Part of my adventures with the University of Canberra has included visiting two places dedicated to telling the narrative of the Peranakan ethnic group. It was an interesting comparison between the two methods of displaying the culture and history of the group.
Peranakan in Malay means ‘local born’, but in Singapore the word is used to describe the family and descendants of Chinese immigrants who married local Malay women. It’s an incredible cultural heritage, where the culture of both the Chinese and Malay blending together fairly harmoniously. To add to that blend, the Peranakan combined other facets of cultures that they appreciated into the mix. This resulted in a specific (almost eclectic) style and a different way of thinking compared to other ethnic groups.
The two locations that we visited to explore this culture was The Intan and Baba House. Both are houses, and both present the history of Peranakans in slightly different ways (although the core narrative is very similar). I’m glad that we visited both, because I feel like the two fleshed out the history quite well.
The Intan is owned and operated by a Peranakan descendant, Alvin Yapp. Alvin started collecting Peranakan artefacts and antiques from a young age, wanting to connect to and learn about his culture. The house belongs to him and the collection is entirely brought to life via the stories he tells. Downstairs, we were given tea and cakes that were made for us by his mother. Alvin is a very talented interpreter, and after giving us a briefing on how his collection and research started, he allowed us to pick his brains. What is Peranakan? Are people still Peranakan? What role does religion play in the culture? What is this thingy over here? It was great having a guide which allowed for just being curious. Upstairs is where all the very shiny and interesting things live, and I was bedazzled by the sheer number of Peranakan beaded shoes (a skill that now quite rare). The house is not exactly a museum, and it’s not exactly a heritage house, it somehow manages to straddle the two aspects well. It certainly is an impressive collection, and it is was wonderful to be given access to it so warmly.
Baba House is different entirely. Owned and operated by NUS university, it is very much both a heritage house and a museum combined (and also kind of separated out). Level 1 and 2 of the house are frozen in time in the year 1926, considered academically to the be the peak of Peranakan culture. The 3rd floor is a very impressive museum, in a surprisingly small space. The house is being restored/conserved by university students and academics, and I was surprised to hear that at least 40% of the furniture was from the original family that owned the house (which I thought was pretty impressive considering the house was empty when they took over the site). I picked the curators brain for a while on how choices were made about what was being added to the space, and I will be happily applying some of those thought processes when I get home again. I really loved the museum up the top of the house as well, talk about fitting something really diverse into a small space!
Peranakan culture is incredibly interesting, I’m so glad that we have spent this time learning about it. I had no idea that it existed before this trip was scheduled and I feel like it is a really fascinating example of multiculturalism. I really hope next time I am in Singapore the Peranakan Museum will be open again, so that I can have another view point added to my experiences.
Please note: For both locations, photography was severely limited, so I’m very sorry about the lack of substance in these images. I will say, in my very laid back vernacular though - the embroidery/beadwork at the Intan, and the language diagram in Baba House, are very awesome. Also, if you click on the photos, the full size will come up, which means Alvins head will come back into existence.
I had a *lot* of fun yesterday, doing a practice section of cultural mapping in Waterloo Street. It was colourful, and fascinating, and basically compiled a bunch of the things that I like about working in museums into one handy location. It’s the hunt for data and information, that puts together a picture. I’m gushing, but it’s wonderful.
Waterloo Street stretches from Rocher road to Bras Basah Road in downtown Singapore. Our cultural mapping session included the space between Albert Street and Bencoolen Link. The space includes two amazing temples, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Sri Krishna Temple. The street in front of the temples is crowded with incense and flower sellers, fortune readers and massage tents. The next section up takes a hard right and is almost all retail or clothes and Knick-knacks.
I decided to follow the sounds of the street. A fair amount of cultural mapping is focused on intangible heritage, and as a personal note I tend to identify places with the way the sound first when remembering. Plus, if you took the sounds away from this street, it would lose a significant amount of it’s cultural feel.
As you enter the street from the Sri Krishna Temple, there is the sound of the bells being rung on the front door. This bell is an important part of the process of entering the temple space, as they believe that it will make them more receptive to the experience inside. The bell is also associated being polite, and asking permission of the gods to enter the temple.
Just outside this temple, and I admit that this is going to sound odd, but you will likely hear a bit of flesh slapping. This is the sound of the massage practitioners working on clients. The massage places are all professing to have special healing properties and have signs up explaining ‘energy’ flows in peoples bodies. You will also start to have people approach you, looking to sell either flowers of incense that can be used in the temples. They don’t ask incessantly, just politely once. I came across a man without a nose, and wearing a placard that said “Diesel causes cancer”, speaking loudly to anyone who would listen in Mandarin.
