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Oct 12, 2019

A family takes in the museum

Raffles Museum (now National Museum of Singapore in 1950s.  Photograph is taken by Dr Carl Gibson-Hill, Curator of Zoology, Raffles Museum, from 1947 to 1956 and Director from 1956 to 1963.  [Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 21 June 1985]

One Saturday afternoon, a three-generation family group - John and Margaret Yin, their son Jonathan, Margaret's parents Mr and Mrs Yeo, and her nephew Gerald and niece Geraldine Chan - visited the much-publicised revamped National Museum.

K. MALATHY, who went with them, records their impressions.

The Yeos

They have been to the museum before, but that was some time ago.  Both said the museum had changed for the better.

"The displays are effectively arranged, the lighting good," said Mr Yeo, 67, who is retired.  He especially liked the Straits Chinese Gallery because "it brings me back to my childhood days".

Mr Yeo grew up among Babas, and his knowledge of their culture was evident as he explained to his grand-children the nature and use of various exhibits.

He also enjoyed looking at the exhibits in the 19th Century Singapore Gallery, because, he said, some of the things were familiar to him and brought back memories.  He spied some beautiful silver curtain hooks - "my mother had them, you know".

Mrs Yeo, 63, did not say much, but she looked at the exhibits quietly and carefully, putting on her glasses whenever she came across a particularly interesting exhibit.

She found the museum interesting, she said, but all the walking around was a little tiring.

The Yins

It was Hongkong-born John Yin's first visit to the museum.  "I must say I'm a bit disappointed.  I came expecting something else ... I don't know what," said John, 36, a manager with a container leasing company.

He thought the museum atmosphere was all wrong.  A museum should be hushed, almost reverent, he said, "But here everyone is just walking in and out ... it's too casual."

In that sort of atmosphere, he felt that it was difficult to respond properly to the exhibits.  "Maybe the attendants should see that people don't run around or talk loudly."

His wife Margaret agreed with him, but she felt the crowds wouldn't last," and after that, it will be all right".

Margaret, 37, a housewife, has been to the museum before and she thought that it had improved - the range of exhibits was wider, for instance.

The Straits Chinese Gallery was her favourite - "the displays are visually very effective."

Also, the dim lighting and the coolness of the gallery made it mysteriously inviting.

It was the first part of the museum that the family visited, and Margaret feld that it created a very favourable first impression.

This was 10-year-old Jonathan Yin's first visit to the museum and he couldn't really say what he felt about it.  He usually wore a bemused look while his grandfather and parents told him about the various exhibits.

In the 19th Century Singapore Gallery, he noticed a medicine grinder.  When asked how it worked, he said: "I think you put a coin in somewhere and it moves."

When his grandfather explained how it actually worked, his eyes grew round.

Jonathan liked the Southeast Asian Gallery, especially, he said cryptically, "the guitar with the hole in it".  The rest of the museum was okay, but he didn't like the Chinese Puppet Theatre - "the faces are spooky".

His cousins, Geraldine and Gerald Chan, reacted differently.

They said they enjoyed everything about the museum, but some things move than the others.  And, unless the adults, they didn't seem to mind the crowd.

Eleven-year-old Geraldine's favourite was the parlour in the Straits Chinese Gallery, "because it looks so real, and it's such a lady's room".

Gerald, 12, was, in a way, the most interested person in the group.  He reacted to the museum spontaneously, not bothering to analyse as the adults did, what moved him.

He was happiest with the historical dioramas.  He explained (and very well too) to his family about each of the little dioramas.

The Coolie Room fascinated him, and he noted and pointed out every details - the spitoons, the coolie hats, the man smoking opium ...

He explained his interest a little shyly.  "I'm doing History in school, you see ... and this is what it's all about."

The family took slightly more than an hour to complete their tour, and Margaret felt they didn't really do justice to the wide range of exhibits.  "We'll come back another day to go over everything properly."

Also, they wanted to see the Audio-Visual Show, which they had missed.

All of them liked the galleries on the first storey (History of Singapore, Straits Chinese and Southeast Asian) better then the ones on the second storey (National University of Singapore, 19th Century Singapore, Trade Ceramics, and Jade).

John Yin explained it this way:  "The sculptures and ceramics upstairs are really beautiful but their appeal is more remote.  It's basically aesthetic.

