death by paper cut

{November 19, 2007}   the old dame

as part of the series of events to commemorate the old dame’s 120th birthday, a forum was organised at the national museum of singapore last saturday. entitled ‘the past in the present: histories in the making’ the forum delved on the relevance of the national museum against current academic and public sentiments, if i may surmise so.

the forum was divide into three segments; the first discussing the behind-the-scenes workings of the revamping of the national museum, the second discussing how the past is a contested zone in other areas and the third discussing the intermingling of history and literature.

the most interesting part of the forum to me was the first segment. this is probably because i am familiar with the critical theories driving the new thrust of the national museum having done research in museology, historicity and postcolonialism and also because my concentration started to wane after that.

the panel for the first segment involved the curators, the set designers and a script writer responsible for putting together the voice over narration for the audio guide. the over all sense that i got was that no effort or expertise was held back in the process and execution of the exhibits. the result of which is a success that i can attest to having had previously spent a fair amount of time interrogating the displays.

‘interrogating’ might be a new concept for museum visitors who are more accustomed to being feed information didactically. as pointed out by the panelists, how history is perceived is firstly always filtred, and secondly influenced by audience’s personal take on it. therefore in relinquishing its hegemony, the museum becomes a contested zone and also necessarily political since history and the personal is political.

the personal is an interesting area of that the history gallery brings to the forefront. on speaking on the ‘challenges of display and representation: forgotten history and challenge of display in the museum setting’, the panelist notes that individuals are responsible for the certain outcomes. rather than simply being victims of circumstances, the decisions they made intervene and affect the course of history and their lives. this aspect is brought out by the ‘personal route’ in navigating the history gallery where the individuals who do not often make it to the who’s who of the history textbooks are given the platform to be as equally prominent.

history as the contested zone is no easy feat to promulgate. in striving to be as partial as possible, the displays and the museum as an entity of the public sphere and collective consciousness has to negotiate political pressure from above and public reaction from the bottom.

the case studies i researched upon in my studies at the university of melbourne were the melbourne museum and the national museum of australia which has both come under fire by the current right-winged government (we’ll see if that will change come 24th november) who has accused the museums of cultural relativism, pandering to sectarian interests and being politically-correct.

the museums and their management however has not wavered under such pressure and continued in their endeavor to be self-reflexive and aware of the existence of alternative histories. in viewing the exhibits of the history gallery, i was also able to gather such self-reflexiveness in the national museum of singapore. it therefore didn’t come as a surprise that in developing the new national museum of singapore, study visits were undertaken with museum victoria as revealed in the forum.

the difference between the melbourne museum as well as the national museum of australia and the national museum of singapore is that while the former sheds its 19th century exterior for a 21st century look to reflect its contents and sentiments, the latter retains the 19th century facade to juxtapose the change in times.

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