Outside the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, you will hear what is best described as the sound of shaking. The temple is devoted to Avalokitesvara, the Goddess of Mercy. Devotees believe that using fortune sticks (or divination) sticks will help to guide them. The process includes shaking a cylinder of these items, which when combined by the many others in the space performing the same ritual, creates a sound that can be easily heard on the street.
Moving down the street towards Bencoolen Link, shops have turned their music up to encourage visitation. Unlike China town, the music here is not sugary American pop, it’s chanting or religious in nature. All of it is in a language I can’t understand, but it is still quite effecting. The retail is mostly offerings, herbs, food and religious paraphernalia.
As you cross the Bencoolen Link, heading towards Albert Street, you reach more retail. Over here you will find people on megaphones selling clothes, knife sharpeners, and all manner of Knick-knacks. You will also be able to hear people bantering and bartering with stall keepers.
The street is incredible. It’s so full of sounds that you normally wouldn’t hear together in Australia. I have to go back before the end of my trip to actually try the divination stick ritual. I had a lot of fun here, and i can’t wait for the next session with Ngee Ann Polytechinic students.
I’ve headed over to Chinatown three times now, with the last visit to really try and narrow down what is was that felt different between it and Kampong Glam. In Kampong Glam, I really enjoyed the atmosphere, and felt immersed at times in a different culture. In Chinatown I was feeling... I think hustled might be the right word for it. There is a disconnect from what I feel is authentic.
Kampong Glam may have a lane which has gone to the trendy side, but it has streets that feel like locals may actually go to. Fabric stores that people might buy from. Streets that people might walk. It sounded right, which is an odd thing to say, but the noise of the space felt consistent with where my feet were planted.
Chinatown presents something vastly different. The heritage buildings might still be there, and I think that sometimes they might be in the right colours, but everything else feels somehow off. The stalls from the shops reach right into the street, with temporary structures covering the wares. Everyone is selling the exact same things: electronics, souvenirs or clothing. The clothing comes in three flavours - tourist, exotic or (weirdly) Himalayan chic hippy? The stalls all include music which is generally terrible (kind of my taste) 80’s and 90’s pop. It just feels dreadfully tourist-y and inauthentic in comparison to the enjoyment that I found in Kampong Glam. I should note, that once I moved out of the middle of the space, things did get better (mostly).
The Chinatown complex was incredible, with a wet section of the likes I have never seen before. So many prawns! But also turtle and frogs, which briefly made me consider going back to vegetarian. Their faces were so cute. Outside the centre is a gathering space where people were playing Chinese Chess. Across from the MRT station, I also found the People’s Park Center where I ate some fabulous duck rice, browsed through craft stores and gazed from the outside at a bookstore of used books all in Mandarin (I think). It felt authentic.
Which brings me to the complexity of the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple. Firstly, the temple is flanked by more souvenir stores, which is probably a little unideal. The inside of the temple is unbelievable. The panels explaining the information are great. The museum is very new and very slick. It’s really worth the trip every upwards, and I honestly suggest just using the steps once you pass the first level. Right up the top of the temple is a beautiful garden, with a prayer wheel in the middle. It is truly beautiful. However, I wondered how the people within the temple, there to connect with their religion, felt about the million tourists who were coming through. Did they feel resentful of our presence? Did they feel like they were having an authentic moment? I don’t think I would enjoy being in that fish bowl, with everyone starting at me like I was a curiosity.
Chinatown is really interesting. Great for some cheap souvenirs (sooooo many pashminas). The Chinese Heritage Centre is awesome, and the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple is pretty amazing. I feel like there is a bunch of work that could go into making it feel more authentic, but that might not actually be what the local businesses want (and maybe money is the big factor here). Authentic or not, it is certain a place with plenty of adventuring that can be had
Today the group had planned tours at the National Museum of Singapore, Battlebox and the Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning. All three were quite fascinating and had slightly different takes on important national narratives.
The National Museum was incredibly beautiful. The building was completed in 1887 as the Raffles Library and Museum and has been extended and renovated sympathetically multiple times. The building has a combination of British neo-classical styling, with slicker recent renovations. There are some *huge* audio visuals used inside galleries. The interpretation of the collection is fascinating, and shies away from going into grim or gritty details. Instead, it focuses primarily on the successes and future of Singapore as a country.
