How many girls and women can you spot in the photograph?
I’m also beginning to appreciate museums and curating more. Prior to this internship, I had found it difficult to appreciate museums, as art can sometimes be inaccessible to the untrained eye. Working in a museum, visiting other museums and reading about museums during this stint helped me develop a better understanding of the thought that goes behind each exhibition and a glimpse into the workings of a curator’s mind. The weekly reading discussions about Singapore’s art scene, the history of NUS Museum and the role of the curator as well as visits to galleries and exhibitions with Michelle and the other interns were helpful in providing a much-needed context to the actual work and research that I was doing. These sessions and visits gave additional structure to the internship, which I found incredibly important especially for an internship this short.
To end off, I would like to say a big thank you to my supervisors: Poonam for her guidance,
patience and understanding, and Fadhly for showing me the ropes and for the laughs we shared. It
is a privilege to be given an internship opportunity, and I’m incredibly grateful to Michelle, Poonam
and NUS Museum for taking me in this December.
At the National Gallery of Singapore.