There have been very few buildings I’ve visited in Singapore so far that are still being used for their original purpose. Singapore is both old and new, with buildings being repurposed to fit into current requirements. I feel that this is probably better then knocking down lovely heritage buildings, but in the case of places like Haji Lane can be jarring or cause cultural clashes. Today we went to see the National Gallery, and I was pretty blown away by the changes to the two heritage buildings.
The National Gallery Singapore opened in 2015, which makes it a surprisingly young institution. It’s focus is on Singaporean art and culture, and works that explore Singapores global connections. The Gallery consists of two main buildings, which are connected via a glass atrium (which reminded me of other museums such as the British Museum and the National Museum of Singapore). The two main buildings are the original City Hall and Supreme Court. The two buildings are connected via the covered atrium and two link bridges at different levels.
I thought that the way the two buildings were treated was quite interesting. The City Hall side felt like a brand new building. Without having been told that it was a converted office area, I would not have guessed it’s origin at all. The area has been made into large long galleries, with an open air space plunging down the middle. At the lower level, there is a completely kick arse children's area, which I will hopefully get a chance to rave about a little later. It has a level of gallery noise, which is to be expected in a busy space. The art works within this space were in capsules, and cut off from a narrative linking them to each other.
The Supreme Court side is quite different, as there is an attempt to preserve some of the nature of the original building. The first thing that struck me, as I walked through the heavy doors, was the complete quiet of the space. The building had been designed to suppress noise inside, which when cut off from the noisy galleries, gave the space a somber quality. The galleries include hints of it’s previous life: a pulpit still in place, viewing areas in dark wood, spaces where judges would have sat. The art in the Supreme Court side had a very specific nation building narrative, with rooms leafing logically to each other. Significantly, the Chief Justices office is filled with nation effecting documents on display, such as the divorce papers from Malaysia.
I wondered why these two buildings felt so different. I wonder whether it is because the role of the Supreme Court is more relatable to visitors - what happened here? Law stuff happened here. It was probably important. Where as the city hall section is filled with the faceless people that help to make a government and country to run. Government workers rarely get wigs or robes to work in. I felt like I had a clearer connection to the heritage in the Supreme Court, where as City Hall honestly felt a little hidden.
Or it could just be that too much of the City Hall section was closed, awaiting the new exhibition that is opening on Saturday and taking up a substantial amount of the City Hall space.
I do really love that they have two (and a bit) exhibition spaces open that describe the history and transition of the buildings. Large panels describe the original purpose and designs, the archeology of what had been found on the site during digs and explanations on why choices had been made. Many of the panels included a small pin mark that explained where you could find the feature that was being discussed. I have seen a growing tend in embracing displaying works done within museums, and I think it is really fabulous.
I really liked what they have done to the space - it’s felt connected while still feeling modern and a bit slick. I don’t think that the heritage of the building it specifically lost, but it is more muted. It was a thoroughly enjoyable gallery to visit.
Some articles that I read while writing this blog post:
The Architecture of National Gallery Singapore
Design of the Year 2015
National Gallery Singapore
Today I was swept away in the Kampong Glam district. There was a fabulous tour by our friendly guide, Bus, which included a visit to a mosque (a first for me) and a lot of information about the people who live in the area. I feel endlessly curious about the government house schemes in Singapore and we walked through one of the huge apartment buildings (and ate a delicious green sponge cake). I spent my lunch time eating the best Doner kebab I have had in a long time and then exploring the textile shops. Major temptations awaited me! Then from there we had a great tour at the Malay Heritage Centre. It was a brilliant, and somewhat exhausting day. I have treated myself with a set of new shoe inserts, cushier socks and a dinner of roast pork with rice. Perfect after such a long day.
I was really interested to see the difference in a few of the streets. Arab Street and Haji Lane presented the two more extreme examples of somewhat clashing cultural streetscapes.