I was particularly struck by this in the Growing Up gallery. The Growing Up gallery focuses on Singaporean history between the 1950’s-1960’s, a particularly complex time for Singapore, but the exhibition mainly focuses on the introduction of education and industry to the country. This isn’t unreasonable, it’s just a tad jarring for this little museum nerd who finds pulling out the raw and ugly truth invigorating. Lesson for today was that maybe a little bit of lightness and pride can actually go a long way.
As a side note, being deeply in love with children and public programs, I had been deeply disappointed in the lack of interactivity in the galleries. Then I found the activities section and my mind was blown. I was also highly skeptic although about a children's activity book that included 116 pages - but it totally works! Super impressed.
Battlebox was quite different. The Battlebox started it’s life as the Headquarters Malaya Command Operations Bunker. More popularly, many will know of the bunker as the location where Commonwealth forces decided to surrender to the Japanese forces during WW2. It’s not where the surrender was signed. The rooms generally do not include original artefacts, as most were lost either during or just after the conflict. It is certainly quite a somber location.
I felt that the story of Singapore was a little lost in the tour. The history of the bunker is explained in length, and the conflicts crescendo builds as films portray the swift advance of Japan down the coast. But story revolves around the commanders that were placed in power, and only briefly touches on the effect of the conflict on Singapore as a country. Primarily, and unsurprisingly I suppose, the story revolves around the bunker and the people within it.
Which leads me to our last adventure of the day, the Bicentennial Experience. It was certainly an incredible experience. I never thought I would stand in the rain, under an umbrella, in a building with a roof. Or that I would watch actors playing historical figures while balancing on a conveyor belt. The best word I could honestly use is ‘intense’.
I was struck as just how completely earnest the production was. The narrative is really a call to arms, asking Singaporeans to see values in certain traits and to aspire to continue growing in the future. It something that I don’t think would work in Australia. I was pretty impressed through that this Experience at least did peer into some of the unhappier aspects of history.
All three are telling a part of the Singaporean story. I would argue that both the Museum and the Bicentennial Experience are telling stories that they hope will become rallying calls towards shared ideals and goals as a society. I think that the way they are telling those stories could spend a bit more time filling in the gaps in history, and not shying away from the messier parts. It felt a bit sugary at times, but they were fantastic places to visit.
I feel extremely lucky and privileged to be on the road again in Singapore, enrolled in a heritage unit through the University of Canberra. Over the next 14 days we will be exploring the heritage and museum sector in Singapore, with an itinerary that is looking fabulously interesting. I’ll try and keep this blog updated with my adventures as we go along.
To back track slightly, I arrived in Singapore ahead of schedule, to spend some quality time with Mr Geek. We have trekked, trailed, traipsed and occasionally trudged our way around some of the tourism spots. It has been, in a word, terrific.
- My first ride on a roller coaster ever, at Universal Studios (Mr Geek insists I popped his ear drum)
- Tasting local sweets in Little India (a friendly customer helped us to pick out the treats)
- The exhibitions at the ArtScience Museum, which were gloriously beautiful and inspiring
- The light and sound show at the Gardens by the Bay (and then an odyssey around the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest)
I have experienced the wonder of Kopi, a type of coffee that uses evaporated and milk to create awareness that is unrivalled. I have tried Chicken Rice.
And, oh my gosh, the transport system. The subways run on time, in a logical order and the tunnels don’t smell suspiciously of stale urine. I’ve felt really safe the entire time, which is lovely.
Anyhow, it has been marvellous. The only downside is Mr Geek heading back home to Canberra today so that I can join up with my Uni group. Maybe I should have smuggled him into my luggage.
Firstly, I think I should acknowledge my own naivety before going over the England for the first time. There were many things that I had made assumptions on, or simply underestimated in large ways.
No 1 Royal Crescent, visited for a workshop conducted with the Open Palaces Programme, was one of those underestimated locations. I have been to many heritage houses in Australia, and so I was mildly interested but not overly enthusiastic. By the time I had completed my first two sessions with the Bath Preservation Trust (Beckford’s Tower and Museum of Bath Architecture), I could not wait to listen and learn from Dr Amy Frost again. Honestly, I would have happily listened to her in any location, No 1 was just a receptacle for another workshop and I was okay with that.