"The displays downstairs, on the other hadn, relate to us directly.  There are more exhibits and they are more colourful and visually exciting.  This is especially true of the Straits Chinese Gallery."

Breathing life into museums

By Adeline Chia
[Source:  The Straits Times, 11 October 2007)

Museums are getting exciting under the National Heritage Board's new CEO Michael Koh.

Something is happening in Singapore's museums.

Heartlanders are making the rounds of them in sponsored tours.  Museums feature prominently in a children's book.  And if you look carefully at the TV suspense drama Metamorphosis on Channel 8, you'll see footage of the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) in the background.

The video of "National Museum of Singapore 125 years of history" on YouTube here .

And in December, taxi drivers will be invited to attend museum open houses so they can be better guides to their passengers.

The man behind all these initiatives is Mr Michael Koh, the chief executive officer of the National Heritage Board (NHB).

Since he hopped on board a little over a year ago, the 46-year-old architect by training has introduced some snazzy changes to the NHB, the statutory board that runs nine museums and heritage centres in Singapore.

Under his charge are:  the ACM, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the National Museum, the Singapore Philatelic Museum, Reflections at Bukit Chandu, the Heritage Conservation Centre, the National Archives of Singapore, Memories at the Old Ford Factory and the Peranakan Museum.

In September last year, he left the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), where he had worked for more than 10 years on and off, to join the NHB.

He is the third and youngest CEO to join the board since it was set up in 1993.  His predecessors were Mrs Lim Siok Peng and, before her, Mr Lim Siam Kim.

The charismatic Mr Koh, an architecture graduate from the National University of Singapore, was a star city planner.

His first job was with the URA as a planner in 1990, and he rose through the ranks to become director.

In 1992, the authorities gave him a scholarship to pursue a master's in design studies at Harvard University.

In 2002, he left URA for a brief stint in Temasek Holdings and its subsidiary, Mapletree Holdings.  He returned to URA in 2003, where he was director of urban planning and design.

And last year, he made the leap from city planning to the heritage sector.

At the Olio Dome Cafe at SAM on Monday, he tells Life! that it was not an easy decision.

After NHB chairman Professor Tommy Koh sounded him out, he went through "months of angst and soul-searching" before he took the plunge.

He says:  "Most people probably thought that I was very daring to make the move.  I wanted something different, and I saw a lot of opportunity at NHB.  It's already a brand, but it needs to be refreshed, rejuvenated and reinvented."

Besides, the father of two - he has been married to housewife Lim Chiwen for 15 years and tthey have a daughter, sevn and son, six - says that he always had an interest in art and in collecting.

Sweeping changes

Thirteen months on the job, and the changes are significant.

For one thing, the NHB's new annual report, covered in blue velvet and sporting the chic title Muse In Vogue is decidedly more plush than last year's standard government publication.

Just last month, fresh showbix faces joind NHB as board members, including actor Qi Yuwu and MediaCorp Raintree piectures managing director Daniel Yun.

On whether this could dumb down the heritage and culture sector in Singapore for mass appeal, Mr Koh sayd:  "We want to engage the creative indugstries and grab a bigger audience.  It's not just becaude of star quality."

He adds  "When people saw Yuwu on the list, they were shocked at first.  But he is a serious collector of Chinese contemporary art and knows some Chinese artists personally.

And he stresses that rigourous scholarship and curatorship should jform the backbone of exhibitions.

He says:  "We can't be seen as lowering the quality of exhibitions, which must be rooted in scholarship and research.  It is only in the manner of presentation that we need to change, and which we have to tailor to different audiences.

Conclusion:  It works

His unconventional methods might raise some eyebrows, but they work.  Qi's popular tour of SAM's exhibition of the Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi brought in about 100 fans, some of whom were museum first-timers.

Mr Koh is also working hard to attract visitors from "emerging communities" such as heartlanders and children.  For this, he has worked with the People's Association to bring families from community centres on free bus trips to museum.

And to educate and entire more taxi drivers, whom he calls "ambassador of our museums", he is organising an open house for them in December, where they will be led on guided tours and get vouchers for free entry.

The man is also known to add a personal touch to his work.

Because of him, the Sasha children's books series now has a Sasha Visits The Museum (below) book that was launched in August.

While reading to his daughter one night, he thought:  "There's Sasha Visits The Botanic Gardens, Sasha Visits The Zoo, but Sasha never went to the museums."