As a quick background, Kampong Glam is the district that was set out by Raffles to be home to the Malay/Muslim community in the original Singapore town plans. The area became a hot pot of not only people who were moving to the area, but also those who were on their pilgrimage to Mecca (it was a handy port town for this journey). Haji Lane became an area for waiting for the ships to arrive so that the next part of the journey could be taken, with places to stay overnight (or apparently sometimes just sleeping in the streets). Our tour guide explained that as time went by, it ended up becoming a location for cafes which included Hooker, a type of smoking device. These devices were then banned in Singapore, and the lane became quiet for the first time probably since it’s creation. What is a town planner to do with a suddenly empty street? In additional, in 1989, the Kampong Glam area was gazetted as a conservation area, so it was important to keep the original feel for the street.
How about some repurposing?
The lane was a part of a large revitalisation plan, with Haji Lane being opened up to a new crowd of businesses. Today I saw, in a beautiful heritage building, a coffee shop that gets you to take a selfie so that they can print it onto your coffee. There is a taco place, trendy clothing stores, and all manner of places that would attract people that could be described as hipsters. It was pretty incredible looking, and the buildings maybe looked connected to the original design of the area, but the shop contents are in high contrast. It is exceedingly busy and alluring for visiting groups.
One street over, and you are on Arab Street. Arab Street is where many textile and fabric stores exist, be-still my beating heart! But beyond my enthusiasm for anything fabric-y (mmmm...softened linen...), the street has a long history of being the place to go and buy textiles. The street is slightly less artsy, but still colourful and full of movement and interesting smells. The textiles spill onto racks and shelves on the footpath and salespeople roll out the fabric for you to fondle. It feels less colourful, but it also feel more authentically part of the culture of Kampong Glam.
So, where does that leave me?
I loved both streets, really. But I can understand how business owners on Arab Street may feel left behind or suddenly pressured by the growing rate of lease costs due to the proximity of now trendy streets. It sounds like the redevelopment of Haji Lane breathed a new and important life through the area, which brings money and people. And it’s complex - its a balance between what is needed to bring tourists through the area and what actually works for the living community there. No one wants to become a Venice, with a population rapidly becoming priced out and disillusioned with their city. No one wants to become a ghost town, where there are no tourists or shoppers spending money. It’s a balancing act. I have a feeling that maybe there is further to go yet for this section, but I don’t feel like the authenticity of the area is gone either. It sounds like the Urban Redevelopment Authority is working with the local community to try and work on active solutions. A little like a good marriage, it’s all about communication and caring about what is going to work for both sides of the party.
To sum this post up - I looked at hipster clothing, I bought incredibly soft cotton, and just fell in love with the different cultures on each of the streets. Oh, and I drake iced teh from a plastic bag! If you happen to be in the area, it’s well worth an exploring this awesome location.
Some websites that discuss the redevelopment in Kampong Glam:
Case Stude: Urban Solutions, Issue 12, January 2018 - Kampong Glam, When Old is Also Hip
Heritage and gentrification: Is there a win-win for neighbourhoods?
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.
Today, I have had my mind mind officially blown away by the coolest piece of data visualisation! I know, I’m probably slow to the scene, but you should immediately go and check out: http://listen.hatnote.com
No seriously. Right now... Okay, maybe after I have finished raving.
The website is Listen to Wikipedia, and it’s purpose is to create audio that represents the creation and removal of data on Wikipedia. The sound and strength of the notes depends on the size of the edit and who made it. The sound is absolutely lovely, and somewhat meditative. While the music plays, the titles of the pages being edit pop up on the screen like soft bubbles.
What an engaging and lovely way to display this data!
I can’t help but wonder what this would sound like connected to Trove. Or if it could be the sound in an entrance to a museum, being triggered off by people using the website or the data. This style of visualisation could provide a beauty that connects people to the importance of research and information creation.
A bit of research tells me that this isn’t the first amazing visualisation project that has been created the designer Mahmoud Hashemi. Working with Hatnote and Wikipedia, the designer has been a part of a number of heritage based visualisation projects, that are just very cool.
I hope this brings a little joy into your life this week.
I am incredibly lucky to work with some exceptional volunteers, who just seem to always *know* where to sniff out the clues. A few weeks ago, Jan the amazing, after digging though Floriade ephemera found the following details:
I can’t help but wonder if the artist had been compelled into creating the artwork, which he fervently didn’t want to. It is a brilliant name.
