It seems like only yesterday I made the one-year mark as Director of Asian Civilisations Museum.
As 1 September 2019 came and went two weeks ago, just like that… without fanfare… I hit the THREE-YEAR mark as Director.
Gosh, I never thought I’d last that long! Certainly, I’m no longer the child I was when I took up the position. For starters, my hair, jet black three years ago, can now pretty much be described as “salt and pepper”. And I’m barely past 40.
I thought it would be important to do a self-assessment of my contribution at the helm of the museum; to evaluate how well I’ve done in three years.
Self-reflection is always important, in order that one stays on track, and stays grounded.
But I’m not going to assess my achievement along the lines of typical quantitative and qualitative “key performance indicators” for museums. Instead, I will evaluate myself based on just two key values – CLARITY and AUTHENTICITY; values which I have consciously used to guide me along.
This will be a long post, I’m afraid. But it provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the museum. =)
Perhaps the most critical aspect of any institution, let alone a museum, is clarity of mission, purpose and brand.
From day one as Director till this very day, I have striven hard to clarify and communicate the mission, purpose and values of the ACM, as it underwent and continues to undergo a transformation from one kind of museum to another.
Clarity of Mission
That ACM has undergone a dramatic shift in its mission, is by now, old news. That we eschew a traditional, geographical approach to viewing Asia for a radical (even for now), thematic, pan-Asian, trans-national approach is now well-known and well-regarded.
That our collection is cross-cultural or hybrid – blending elements of “East and East”, and “East and West” is also, well-acknowledged.
But this wasn’t always the case.
When I first took over the museum, there was deep animosity on the part of the museum’s staunchest supporters for the new, cross-cultural mission. Some factions really disliked the new museum and circulated not-so-nice remarks about it within museum and culture circles. Our visitorship had plunged significantly, and we were in danger of becoming completely irrelevant.
So my first year on the job was spent tirelessly consulting people, and personally taking groups of visitors through the museum on guided tours, to gauge their reactions to the new curatorial approach and to actual objects in the galleries; to understand what, if anything, was wrong and right with it!
I must have spoken to and engaged with some 400 different visitors from all walks of life – academics, teachers, patrons and board members, (our very passionate) docents and volunteer guides, students, civil servants, friends and family, etc.
I concluded that the thematic, cross-cultural approach WAS INDEED the right way forward for us. In fact, younger audiences, being accustomed to a life circumscribed by social media, naturally understood our focus – they see the world in terms of networks and flows. It was easy to explain this approach to them.
The older audiences, however, still held on tightly to the old, silo-ed model of civilisations in isolation; partly because of nostalgia, but also because of how it represented a traditional frame by which Singaporeans see themselves and their ancestral cultures – I refer to the so-called “CMIO” (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other) model.
I decided that what was missing, therefore, was a way of POSITIONING this new approach. I needed to find a new FRAME that would not be too far out, but still be relevant to today.
With that in mind, I started contextualising our two main curatorial themes, TRADE and FAITH, and our CROSS-CULTURAL collection, against Singapore’s very nature as a multi-cultural, multi-faith, port city and trading hub.
Maritime Trade and Religious Harmony were, after all – so I explained to my guests –two integral aspects of Singapore’s DNA. And all Singaporeans are inherently cross-cultural (or hybrid), in that each and every one of us has blended within us, elements of east and west, and east and east; and THIS is what makes us unique.
This new frame – which I eventually titled “Asia through the lens of Singapore” allowed the new ACM to be seen as quintessentially Singaporean. Although we have very little by way of Singaporean art and artefacts, we imposed our own uniquely Singaporean view and values upon the interpretation of these non-Singaporean art and artefacts.
And that was actually ok. This frame proved to be very effective.
Literally, each time I elaborated on it to our audiences, there would be an “AHAH!” moment in the minds of audiences, as they shifted their mental models accordingly to accommodate what was obvious.
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We also had major (inadvertent) help from China and its recently launched “Belt and Route Initiative” – its strategy for global economic cooperation, modeled on the lines of the historic overland and maritime silk roads.
In May 2017, at the launch of the Belt and Route High-Level Forum in Beijing, Premier Xi Jinping, in the opening paragraphs of his opening speech, mentioned the Tang (or Belitung) Shipwreck Collection in ACM as a tangible proof of the historic maritime silk roads.
Almost overnight, we were assailed by Chinese Museums wishing to take travelling exhibitions of the Tang Shipwreck.