So he mooted the idea of the book, and author Shamini Flint wrote it in a tie-up between the NHB and her publishing company Sunbear Publishing.

He also emceed the inaugural Patron of Heritage Awards this year to personally thank the benefactors who had donated and loaned some $118.5 million worth of artefacts between April 2004 and December last year.

Socialising with patrons and donors has meant a lot more late nights for the busy man.  He says:  "In the past, you could just take your work home.  Now there is socialising and events at night.  And you still take your work home afterwards."

And then on weekends, home goes to work.

Dr Kenson Kwok, 58, ACM director and a family's friend, says that Mr Koh combines good administrative skills with a genuine love of the arts.

He says: "He takes his kids to the museum on Sundays and give feedback on how they found the facilities.  You would thinki he wouldn't want to go to his workplace on weekends."

The NHB's director of corporate communications Walter Lim, 37, who has worked with all three CEOs, says that his current boss is "an atypical CEO" with his informal style.

"We can just pop into his room to discuss matters, we're on an SMS basis," Mr Lim adds.

Prof Koh, who approached Mr Koh for the job, says he is "an outstanding individual with a love of culture, has many creative ideas and a sense of style, which is important in this job".

He adds:  "It was a bold move for him to leave the URA, where he was performing so well and had a bright future.  But I am delighted with his performance, and he has really rejuvenated the NHB.

One year into the job, and the man is not slowing down.  Integrated museum programming, a significant project he started this year, is already rolling out in museums.

Under this plan, exhibitions and activities at various museums will be grouped under a common theme to better market them.

Under this year's themem, Celebrate Asean!, are activities such as The Big Picture Show at SAM, featuring large artworks from ASEAN countries, and Common Threads at a ACM, on different textiles in these countries.

Up next year is the Vietnam festival, a cultural extravaganza at the National Museum and a Vietnamese art show at SAM.

Visitors can expect Laos and Philippines festival in 2009.

Visitorship to the six NHB museums crossed the 1.3 million mark in the last financial year, a near 20 per cent increase over 2005, and Mr Koh has plans to grow it further.

He says:  "The heritage sector is a growth industry.  It's about creating value for the nation and the people, and making people proud to say 'this is my heritage'.  After all, we have so many shared memories."

On his achievements, the man remains modest:  "One man cannot change the world in one year.  The wheels were already in place.  I only took things to the next level."

More funky after 15 years

By Adeline Chia
[Source:  The Straits Times, 31 July 2008]

More blockbuster exhibitions, more private museums is the promise of tomorrow as the National Heritage Board celebrates its 15th birthday.

Museum goes, mark your calendars; three blockbuster exhibitions are coming to Singapore.

There is the showcase of treasures from the reign of the Kangxi Emperor in March, 2008, exquisite jewellery from the Mughal Empire in July and an exhibition on Egyptian mummies at the end of the year.

And for those curious about what collectors have in their private collections, new private museums will be opened by individuals, including businessman Oei Hong Leong and cosmetic surgeon Woffles Wu.

These plans to enrich the cultural and heritage landscape come as the National Heritage Board (NHB) celebrates its 15th birthday marking the day in Aug 1, 1993 when the National Archives, National Museum and Oral History Department merged to form a new statutory board.

It was tasked with setting up specialised museums for art, Asian culture and Singapore history.

There is plenty to celebrate as the board has had its strongest year yet.

The first national Peranakan Museum opened in April.  Visitorship to the board's nine museums last year hit an all-time high of 1.86 million, up from 1.34 million the previous year.

Its lively outreach events, including Explore Singapore! and the Singapore Heritage Festival attracted 4.36 million people, a steep jump from 2006's 1.93 million.

The reason?  Heartlanders stepping into museums in increasing numbers and exciting programmes that appealed to a broad spectrum of interests.

NHB chief executive Michael Koh, 46, says the board will continued to court visitors aggressively with outreach events.

He says:  "We went to Sengkang and Woodlands with traditional arts performances.  We expect an even higher showing next year." 

But nothing attracts visitors like blockbuster exhibitions, and the museums have lined up three.

Next year, from March to May, the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is having an exhibition on Kangxi Emperor, who ruled China from 1661 to 1722.  On show will be artefacts from the Palace Museum in Beijing, including paintings of the royal family, scroll paintings of the emperor's birthday celebrations and his expeditions and ancient scientific tools.