No 1 Royal Crescent is not simply a heritage house. It is part of a series of 30 houses, joined together like modern townhouses, forming a concave crescent. Built between 1767 and 1774 by John Wood the Younger, it is a stunning piece of Palladian design. The Georgian architecture is stunning, and standing on the parkland in front of the houses it was hard to imagine the person power it would have taken to build these houses before modern building machinery. No 1 is the first building on the eastern end of the crescent, and is dedicated as a museum for Georgian life.
Up until this point, I could not have imagined what standing in front of the crescent would feel like. I am still struck by just how big so many of these grand buildings are. The crescent is spectacular, and standing in the parkland in front of the building I felt so very very small in comparison. Behind me, is lovely park land for creating a beautiful vista to look out upon from the houses windows. Up until this point, I had never seen anything comparable. During this trip, I would regularly find myself in awe of the sheer presence these buildings had in the landscape.
Being greeted at the door by a very convincing Georgian butler was also lovely.
The workshop at the museum focused on the creation of engaging and small exhibition. Given a space in which to design a concept, and objects that had be included, our group was given a limited amount of time to come up with some ideas and then present to the group. I had the chance to team up with Helen, Marian, Trisha and Rachel, who were awesome to work with. We decided on an exhibition that focused on leisure during Georgian times with the title of the exhibition being “A Game of Class”. It was a lot of fun banging the idea together and considering what ways we could activate participation in the displays and exhibition as a whole.
A few of the big take away points here (and this is an extreme summary, because there was a lot to think about from this workshop) included:
There was so much more then just these points, but these are the parts I have already started using back in my home museum.
I must admit, having originally looked at the Open Palaces Programme, I was so excited about the workshops. Finding out that they were group activities, turned my smile into something more akin to ‘The Scream’, with nightmare visions of university group work. But I am so glad that we had so many opportunities to work together. Everyone had slightly different backgrounds and interests, and I have come away from the program somewhat disappointed that chances to work with these incredible people are going to be limited by time and space. They were delightful to work with and learn from!
During my trip with the Open Palaces Programme, I had spare afternoons and mornings which I filled with museums and heritage. Sometimes I would wander by myself and sometimes I would have company. My wandering to the Fashion Museum included Calla Sundin and Rachel Cottle, two awesome museum folks who put up with my ranting and raving with lots of amusement.
The Fashion Museum had been high on my list of places to visit. Being an avid embroiderer, I have always wanted to see the Elizabethan embroidered pieces. So after a morning at the Bath Museum of Architecture, I headed off with extreme purpose. My head was filled with brightly coloured embroidery silks and linen.
The museum is located within the Assembly Rooms, a heritage building designed by John Woods and his son John Woods in 1769. The rooms were designed for communities to hold grand balls and get togethers, which it still does to this day under the careful guardianship of the National Trust. Below the shindigs and frivolity, is the basement home of the Fashion Museum. The collection was started by Doris Langley Moore, arguably one of the first female fashion historians. The collection was seeded by Moore’s personal collection and has been added to each year with both historic and modern items.
The collection is incredibly comprehensive and beautiful. I really wanted to be able to sit down and sketch dress after dress, but did not have the time or ability to do so. The museum was filled with people, which was both wonderful and included my pet irritation of audio guides. The museum was completely quiet and included the shuffling masses moving to each curated one sided conversation. As I stood there, marvelling at the embroidered jacket that I had poured over in books a million times over, I was somewhat saddened that it was in this quiet space in a darkened area to prevent damage to it. My companions listened into the audio guide, which is quite fair, and I longed to be able to actually discuss what was there in front of us. What I find problematic, particularly in traditionally designed museum spaces (which this certainly was), with audio guides is that not all people benefit from listening to someone speak to them. As interested in a topic as I am, the moment I have no way to interact with the information my brain removes itself from the situation. Audio guides can be wonderful, but it should considered to be only one way of interacting with guests. There were some text panels, but that only gives a secondary information output and was significantly less detailed then the audio guide.
To protect the pieces, the clothing was often in darkened spaces with specialised lighting. At first I enjoyed this display, but as the shuffling masses moved me along, I started to find it reminiscent of how I was feeling about the exhibition. Somewhat removed and distant from these items that I had lusted over seeing in person. It did however make for some fantastic photos. There is a singular hands on space, where replicas can be tried on for the ever important selfie moments.
What I would have loved to see was more areas where you could interact with the collection or people. If I could change the displays, I would add in nooks and crannies which included touch stations, design spaces, drawing areas, interactive spaces. I would have loved to have seen more humans - the designers, the makers and the wearers. If I could have only one style of interactive it would be focussed on how the different clothing was made - preferably in a way where the visitor could attempt to create their own design and then have it printed out for collection at the desk when I left the museum.