Not long after, museums and educational institutions in the West began to introduce new initiatives and programmes specialising in the “Maritime Silk Roads” – a notable institution in this instance being the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Erstwhile niche academic and curatorial programmes on port cities and maritime trade also became more mainstream.
The upshot of this was that our visitors and funders also began to shift their attitudes towards our new curatorial approach, acknowledging that we were surprisingly relevant, and even perhaps a little far-sighted, in adopting this approach.
We began to be regarded as the museum that best represented Singapore’s unique value proposition to Asia and to the world – our open-ness to trade, our multi-culturalism, and our being literally a crossroads, not only of Asian cultures, but between Asia and the world.
Trade and Faith, were, after all, not just two intrinsic aspects of Singapore’s identity; they were also two of the most important driving forces in the world, fueling the movement of peoples, cultures, goods, ideas across Asia and across the globe. Understanding trade and faith were critical to understanding the world (and Singapore’s place in it).
I’m happy to say that today, only the very staunchest of old guards would consider ACM’s curatorial approach irrelevant. Most of our audiences concede that our approach is strategic, distinctive and future-oriented rather than backward-looking.
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But there is another major, dramatic shift in the museum’s approach that has just become apparent; and this shift pertains to the very nature of the museum itself.
From an ethnological museum specialising in Asian cultures, the ACM today is a museum of Asian Decorative Arts, albeit retaining an additional specialisation in Archaeology.
With support from the government and from our major patrons, we have managed, in the last six years, to acquire masterpieces of Asian art in the space of what can only be described as the decorative arts: furniture, ceramics, silver, lacquer, textiles, costume, jewellery, paintings…
Even our “traditional” collections of sacred and ritual objects from all of Asia’s grand world civilisations and religions are treated as works of art – divine but also decorative; functional (in that they are used in ritual and in the worship and veneration of the divine), but also beautiful, in that they are all, in and of themselves, exquisite works of the human imagination.
[I need not mention that our “branch museum”, the Peranakan Museum, has always, already been a decorative art museum. I don’t speak much about Peranakan Museum, of which I am ALSO Director, in this post as I have not had a strong influence there… yet.]
To underscore this shift, I introduced a third curatorial theme to the museum where there wasn’t one before. This theme – MATERIALS AND DESIGN – would undergird the permanent galleries on the third floor. These third-floor galleries – featuring our collections of Fashion and Textiles, Jewellery and Ceramics – will be completed and reopened in February 2020, thereby finally “completing” this version (and vision) of ACM.
To communicate to our audiences, without any shadow of a doubt, that ACM had shifted irrevocably into the space of decorative arts, I strategically schemed and successfully put on our very first special exhibition dedicated to contemporary couture.
The GUO PEI – CHINESE ART AND COUTURE exhibition was a very subversive choice indeed for the museum, because we had never done anything like it in our history. Upon learning that we were attempting this exhibition, I was scolded again by various parties, some telling me that I was “leading the museum astray.”
It took them seeing the exhibition to understand what I was trying to do – drag the museum forcefully into the contemporary day in terms of its content as well its ability to attract new and younger audiences; while not losing sight of our fundamental purpose, which is to champion culture, heritage, tradition; to make a point that culture, heritage and tradition were ALIVE and EVOLVING; that TRADITION and INNOVATION could indeed be mentioned in the same breath. =)
The GUO PEI – CHINESE ART AND COUTURE exhibition has been extremely successful. My board members are pleased. And now that the museum and I have stepped irrevocably outside of our gilded box, we are not going to be boxed in again.
Clarity of Purpose
An institution’s Purpose refers to its Role or Function within a larger context; in the case of ACM, within the context of Singapore in Asia and Asia in the world.
In the last three years, I have successfully clarified as well as cemented ACM’s Key Roles, which when taken together, differentiate her from the other Museums in town.
These roles are directly linked to ACM’s Mission and three major Curatorial Themes.
As Singapore’s only National Museum that does not explicitly focus on Singapore in its collections and exhibitions; and with our strong focus on Maritime Trade and connections between civilisations, ACM’s primary role is that of DIPLOMACY. We exist to provide a place for Asia and the world in Singapore’s public and cultural consciousness; as well as to subtly communicate Singapore’s uniqueness in and usefulness to Asia and the world.
Our second role, which ties in with our focus on Faith and Belief, is to promote HARMONY between faiths. We are the only museum in Singapore (and quite possibly Asia) to collect works of art and culture related to all of Asia (and Singapore’s) grand systems of faith, and to present these faiths side-by-side in a direct reflection of Singapore’s core value of religious harmony.
