Last Thursday, we launched three new permanent galleries at the museum, (almost) completing our transformation from one kind of museum into another… I took the opportunity of the launch to also reveal, my own personal vision for the museum as its Director. Here is my speech. And I invite you all to come see the new galleries (and museum)…
Please note the specific CONTEXT of the speech and launch: Asian Civilisations Museum’s exhibition openings are typically attended by the ambassadorial corps in Singapore, so there is typically a diplomatic “flavour” to the speech. The Southeast Asian theme of the launch must be seen in the context of Apr 2018 – Apr 2019 being ACM’s “YEAR OF SOUTHEAST ASIA”, where we throw the spotlight on the art, culture and heritage of the Southeast Asian region in our special exhibitions and programmes. This particular launch was also to celebrate the successful culmination of Singapore’s chairmanship of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 2018.
Your Excellencies, the High Commissioners and Ambassadors here with us this evening,
Distinguished patrons, board members, guests, friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
Good evening and welcome to Asian Civilisations Museum!
We are absolutely delighted to be launching three new permanent galleries today, namely our Islamic Art, Christian Art and Ancestors and Rituals Galleries. The launch of these permanent galleries represents a significant milestone for us because they complete ACM’s dramatic transformation these past few years into a completely different museum than what it was before.
Our visitors today will know that instead of being organised by geographical region, our permanent galleries are organised thematically, with the first-floor galleries exploring the theme of Maritime Trade; and the second-floor galleries exploring the theme of Faith and Belief. With the three new galleries done, the visitor today can finally, after years of confusion, experience ACM’s thematic curatorial approach properly and fully. The two grand themes of Trade and Faith, are, of course, drawn from what Singapore is, at its very essence – a multi-cultural, multi-faith port city and trading hub. At the same time, Trade and Faith are major driving forces in history, fuelling the movement of people, cultures, goods and ideas across the globe. Our Faith and Belief galleries, in particular, represent the museum’s commitment to a very important and increasingly universal value, and a fundamental part of life here in Singapore – religious harmony.
Even though the new galleries do not only present works of art from Southeast Asia, we decided to launch the galleries on the theme of Southeast Asia in the World for three reasons.
The first reason is to acknowledge and honour ACM’s own heritage as a museum. The core of our collection was and still is the Southeast Asian ethnographic collection that used to belong to the former Raffles Library and Museum (this is today’s National Museum of Singapore). The collection was built during the British colonial period and many of the best pieces in that collection have resurfaced in their full glory in the Ancestors and Rituals gallery, which is the largest of all three galleries being launched today.
Southeast Asia continues to be a strength of ACM’s collection. Some of you may recall that in the old ACM, Southeast Asia was limited to the Southeast Asian gallery. What you now get in the new ACM is the very strong presence of Southeast Asia in ALL of our permanent galleries. In the new ACM, Southeast Asia forms the backbone of the museum, and rightfully so, since we are all literally standing at the heart of Southeast Asia today. The story we now tell in the museum is how Southeast Asia has played a critical role in global maritime trade, and in the spread of systems of faith and belief across Asia.
The third reason for choosing the theme, Southeast Asia in the World is somewhat more strategic, in that this year also saw Singapore chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). We at the museum applaud the important role ASEAN has played to secure peace in the region in the last 50 years. And we hope the diversity of works of art we present in the new ACM reflects the incredible diversity of faiths and of cultures in the ASEAN region, co-existing in harmony. Today’s launch, therefore, also celebrates a smooth and successful year for Singapore in ASEAN – a year spotlighting the themes of resilience and innovation. Certainly, this launch is the culmination of many other ASEAN-themed cultural programmes we have presented at the museum in the course of 2018.
The completion of these new permanent galleries also signals another kind of dramatic transformation for ACM, from being a museum of ethnography, to being a museum of Art and Design. This is evident in the fact that every single piece that we now present to you, the visitor, in our galleries is a masterpiece – both an artefact AND a work of art. It is still important, of course, that each piece is historically and culturally significant – that each piece has its own very unique and compelling story to tell. We still place a strong emphasis on history.