In July, the museum will put on an exhibition called Treasury Of The World: Jewelled Arts Of India.  In The Age Of The Mughals.  Visitors will see jewelled necklaces, rings, intricately carved hilts of swords and turban ornaments, among other dazzlers.

Rounding off next year will be the Egyptian mummy exhibitions at the National Museum.  Details are still being worked out but the last time Egyptian mummies went on show here in 1999, they attracted 102,000 visitors to the ACM.

NHB is also trying to grow the number of museums here, not by opening more but by helping collectors to start their own.

Mr Koh says:  "We hope we can be the tipping point for collectors to think about setting up their museums seriously.

To do this, the board soft-launched the Heritage Industry Incentive Programme recently, a $500,000 fund to help people who want to promote heritage and culture by writing books on Singapore culture, organising educational tours or setting up private museums to show off their collections.

The board will help the private museums by subsidising the cost of catalogue printing, and helping with event and exhibition planning.

The fund has already been used to help Singapore writer Adeline Foo publish two children's books on Peranakan culture.  The Kitchen God and The Beaded Slippers, and to develop a pub crawl along the historic Boat Quay stretch which educates participants on the area's history.

The Board has come some way since the merger of those three sleepy departments.

Over the years, it set up the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) in 1996, the ACM  in 1997 and gave the grand old National Museum a complete makeover in 2003, re-opening it in 2006.

Besides these museums, it also oversees the Singapore Philatelic Museum.  Reflections at Bukit Chandu, the Heritage Conservation Centre, the National Archives of Singapore.  Memories at the Old Ford Factory and the newly opened Peranakan Museum.

Its staff strength has grown from about 50 people to 382. 

National Museum Director Lee Chor Lin (above), 45, joined the museum in 1985 as an assistant curator in the South-east Asian Department.

She worked for some years in the reference library at the museum, which had a three-storey-high wall of books.

"I'm nostalgic about the old days," she says.  "The National Museum was a sleepy little place, with not many visitors.  But we had to do everything ourselves: curating, insstalling the exhibition, even dabbling with design.  It was a geat way to learn."

She adds that the budget for acquiring artefacts and artworks in the 1980s was about $30,000 to $40,000 - "not enough to buy a used car".

The sum has balloned over the years.  In 2007, the total acquisition budget for all the museums was $3 million, separate from $75.5 million given by the Government for operation costs.

On NHB's growth, Dr Kenson Kwok, 58, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum, says:  "We went from a museum that was not well-funded to four different major museums which have regional and international reputation as institutions with high, professional standards.  The progress is great."

The appointment in 2006 of Mr Koh, a former urban planner, as chief executive of the board brought a palpable sense of glamour and buzz.

Celebrities such as singer-songwriter Dick Lee and singer Kit Chan were named to boards within the NHB and various museums.  Hunky actor Qi Yuwu leads tours through Chinese contemporary art shows, Salt-of-the-earth actor-comedian Mark Lee is a museum ambassador.

Museums are becoming funkier too.  The recently concluded Night Festival, a free outdoor arts and music festival, drew 50,000 visitors to the National Museum over two weekends.

During the festival, renowned Italian performance group Studio Festi wowed audiences with huminous, aerial antics and Sydney-based lighting effects company, The Electric Canvas, transformed the facade of the museums with magical projections.

The work goes on.

In two weeks' time, the edgy, industrial-looking 8Q sam, an extension of the Singapore Art Museum, will open its doors to the public and showcase contemporary art.

And visitors are lapping it all up.

Freelance dancer Lim Yizhen, 25, who attended the Night Festival on both its weekends, says it was a well-organised event that mixed both the traditional and contemporary.

She adds:  "When I get off work, museums are often closed.  During the festival, the National Museum had free admissions until 2am.  I finally got to see all the galleries inside."

Housewife Cindy Ong, 30, brought her 2 1/2 -year-old son to the National Museum for an interactive exhibtion called Mozart: A Child Proddigy during the June school holidays.

She says:  "It was the first time I had stepped into the museum since I was a child, and I was really impressed.

"I think they did a geat job for the kids' programmes and there should be more.  I'm keen on getting my children to do something different, rather than just being mall rats all the time."

As I passed by National Museum of Singapore one day here .


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