I would absolutely go back again, the collection is incredible and well worth a visit. I just felt alienated by it, and unable to connect on a level that I wanted to. I can thoroughly recommend the shop for a decent fashion books and the cafe in the Assembly Rooms was lovely
When I first started studying at the University of Canberra, I saw a poster for the Open Palaces Programme on the wall and thought “One day, I am going to do that”.
And friends, that is a goal I can tick off my list now.
Why did I want to do the Open Palaces Programme? At first, honestly the idea of walking around in palaces sounded like a beautiful thing to do. I had been involved in a medieval reenactment group, and castles sounded exciting and filled with medieval ‘stuff’. As I grew into my studies a bit more, and worked in the industry, the program started to embody the excitement of learning about heritage and museum practice in a different country. To look at ideas from a different point of view. I wanted to be steeped in museum ideas and saturated in heritage. It certainly achieved all of those things and more.
The program is run by Glasscastle Ltd, and designed by Jean MacIntyre. Jean has an incredible wealth of experience in the GLAM sector, and was a very warm and inviting person to work with. The purpose of the program is to provide a unique learning experience for students and emergent professionals in the GLAM field. The program works with a number of organisations (including the Bath Preservation Trust and the Historic Royal Palaces) to provide talks and workshops on different topics. There was a good combination of theory and hands on, with time to discuss and ask questions. The networking opportunities were vast and highly enjoyable.
Travelling with a group of like minded and fantabulous museum professionals for 20 days was wonderful. One of my favourite parts of any convention is knowing that everyone around you has the same style of passion, but they only last 3 days. Having 20 days to discuss, and theorise, and debate was just lovely. To ensure that the program runs smoothly, a team leader and mentors are assigned to the group. This years team leader for our session was Robbie Ladbrook, an entirely inspiring individual who organised and sorted the group seamlessly. Jill Eastcott and Tyler Mills were our mentors, providing valuable insights and a hearty dose of humour. Travelling for a fair amount of time and taking in a huge amount of information, these 3 lovely individuals made sure our brains were not entirely falling out of our heads and even cared for some of us as we fell sick from lurgies. I have no doubt that these connections that I made will continue to be a valuable resource in my future career path.
I’m lining up a number of blog posts about the places that we visited, talking about some of the topics that we covered. The program has inspired me to keep writing and has left me feeling reinvigorated after a bit of a low point. Over the course of the program, and then with the additional 20 days of travel that I tacked onto the end of the program, I visited 50 different museums, galleries and heritage sites. I have a fair amount to talk about!
For future posts, I’ll tag which of the sites we visited as a part of the program, just in case there is anyone else out there looking for information about some of the places visited in the 2018 sessions. They do change the program regularly though, so please if you are reading this, make sure to check the official website if you are looking for concrete future information.
If you are looking for further information, you can find plenty on their official website: http://openpalace.co
It’s been a busy few weeks, with more things to do then I can poke a stick at. Most of it includes a lot of relaxing before Uni starts back up for the year. However, I have been attempting to get ahead in my texts before the class starts. One of the books assigned to last years class is Objects - Reluctant witnesses to the past by Chris Caple. It’s a fantastic read so far, and I’m loving finding ideas for evidence that I hadn’t considered before. I’m sure I will have more commentary when I have finished reading the book!
As an additional piece of excitement I have been busily preparing for my trip to England this year, having been accepted into the Open Palaces Programme. Occasionally, as I am working out where to stay and what other places to see, I am struck by how vast the world is and how many museums there are to visit yet.
With my all my upcoming travel plans, I thought I would try something new to help record (and savour) the experiences. One of my talented artistic friends invited me along to an Urban Sketchers group in Canberra. The Urban Sketchers movement is a community driven group, with the tag line of “We show the world, one drawing at a time”. After having read a couple of articles about slowing travel down by photographing less, I thought I might try and learn a new skill for the trip. In addition, my grandfather, as he travelled around Europe during WW2 took some limited photographs (film was expensive!), but mostly kept a journal which he would write and draw in to document his experiences. I’m charmed by the concept of creating a document that I can look back on and re-experience not only what I saw, but how I felt about my journeys. This is probably not exactly something one can easily achieve via a facebook photo file!
And so, behold! My first attempt at urban sketching!
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.