But over and above that, we also demand that the piece demonstrates great beauty and artistry. The point we are making is that here in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, we have had a long and enviable tradition and heritage of artistic excellence, of design and craftsmanship, of innovation and the innovative use of materials. And we ought to and should be very proud of our Asian and our Southeast Asian heritage of artistry, excellence, design and innovation.
This being now a museum of Art and Design, much effort has gone into not only the choice of the pieces displayed but also the design of the galleries, so that the overall emotion that the visitor experiences upon entering the museum is one of awe and wonder. This needs to be especially so on the second floor, since each and every piece displayed here is a work of Sacred Art and possesses within it, an element of the divine. So we have made sure to curate, light and design the second floor with a sense of deep reverence, emphasising aura, form, detail, introducing a touch of playfulness, drama, sensuality where appropriate. We have consciously turned away from traditional ways of displaying antiquities for a more contemporary approach.
Speaking of contemporary… given I am technically near the upper age range of the “millennial” generation, I have also demanded that every inch of the museum be curated and designed to be digital media-ready, which is to say, to be eminently Instagram-friendly – allowing for sweeping panoramas, epic sight-lines and close-ups revealing hidden, often gorgeous details – all this keeping in mind that the new language of digital media is one that is visual, immediate and visceral. I encourage our guests this evening to take as many snaps as you can of the artworks and galleries, and to post them copiously and unrestrainedly on Facebook, Instagram and WeChat.
Being now two years at the helm as the ACM’s director, I have had the opportunity to hone my vision for the museum. And the vision, if I may share it this evening, is this: that the museum be a place of BEAUTY – of beauty rooted in our Asian and Southeast Asian heritage. That the museum be a place of WONDER – by which I mean that indescribable and overwhelming outpouring of emotion and sensory stimuli when we encounter something amazing and out of this world. And finally, that the museum be a place of RELEVANCE, contributing to a larger purpose – be it harmony and resilience, or diplomacy, or creativity and innovation, or education, by which I mean providing Singaporeans and our visitors from afar with a better understanding of Asia and Singapore’s place within it. Understanding Asia well is becoming increasingly critical as the world’s centre of gravity, economic and geopolitical, shifts inevitably eastward.
I want to thank everybody who has made the galleries and today’s event possible – first of all, our wonderful team of curators, conservators and collections managers; exhibition designers, lighting designers and project managers; programmers and educators, marketing, PR and fundraising professionals; operations, estates and security professionals, and our docents and volunteers, all of whom spend almost all of their waking hours right here at the ACM. You are some of the most brilliant, passionate and dedicated people I have ever had the privilege to work with and to work for. You make me so proud and yet so humbled to serve you as your director.
I want to thank each and every donor and patron who has given to the museum – it is because of you that we have been able to acquire beautiful masterpieces and to create beautiful new galleries and exhibitions in which to present them to the public. Special thanks go to Pernod Ricard, for their generous sponsorship of champagne and wines this evening, without which we would not be able to celebrate with abandon.
I also wish to thank the National Heritage Board and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) who always have our back and from whom we receive very generous and very critical government funding for the important work that we do. Ginormous thanks go to our CEO, Ms Chang Hwee Nee, our former CEO, presently Deputy Secretary of Culture and CEO of the National Arts Council, Mrs Rosa Daniel; the former Chairperson of the NHB, Mr Ong Yew Huat, and the present Chairperson of the NHB, formerly the Permanent Secretary of MCCY, Ms Yeoh Chee Yan – thank you for your unstinting encouragement and for being our greatest champions.
Finally, and most importantly, I wish to thank members of the Asian Civilisations Museum Board, led by our Chair, the one and only Mr Loh Lik Peng – thank you so much to the Board for being with us on this journey of transition from one kind of museum to another, a journey that has been enjoyable and excruciatingly painful in turn. Thank you for supporting us every step of the way in not only an emotional and intellectual manner, but also in a philanthropic manner. Thank you for being just simply a mind-blowingly awesome board!!
Ladies and gentlemen.
Welcome to Asian Civilisations Museum.
I hope you have had an amazing 2018 and here’s to an even better 2019!!
Thank you so much and enjoy the party.