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!
Jeremy Wong is a third-year Ancient World, Politics and International Studies student at the University of Melbourne. During his time as Collections Intern at the NUS Museum, Jeremy assisted the Collections team with organizing the collections data, art handling and research.
I knew I was in for an interesting ride as the Collections Intern at the NUS Museum. After all, I had to check approximately around 865 digital records of the museum’s collection, I was the only University of Melbourne student amongst my fellow interns and had to handle more artifacts and artworks than my whole semester load of ancient Egyptian subjects. So yes, a definite step up from the weekly tutorial discussions of touching and examining ancient Egyptian ceramics and funerary figures. I was tasked with vetting the digital records in the NUS Museum’s online collections database, checking for spelling, grammar, punctuation errors along with any presentation improvements I could suggest to help improve the online collections database records.
Naturally online dictionaries become one of my faithful companions during this quest of vetting the museum’s online collections database as I found my vocabulary expanding due to my constant checking for the definitions of words such as oeuvre and islets. Some records were reasonably easy to check as the only errors were minor spelling or grammar mistakes. However, there were some days where I would spend a good amount of time staring at the object’s record and attempting to decipher the original meaning of odd sentences like ‘by many said to be superior to the very best Penang’ to present a better rephrasing of these sentences for viewers. Due to the focus of my Ancient World Studies major in Melbourne University on ancient Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Near Eastern civilisations, I found myself learning more about the histories and material cultures of civilisations from different Chinese, Southeast and South Asian periods such as the longquan celadon wares and the meanings of different Buddha statue poses like varada mudra meaning compassion. And thanks to my checks of the digital records of the museum’s collection, I have been able to add interesting places like the Goa Gajah or Elephant Cave in Bali to my travel list, so who says careful evaluations cannot be rewarding?
One of the few documents containing my notes on all the spelling, punctuation, grammar and presentation errors for the museum’s online collection database. Will be working on making this presentable in a song and dance performance in the future.
Thanks to the other assignment given to all the interns to produce a gallery guide on the exhibition Radio Malaya: Abridged Conversations about Art, I found myself learning and being fascinated by the art, literary, political and social history of my home country. I must admit though, my work on the gallery guide started with plenty of confusion on my part, as Singaporean art history was a significant gap in my knowledge and therefore Singaporean artists like Ng Eng Teng and Chen Wen Hsi were like strangers to my mind. I am grateful to Michelle, Sidd and Ahmad for their openness to allow us interns to explore topics that are of interest to us and so starting me on a journey to learning more about how the independence period had a such profound impact on many aspects of Singaporean society, politics and history. I am also particularly grateful to Jonathan Tan who despite his responsibilities was willing to tell me interesting pieces of information about the various artworks in the exhibition and for giving me valuable suggestions and encouragement for my gallery guide project.
Clearly our chairs were shedding tears every time we had to be away from the office
Soon I was to discover that such checks are only a small part of the Collections team’s responsibilities, as Donald brought me along to observe and participate in other collections management work. Physical handling of the various artifacts and artworks of the museum’s collection extended beyond just placing selected objects in the museum’s galleries for display, but also for condition checks and conservation examinations by the curators and conservators respectively. It was interesting to observe how Donald’s inputs and comments regarding the conditions of various artifacts and artworks were all considered by the curators and conservators, indicating that the Collections team are not just passive observers in the interpretation of the museum’s collection.
Donald and myself unpacking objects for From the Ashes: Reviving Myanmar Celadon Ceramics exhibition
As I participated in the various activities of Collections management from packing paintings that were on loan to the museum to be returned to their owners to helping unpack Myanmar ceramics for the upcoming exhibition From the Ashes: Reviving Myanmar Celadon Ceramics, I realised that many details must be considered in Collections management work. Whether it is properly placing paintings in a specific manner so that the wires of the back parts do not touch the actual artworks or using specific light lux levels for different types of artworks like Chinese scrolls, I found myself amazed at all these considerations that Donald, Devi and the exhibition’s curator Su Ling shared with me in their work so much so that the voice of Sherlock Holmes saying “Elementary, my dear Watson” popped into my head as I recognised that putting on gloves to handle artifacts in tutorials was only the first step in Collections management.
Lovingly handmade cardboard for the packing of paintings
This attention to detail is not only for the conservation of artifacts and artworks in the museum, but also extended to the presentation of the exhibitions as me and Donald channeled our inner Bob the Builder and went around touching up scuff marks, giving fresh coats of paint to exhibition display features like a pedestal and parts of a display case and placing in new acrylic holders to a newly hung up Chinese scroll painting. As I continued helping with From the Ashes: Reviving Myanmar Celadon Ceramics exhibition, I realised that visual presentation of the exhibition went beyond aesthetical considerations as Donald and Su Ling discussed potential issues such as whether placing some bowls or portions of a figurine on a raised platform could mislead people into thinking these objects are important. Even the texts on the exhibition’s walls are placed in a specific fashion to communicate to visitors what is important and peripheral information with regards to the exhibition, which served as a reminder to myself that everything a museum does creates meanings and interpretations to visitors whether intentional or not.
Myself (on the right) with fellow intern Clarice pretending to be spooked
Liana, Clarice, myself and Sheena embracing our love for the Arts and the occasional costume
This internship has been undoubtedly a wonderful and unforgettable experience, allowing me to learn and further appreciate the various works done in museums from the different methods to store various objects to considering the impact of how a museum’s presentation affects viewers’ interpretations. Despite learning of the various responsibilities and activities that need to be done in museum work, it has only increased my enthusiasm for museum work. I would like to thank Greg and Michelle for giving me a chance to be the Collections Intern for the past 7-8 weeks and for their ever-patient supervision and advice. Also, I am very grateful to Donald and Devi for putting their trust in me and allowing me to participate in various Collections management activities and handle many precious artifacts. I would also like to extend my appreciation to the other various NUS Museum staff like Su Ling for her willingness to answer my various questions on curatorial work and Myanmar ceramics, Freda for reading and implementing my long list of corrections to the NUS Museum’s online collection, Wardah for her ever interesting conversations in the office, JJ for always kindly helping us to enter the office, the TJC interns Janessa, Valerie and Whitney for their help in doing preparation works for the Radio Malaya exhibition opening and for reminding me of my younger days along with everyone else at the NUS Museum! And finally, to my fellow interns Sheena, Liana and Clarice for the various fun conversations along with intriguing discussions we had about our gallery guides, for introducing me to good places to eat in NUS (I have learnt from the best) and for helping me to learn a little more about Singapore through their remarks or discussions about Singaporean artists and writers like Arthur Yap, Robert Yeo and Charlie Chan Hock Chye. As I said in the beginning, this internship was going to be an interesting ride, and what a ride it was for making me ever more passionate about museum work.