With that info, I dutifully added it into all my training manuals. Then I wondered... how is anyone else ever going to find this?
Thus, I am now editing the Wikipedia page for Commonwealth Park. I’ve started on the sculptures table to start with, but I feel that this might take quite some time. Wish me luck!
Just before Christmas, I had the pleasure of being invited along to a session at the Recycling Discovery Hub in Hume (a suburb of Canberra). The centre is normally only open to educational groups and special interest sessions, so I was super excited to go and check it out with a bunch of other enthusiastic museum and heritage educators.
The Recycling Discovery Hub is an ACT government project, led by Robbie Ladbrook. I was very lucky to have Robbie as my program leader during the Open Palaces Programme, and loved having a chance to see the project she has been working on in Australia. Opened in May 2018, the centre was created as a educational facility to enhance public understanding of how recycling and waste is processed.
The space is connected to the actual recycling centre and has a pretty incredible view over the inside of the plant. What can’t be seen easily is displayed on large TV screens - the cameras are able to be refocused on the topic of discussion for the presenter. It’s a small space, which at first glance seems too small to hold much information. I was blown away by exactly how much of the space is interactive and the sheer amount of information is conveyed in easily understandable chunks. I walked in thinking that I already knew a lot about recycling, and walked out thinking “You know nothing, Amanda” but completely invigorated to know keep learning.
When looking up information about the centre on the internet, what you will find a lot of information about the virtual reality interactive tour of the facility. Risk dictates that taking small people into the actual facility would be a terrible idea, so instead the tour is conducted via virtual reality. The experience included the participant sorting garbage, learning about the different symbols on plastic and driving forklifts. All very impressive and seemly enjoyable for the person driving the simulation.
In Robbie’s paper at Waste 2018, she mentions the importance of capturing imagination to tap into curiosity. As much as I love virtual reality, the rest of the centre totally tapped into my curiosity. The space is devided into areas which discuss different types of waste and what happens to them. Almost everything is touchable. There are samples of waste, examples of what waste is turned into, low tech versions of waste organisers, drawers to go through, things to open. It’s a tactile learners dream. I have added a large number of photos below with my absolute highlights.
Together with a great presentation, I left knowing far more then I did before entry. I found the experience engaging and highly enjoyable. I also think that the space would work for pretty much any demographic, which is an incredible feat by itself. I found myself at the end, not only wanting to be better at handling waste, but also inspired to find more ways in which to inspire curiosity in museums.
Waste 2018 - Building a better platform for community engagement (Robbie Ladbrook): https://www.coffswasteconference.com.au/QuickEventWebsitePortal/2018/waste/Agenda/AgendaItemDetail?id=48192932-2ece-a1a6-dd3e-39e0470f4b38
ACT PS News - Recycling won’t go to waste: https://psnews.com.au/2018/05/10/recycling-lessons-wont-go-to-waste/
Media moment demonstrating the space: https://twitter.com/actgovernment/status/994857228707430401?s=21
In October I had the pleasant experience of visiting the Goulburn Historic Waterworks to check out their annual Steampunk & Victoriana Fair. It was brilliant fun, and I will certainly be going along again!
The Waterworks is located next to the Wollondilly River, making it a very picturesque location. I can completely understand why so many events choose this location for a wide variety of shindigs. The official website explains that the pumping station was built in the 1880’s and provided Goulburn’s first reticulated water supply. The original Appleby Bro’s Beam engine is still maintained as a working piece of machinery. I was struck by how surprisingly quiet it was - somehow I has imagined that it would be as loud as the steam powered trains that I have seen. Beyond the original machine, there is a variety of other impressive devices that are somewhat meditative to watch in movement.
