Thursday, 30 November 2017

Diary of an NUS Museum Intern: Grace Adam

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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Grace Adam is a year 4 Political Science student at the Singapore Management University. As our Baba House Outreach intern, Grace conducted research for Baba House programmes and assisted with public programmes and the daily operations of the Baba House.


The Peranakan community’s link to Singapore has been outstanding for quite some time, not in the least that our Singapore Airlines cabin crew uniform is inspired by the sarong kebaya or that the Singapore Tourism Board logo is derived from an architectural detail found in Peranakan shophouses. How can one speak of Singapore without accrediting the Peranakan community? It is this question that led me, a Political Science major, to pursue a museum internship at the NUS Baba House where a prominent Peranakan family once resided. 

To give a picture, atop a gentle slope from the main street at 157 Neil Road, a bright blue house sits tucked in the middle of a row of shophouses. Remote from the actual university campus, the NUS Baba House houses the NUS Museum’s Straits Chinese collection. It is one of the last surviving Straits Chinese townhouses in Singapore; its architecture and interior conserved as how it once was in the 1920s. Its unique cultural influence can be observed even in the tiniest details of building architecture, e.g. jian nian, and furniture artefacts, e.g. brown-and-gold wardrobes. Beyond the solipsism of display, as the Baba House intern, I tagged along on guided tours. Responsibilities included preparing the three-storeyed house for our local and international visitors and explaining the house rules. This allowed me to interact with people across different social strata and physical borders where, during the tours, they sometimes discovered they too practice variations of the traditions peculiar to the Peranakan community. Despite the absence of didactic placards, the museum is curated in such a way that visitors leave with a better understanding of the socio-cultural impact that the Peranakans might have had in their heyday in the early 20th century on the local community, and vice versa. 

Explore NUS Baba House’ invites people to experience the house at their own pace

To people who prefer wandering off the beaten path, the freshly-minted Explore NUS Baba House series is an alternative way to appreciate the house at one’s own pace. As the designated photographer, the visitors’ expressions and body language told tales, and it was wonderful to see people across generations, races and nationalities share the same look of curiosity and wonder as they navigated through the house. Following the diaspora of the Peranakans’ Chinese ancestors and their intermarriage with local populations, which led to the eventual development of the Peranakan community in Singapore, the common man today is still witness to the sweeping changes of international migration in a globalised world. There is much we can learn from the diversity in Peranakan culture, its absorption and assimilation of other cultures. Whoever said that interest in the arts and heritage in Singapore is irrelevant?

NUS Museum intern at “Yayoi Kusama: Prints” solo exhibition at Ota Fine Arts Singapore, Gillman Barracks

Speaking of which, once a week, I headed off to a different museum or art institution as part of the NUS Museum interns’ added learning – ticking off a summer bucket list to uncover all that Singapore’s art and cultural sector has to offer; an interest sparked by my exposure to SMU’s Arts and Culture Management modules. The interns were able, and encouraged, to pick the curators’ brains as they gave personal tours of their exhibitions. I especially enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look into the sperm whale exhibition at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum with Kate Pocklington. The bones on display barely hold a candle to the candid recount of finding the whale’s corpse washed ashore (“oh, the smell!”) and the days after of hardwork to strip the whale’s blubber. Take a peek at the video reel playing on the second floor of the exhibition! Apart from curator tours, I was happy to get a chance to see Let’s Chat: With Amanda Heng live at the NUS Museum. Through her art, Amanda allowed participants to enter into a safe conversation space, where we talked about anything from personal dreams for our future to women’s role in contemporary society. Wholly unflustered by the ebb and flow of participants, Amanda spoke with gravitas and paid every individual attention. It was inspiring.

I have seen new shows at museums make newspaper headlines (for better or worse; Yayoi Kusama at National Gallery of Singapore or the renamed Syonan Gallery, anyone?), but not only in the local context. The Culture section in the New York Times International Edition regularly features exhibitions at art galleries or museums. The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun also carries a tickling ‘Let’s go to the museum’ series featuring small museums in lesser-known prefectures. But y’know, it is one thing to read about a museum and another thing entirely to work in a museum. I strongly encourage anyone contemplating if they need be on par with industry experts on the latest trends or upcoming events, to know who’s who, to be able to critically analyse an artwork, artefact or curatorial decision – to stop thinking so much and submit that application form already.

NUS Museum interns, signing out

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