Monday, 30 October 2017

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: David Low

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! 

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David Low is a first year Master's by Research student at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social SciencesAs our Exhibition Management and Editorial intern, David was tasked to assist in various research and exhibition processes, in particular for Prep-Room | 'BUAYA: The Making of a Non-Myth' .


One is curious when interning at the museum as to where might the afterlife of exhibitions be? For with the idea of an afterlife comes the conjuration of multiple imageries – the most popular of which revolves round two concepts. One, the binary outcomes of absolute respite or eternal damnation, and the other, a karmic cycle of transference from one state to the next. Physically, the museum is no such conduit or place. Yet the spectre of the afterlife remains. Though haunting, though elusive, though incognizant with reality; the afterlife exist only because of man’s unwillingness to come to terms with the impermanence of his or her world(s).  And such is, the nature of exhibitions, which happens once in time and never again and yet whose audible voices are ontologically anxious. 

When objects return to their respective collections after an exhibition closes, where do these disembodied voices find their resting place- their proverbial heaven? Do they find respite and resolute solace in the outcomes of accompanying publications that must ultimately return to the dust of the shelves or in programmes that would soon be forgotten? If so, why then the incessant cry to be heard? And if heaven- a place where desire and want is fulfilled, is in this case a realm for these voices to be appreciated, remembered, recognised, and celebrated under the academic limelight, do then their voices speaks over the silence of others?

It maybe that what constitutes as heaven for an exhibition could also well be hell for others. In this manner, hell is for those whose cherished worlds are muted, violently erased, crushed under, and eaten up by institutional ones. The legendary destroyer of worlds is oftentimes not a divine being or even Chronos but more so the earthly museological institutions who subsumed the live worlds of people, cultures, and histories in the name of collective progress through the process of cultural and social instrumentation. 


Attempting to hear different voices at the National Museum.

In speaking of the earthly, it is then apt at this junction to see how might I, a student of Southeast Asian Studies who is interested in museology, navigate through the proliferation of angsty spectral voices disembodied by erasures. We live in interesting times. Cultural witch hunts occur almost daily to castigate the elusive bigot as the ferocious cry of those to be heard assail on incessantly. Even as the praxis of museology and museum has evolved away from the intrinsically racist, taxonomical and categorical display of the modernist, colonialist era to the now more post-modern, less assumptive less essentialist way of knowing, witch hunts intensify. Gone are the days where museums could pretend to fulfil fully the mandate of the universal, the border-defined, the subaltern, and their histories. Nevertheless as what artist Ang Song Ming courageously uttered: “We all stand accused, but will we confess our sins?”  

Will one confess that there is no heaven without hell; no remembrance without forgetting; no speaking without the silencing of others? Will one confess that while encumbered by its collection, its history, and its present, the museum’s aspirations could no longer be an absolute declaration to commitment? And instead, through the confession will one admit the utter impracticality to view the afterlife of exhibitions as linear binary outcomes of good or bad and/or even attaining to some impossible goal of perfect ethical representation, (re)-interpretation or re-engagement? 

In this sense then perhaps there isn’t a resolute ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ for exhibitions, but with every death comes strange beginnings and departures. When an exhibition end, voices either remembered or forgotten do not stay in constant states of the glorified or dammed but are translated into spectres that haunt and colour new exhibitions. Just as one could not call something not being into being so every exhibition are not true beginnings but strange originary middles. Yet new middles nonetheless. For example, the voices deemed banal but contemporaneous with the opening exhibition of the long gone Raffles Museum in 1887, were reincarnated a century later and manifested as art when the interiors of its exhibits were unearthed.  Which then took on a whole new persona that allows artists and intellectuals alike to appreciate the conversations and imbrications between competing narratives of the colonial, national, local folk histories of Singapore, effusing from the spectral consciousness of that 1887 crocodile exhibit.  Equally in this afterlife of transmigration from one state to the other, previously labelled ‘exotic’ documentaries of a certain white male could now be glorified as post-colonial nostalgia when exhibited at the museum.  


Entering a different consciousness while creating a zine.

Consequently to recognise these beginnings and departures demands one to break free from pedagogical thinking; from the thinking of linear outcomes.  To break free – a cry from the spectres of violent erasures and equally as from those who unwittingly erase. To break free requires a new kind of consciousness. One that is not found in the building of exhibitions upon discourse; nor in the strategies of insisting cultural difference; nor is it narrowly through inhabiting and representing the references of others. It is a consciousness as what artist Erica Tan describes, ‘less a question of whose shoulders can I stand on than how we are mutually contaminated.’ It is a consciousness found in the unending process of becoming, of mutual contamination, of death and rebirth, of the afterlife. 


Death and afterlife.

So as one inhabiting this contested region of Southeast Asia and also who is interested in museology, this internship has given me an introduction to this consciousness found between death and the afterlife. I have learned to be interested in the details, from where the spectres are crying for rebirth and whose voices often lead one to creative accidents.  My duty then, as with the biblical exile John, is to turn and look at the voices of parallel realities; those who call from behind the stuffy veil of reality. 

Or as what my mentor curator Siddharta Perez had said to me, ‘the magic of curatorial work lies on the detours and the things that fall in the cracks.’ 

Detours

With a grateful heart to these cherished memories I like to thank Siddharta for her guidance in editorial work and the for the opportunity at ideation, theory building and conceptualising. I would like to thank Donald for imparting his experience in exhibition management. I would also like to thank Michelle for making this internship happen. Their fortitude and wisdom has taught me that working in a museum requires not merely the logistical aptitude in putting up an exhibition or publishing a book but also the creative rigour in conceptualizing, mediating cultural narratives and bridging politicized divides in meaning-making.

I would also like to thank Natalie, Caroline, Shiau Yu, Chu Qiao, Pei Wen, Vannessa, and Grace, my fellow interns, for their intermittent thought-provoking discussions.  


Just another day at the museum.

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