Our third role is to champion AESTHETICS AND CRAFT, as Singapore’s de facto museum of decorative art. In our galleries, we emphasise beauty and craftsmanship; we skew our curatorial narratives towards art history, rather than history per se. In our galleries, the visitor learns to appreciate the basics of Asian art – materials, motifs, design, craftmanship. He or she also learns to train the eye; to enhance his or her sense of aesthetics.
Finally, our fourth but by no means least important role, is that of EDUCATION, since our galleries tell the history and art history of Asia and Asian civilisations, the history and art history of the grand world religions, and also impart the basics of aesthetics, craft and design. We are the only museum in Singapore able to comprehensively provide cultural and aesthetic education. We exist to provide students and the public alike with a better understanding of the cultures and heritages of the Asian region.
Clarity of Brand Values
An institution’s brand is the encapsulation of what the Institution stands for – its nature, its mission, its aspiration, its competitive advantage, and the kind of experience it promises its visitors. I’ve expounded upon the ACM’s Brand Promise in an earlier post. But it is worth recapping these values succinctly here.
As a decorative art museum, aesthetics are important. And therefore, in everything we do we strive to achieve aesthetic excellence and quality.
Beauty represents excellence; the best we can be as a civilisation. And it is our desire to demonstrate that Asia has had a long and enviable tradition of beauty and excellence, one we should be proud of as Asians.
We aspire, through our collection, and through our curatorial approach and exhibition design, to provide visitors with awesome experiences, building on the traditional definition of “awe”, which is the state of heart-stopping amazement when one encounters the sublime and the sensual.
In a world increasingly defined by uncertainty and instability, we want the museum to always be, first and foremost, a place of hope and of inspiration.
As a National Museum of Singapore, we must strive to be relevant in everything we do. Relevance needs to be achieved at multiple levels.
In curating our exhibitions and conceptualising our approach to research and publications, we must always strive to provide new knowledge and perspectives to the world, perspectives that only we in ACM, here in Singapore, can provide. This is so we are regarded as relevant to the global academic and museum community.
At the same time, we need to present perspectives that resonate with our public and our stakeholders here in Singapore, ensuring that we never venture too far into the esoteric, but also, at the same time, not pander to the lowest-common denominator.
We strive, finally, to be relevant to Singapore, in dispensing with our roles in Diplomacy, Harmony, Aesthetics and Education.
This pertains more concretely to the work of a museum in the space of creating content and experiences.
ACM’s Authenticity is achieved through the following principles:
Object First, Always
A museum’s soul is inextricably linked to its collections. And I’m very pleased to say that ACM has one of the best collections in Asia, and in a few specific instances, some of the best collections in the world.
Our curatorial approach, therefore, has been to throw the spotlight on our collections, and let the masterpieces speak for themselves. To let objects tell the (hi)story, in other words, rather than attempt to illustrate (hi)story through objects.
There is a subtle though extremely important difference between the approaches.
The HISTORY FIRST approach – using objects to illustrate history – requires a comprehensive collection, allowing for every milestone in the history of a civilisation to be illustrated by an actual object. This is the approach used by the British Museum, which has one of the most comprehensive collections in the world. They can literally tell the history of a civilisation through objects because they have basically, like, EVERYTHING.
But not every museum is that lucky.
The alternative – the OBJECT FIRST approach – is to treat objects as “storybooks” in and of themselves; to read the object from multiple dimensions (historical, art historical, sociological, ethnographical, political, etc), and communicate the unique perspectives and interpretations gleaned from these readings to the visitor.
Each object is a unique universe – when given a “voice”, the object can do much more than simply illustrate history. They can bring it alive, enrich history with nuggets of detail – what is depicted on the object? How does this relate to the history of the time? What was it used for? Who owned it and why? How was it made? Why does it look the way it does? What larger aesthetic tradition does it belong to? What’s cool about it?
Visitors these days, especially younger visitors, prefer stories to long, didactic histories. They prefer to explore and experience, encountering history, art and culture in bite-sized, serendipitous fashion. And as audiences, they are no less sophisticated because they like their content bite-sized.
In fact, I would argue that Millennial and Gen Z audiences – those who have grown up accustomed to social and digital media – are perhaps the most sophisticated and demanding audiences ever. They consume in a way that is just completely different than what we have hitherto been used to – this way of consuming privileges the bite-sized over the didactic (as I’ve already touched on), choice over linearity, and – very importantly – the visual over the textual.