The museum space has a complicated past, much like many small museums. It has swung between fully privately funded, to council funding multiple times, but has somehow managed to survive quite solidly. There is a neat little education program available and the volunteers that I met onsite were very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The Steampunk & Victoriana Fair is an initiative by the Waterworks to raise funds and profile. The Steampunk & Victoriana Fair has been running since 2014, with an attendance of approximately 250 people in it’s first year. Attendance for 2018 was approximately 3000, which is a fairly good rate of growth for an annual event (I believe this would have been higher is not for the rain). Revenue is also raised by having themed retail stores and food vendors. Cleverly, the food vendors were hidden slightly around a corner, which meant that the steampunk atmosphere could be maintain a little more easily. Multiple competitions (costume, inventions etc) invite participants to join in the fun from early before the events date, keeping it fresh in the public’s mind.
Steampunk is a genre of fiction that imagines a 19th-century inspired world that is influenced by science fiction style elements. There are very few ‘rules’ on what this means exactly - but imagine, it you will, a Victorian Gentleman in a lovely outfit that also includes a fully steam powered mechanical arm, or a set of suitcases that follows along behind the owner using steam powered tank treads. It is an amalgamation of science fiction with steam powered 19th century ingenuity and fashion. As someone who enjoys textile arts and sewing, I was so inspired by the characterful costumes. Admittedly, I am certainly not looking to get involved in another hobby, but I thought the deliberate anachronistic nature of the costuming looked very enjoyable. There is a storytelling element that is very alluring to the whole business.
With that in mind, I think that as a revenue raising event, the Fair is a wonderful choice for the site. The volunteers onsite helped to explain how the actual technology worked and I did notice that people were stopping to read the historic panels. The atmosphere was fabulous, and the users of the site clearly cared for the space. A quick googling brings up plenty of news articles talking about the event, raising the profile and traffic of the Waterworks. It also promotes the historic buildings as a prime site for other private and public events. I love that it both celebrates a history that was, and will never be. I will absolutely be returning to visit again this year!
In preparation of upcoming walking tours, I am currently researching the many varied sculptures in Commonwealth Park, Canberra. I do love this work, and discovering the people behind the amazing artworks is just delightful. I am perplexed however, in trying to find any information on the sculpture that I have nicknamed ‘Big Blue’.
The sculpture lays on the western shore of Nerang pool. Snuggled into the tree line, the plaque has long ago lost all writing from it. I have managed to narrow down some evidence so far:
1. A photo of it in the garden appears in a 1995 newspaper
2. It does not seem to be one of the commissioned works from 1995’s Floriade
3. It does not seem to have been a commissioned work from 1994
1993 winners are currently being illusive, much to my aggravation. On the upside though, it creates a timescale of probably somewhere between 1975 and 1995, which is somewhat smaller then what I was originally looking at.
My current plan is to keep reading through old newspapers and to widen my search of photos around the area. In addition, once all the fencing is down, I’m going to try a rubbing of the plaque, just in case.
I’ll keep the search going and update my avid readers with the outcomes. If you happen to have any old photos of the area near Nerang Pool, I would certainly love to hear from you!
Canberra Times (1995) - Floriade Canberra’s Spring Festival: All the things you need to know
Canberra Times (1995) - Floriade Canberra’s Spring Festival: Gardens a show case for sculptors
Canberra Times (1994) - Canberra’s Spring Festival of Flower
I couldn’t help but be somewhat amused at the differences between two articles that I read this week: One that focused on the passion that Smithsonian has for repatriation of sacred and important collections, the other reporting on the reaction the public had towards the British Museums assertion that their collection is not entirely made up of looted items from the colonial era.
Amusing to me, and it must make others grind their teeth in total frustration.
I’m incredibly disappointed that for the last part of my Open Palaces Programme adventure, I missed seeing Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tour of the British Museum. Alice is an Australian running incredible tours in London which look at the uncomfortable history of items and artworks in museums. And it’s not just about the stolen nature of some of the objects, but about the way that colonialism continues to effect the way things are described, displayed and stored. I desperately want to get my hands on one of the badges she was handing out “Display is like you stole it”. I also find it amazing that such a great piece of agitation, may have contributed to the British Museum releasing a statement that sounds a lot like “Not everything is looted!”. But enough of it is.