Invest in Great Design
This brings me to our second principle, which is our emphasis on good old-fashioned, physical exhibition design.
I truly believe that young people – including myself, mind you! – just want awesome experiences – and this doesn’t necessarily come through DIGITAL installations and experiences (though it could). Old stuff can be really awesome too.
Instead of investing in novelty digital “experiences” and infrastructure, I have invested our time and resources in great exhibition design.
For design to be great, it has to have meaning. It has to be able to communicate ideas in a non-textual fashion. It also has to have the capacity to elicit emotion – to induce gasps, strike awe, grab the visitor by the heart (or the balls).
At ACM, I demand that the design for each of our permanent galleries and special exhibitions is not only unique for each exhibition, but unique to ACM. I don’t want our exhibitions to recall any other museum, like the Met or the V & A, and so on and so forth.
Because we are NOT the Met or the V & A and so on and so forth.
We are the ACM. There is only one ACM in the world. And we deserve our own unique visual style. It’s as simple as that.
At ACM, I also demand that every single sightline, and every shot and every frame of the exhibition has to be composed just right, as though the exhibition was a movie, which of course, in a way, it is! The French word for exhibition design is, after all, “la scénographie” – scenography! This involves placement and lighting being the best they can possibly be given the limitations of our space and lighting infrastructure. I refuse to accept anything less.
My immediate vision for ACM is for us to be acknowledged as having the most beautifully designed exhibitions in the world. This is critical because we are small – we have barely enough space for our special exhibitions. So all the more our exhibition design has to be top-notch: always distinctive, ingenious and drop-dead gorgeous, in order that we may bring value to our (paying) visitors, and draw them back again and again.
In ACM’s special exhibitions, it ought to be impossible NOT to get a great shot on one’s mobile phone and Instagram account. Because THAT – the perfect shot, always, everywhere – is the language that our new generation of audiences understand.
In other words, the true language of this new digital era is Great Design. =)
Contributing New Knowledge and Perspectives to the World
Great design alone is insufficient.
ACM prides itself on being academically strong as an institution, at least for this region. We always have a strong thesis/argument for our exhibitions; we publish great exhibition catalogues with essays from leading experts in the field – always published on time and always beautiful; and we always accompany our exhibitions with international academic symposia and academic lectures that are very well subscribed to.
We are privileged to have strong networks with curators, academics and experts in Singapore, the region and worldwide. This is a legacy I inherited from my predecessors. And despite my relative newness (and youth), I’ve tried my utmost to live up to this legacy I’ve inherited. I am immensely humbled by this legacy.
I take academics very seriously, as much as I can, given I am not an academic.
Our curators are young, and they are perhaps not as outwardly qualified on paper as curators elsewhere are. But I push them (and myself) to always develop our own unique and specific theses and perspectives for our exhibitions, and to be open and humble enough to consult widely with experts in their fields – not to bend towards expert opinion, necessarily, but to allow expert opinion to better inform and strengthen our own unique and specific theses and perspectives for each exhibition.
I have gone one step further to insist that for all of our special exhibitions and publications, there is ALWAYS a perspective that only WE as ACM here in Singapore can espouse; that we always ensure we contribute new knowledge and perspectives to the world, in order to be relevant and be of use.
One upshot of this emphasis is that we are extremely unlikely to ever take packaged travelling exhibitions or present exhibitions on single private collections. Instead, we prefer to co-curate, or to curate our own, drawing from our own collections and collections worldwide to do exhibitions never before done.
Don’t get me wrong. We collaborate widely and regularly with our museum partners worldwide. We love collaboration!! It is the way to go. But – like I said – we prefer to collaborate when the collaboration results in something brand new that we create together!
Again, maybe it’s because of my relative youth and inexperience, but I just don’t see the point of doing something someone else has done.
I want ACM to do its own thing. I want us to take risks in presenting exhibitions that are unprecedented, that push the envelop in terms of content – but which don’t court controversy for controversy’s sake. We are, after all, in Asia, and I don’t EVER believe in or condone being rude. That would be too easy.
I am proud to say that all the exhibitions I’ve helmed from start to end in my time as Director (and there have ONLY been three so far), have adhered to this principle. And I’m happy to say that the footfall to our special exhibitions this year, as well as the museum’s overall footfall this year will prove that this approach of NEW AND RISK-TAKING KNOWLEDGE is the right one to take.
Beyond Protocol to Hospitality
It is time to talk about people, who are equally as important as collections, design and knowledge.
As the “diplomatic” museum in Singapore, we are intimately familiar with protocol.