While on the program we visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded by Augustus Pitt Rivers (a name which sounds like it should feature in a movie about looting crypts in the Victorian era) in 1884, seeded with 22,000 of his collected objects from around the world. His history is both fascinating and exciting, and completely of the era he was from. Rivers was a noted archaeologist, with a particular interest in tracking the history of human invention. Thus, the museum space is fascinating in its grouping of objects with like objects. The tags in the cases are sparse in information, presenting the item as a piece of a larger puzzle. What this lacks, regularly, is contextual information. What this does (unintentionally, I hope), is to put a beautiful bone china cup next to something rougher from somewhere ‘other’ and allow the viewer to see that obviously the British cup is much less primitive. That evolution and invention has been better in Britain or other ‘developed’ countries.
Hold on, I think I may be letting some of my bias and annoyance show. Let me just try and tuck that away for the moment.
I was born in Australia, and have always known that we are in a colonised land. Opinions and approaches to this have changed dramatically over time, but the violence that is a by product of that invasion is something that can not be ignored. The colonial period is intensely complicated, and is a time of great developments in science and understanding the world we live in. It’s also littered with violence and acts of great injustice which we are only now starting to fully understand and work through. So while I understand the significance of not removing histories successes, I think we need to spend more time really reflecting on what had to occur to make those achievements.
The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a special place in my mind as being stunningly beautiful and everything I imagined a Victorian era museum would be. Oxford is an amazing town (city?), and I felt so amazed to be standing in a place of such history. The Pitt Rivers Museum can be accessed directly from the street, or you can take the scenic route through the Natural History Museum first, with it’s dodos, dinosaurs and other delights. When you walk through the massive doors, you will be faced with soft light bathing the multi story open space. And it is filled to the brim with cases of curiosity. I was properly in awe, my breath lost as I stared at the space. There were giggles and gasps in the museums sound scape as people took in not only the historic items on display, but also the surprisingly gory. I was horrified to discover that the museum is still in possession of Indigenous Australia remains. I was mortified when I began to look at the history of Australian’s asking for the remains to come home only to have to fight for the right to bring their family home to Country. When I asked about the repatriation process, I discovered that the museums policy is really about waiting to receive requests and that these requests do not happen regularly.
The article from the Smithsonian hit the note that I had really been hoping to see. The Smithsonian is significantly larger then the Pitt Rivers Museums, but I should note that the museum is one of many that are managed by Oxford University (which is a fairly large organisation). The Smithsonian has repatriation offices that actively seek to reconnect items and human remains with communities. It has a goal to reduce the number of human remains held by the museums to zero. I enjoyed reading an article that actually celebrated the ideals of repatriation. I feel like British museums could really benefit from setting some appropriate goals around what is appropriate to have in a museum collection.
What I did hear in the museum itself, and from having read a number of articles revolving specifically around the Pitt Rivers Museum were statements of concern to send the items back to the communities from whence they came from. And if absolute evidence can’t be found, then hiccups occur in the process. What this (once again, unintentionally I hope) breeds is a feeling that British Museums feel that they understand our communities and country better then we do ourselves. This is extremely patronising, and honestly there are a good number of institutions in Australia which would be much more experienced in working with Australian communities then most British institutions.
It easy to fall into a thought process that exclaims how easy this should all be. Repatriation and reconciliation is not a simple process, but it is ennobled by being an active process. When an organisation is seen to actively seek out traditional owners and question the history of their collections, it is an act of reconciliation. It’s facing our own complex histories, putting aside the inlaid shame, and offering to be transparent in our desire to be honest about history and ownership. Instead of waiting for communities to present themselves into our European style processes, approach communities and find out how the museum can work with their systems. If you can’t find a community something belongs to, at least have a partnership museum in the right country, and return it to them until a permanent home can be found. Museums and galleries may find themselves with unexpected friendships that deliver more content and information then any stollen artificial could hope to give. They could find deep and wonderful contextual details. And if the list is so huge, because I do understand just how many countries have been touched by the colonial era, then alphabetise it and start from the top. I imagine the process would be hard, with complexities, but reconciliation is not meant to be an easy process. The point is to learn from our mistakes, not to ignore them or explain them away.
Articles that influenced and touched this blog post:
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.