But again, being the demanding almost-Millennial, I insist that we go one step further to offer HOSPITALITY to our guests. So while our colleagues in the diplomatic corps adhere to diplomatic protocol, we make sure that our special guests don’t just feel that things are appropriately run and move like clockwork; they also feel warmly welcomed.
That is the value proposition that we offer to our colleagues in the diplomatic corps, with whom we respect and work very well with. And they in turn, know that this is the value we offer.
We also take hospitality for our regular visitors very seriously.
The visitor experience is one aspect of work that I constantly look to enhance. The ACM is situated in a former colonial government office building – one that was never meant to be a museum. And thus, having been repurposed into a museum, there are continual challenges with regards to spatial arrangement of galleries, to visitor flow and in particular, to wayfinding.
In the past couple of years, I’ve worked with my operations team to improve the overall visitor experience by converting dead spaces into public spaces and introduction galleries. This has gone a long way to reducing confusion.
We have also experimented with multiple methods of visual wayfinding to guide our visitors into our Special Gallery, which is situated at the back of the second floor, past all of our permanent galleries.
None, has so far, worked perfectly. And so we continue to experiment. I spend many hours walking through the museum each week, observing how our visitors navigate themselves through the galleries, observing the objects they respond to, and making improvements to the experience, where I can.
I’ve also worked hard to have the museum feel like a warm, friendly place.
This means, first of all, my being present in the museum – smiling and saying hello to our reception staff and security guards; acknowledging and smiling at our very passionate and committed docents and volunteer guides; saying hello to visitors and helping them out when they’re lost. I do this on weekdays and I do this on weekends regularly. I know that this helps to put a human face on the museum – gives it personality, and makes it feel less like just a building.
I also insist that the museum team is warm, welcoming and friendly; and that they always treat our guests with the utmost courtesy, whoever they may be – a regular visitor, VIPs, our patrons and board members, etc.
Though if you go overboard and take advantage of my team, I will strike back – whoever you are!
In this focus on Hospitality, I naturally look to the Hotel Industry for guidance and inspiration. And I need look no further than across the river and bridge from ACM, where one of the best hotels in the world sits. I refer to The Fullerton Hotel, who has recently become a partner to the museum.
I often spend time at the Fullerton, observing the standards and quality of customer service, considering what could be applied at the museum. Of course not everything need be, or can be applied. Customer service need not be overtly polished or too slick – we are not robots, after all.
The important thing is that we show our humanity – that we demonstrate care, concern and compassion for everyone that comes through our doors; and that we always aim to ensure that they have a great time within these doors.
The museum is like a home, and everyone should feel welcome and happy.
Great Team Leadership
None of the above principles can be upheld without a great leadership team at the museum.
On that count, I am very pleased to say that at ACM, we have the one of the most passionate and professional leadership teams in town. Words cannot express my gratitude at their unwavering commitment to the museum and their support for me right at the start when I was just a fearful novice at the game.
There have been moments that I can only describe as extremely challenging in the course of the last three years. And each time I felt like I was at my lowest, it was the leadership team that kept my spirits up.
It has been a privilege to work with them. To be part of a TEAM with them.
Oh, and did I mention that we are also the youngest leadership team of any large museum anywhere in the world?
I’m not just referring to me or my Chairman, who are the youngest museum Director and Chairperson in Singapore (and possibly maybe even the region). ALL of the senior leadership are young and young at heart.
In fact let me push that idea further… I see almost all of ACM – just about everyone at the museum – as leaders in their own right.
All of us are young (or young at heart), professional, passionate, energetic, committed, idealistic, and entirely aligned in terms of our vision for ACM to be one of the most relevant, brilliant, exciting, energetic and beautiful museums anywhere in the world, and also just simply an awesome place to work in!
So there you go.
CLARITY & AUTHENTICITY.
On a personal level, I have also always keenly upheld these values, through ensuring that I make clear, informed and unwavering decisions; that I am always sincere and speak the truth, though never rudely; and that I always smile and laugh from the bottom of my heart.
Because it is a great privilege to work where I am, and I want very much to share the joy. I want very much for the museum to ALWAYS be a joyful place.
I believe that upholding these two values of Clarity and Authenticty, and ensuring that the museum is always a joy to be in for our guests, our visitors, our board, our patrons, our volunteers, our stakeholders, our clients and my colleagues, has been, more than anything else on the job, a sign that I have more or less, possibly maybe, perhaps actually, done just about ok three years into the job.
Here’s to another great 3 years!!