Culture Vulture

Don't turn museums into amusement parks

In reaching out to the public, museums should not be driven solely by the desire to be popular

Dead and dangling from the ceiling of a second-floor nook at the Singapore Art Museum, tree branches stripped of leaves shape an interactive feature for the exhibition Unearthed.

The show, which opened at the museum last month, sheds light on the uneasy relationship between man and nature.

A sign next to the tucked-away corner asks visitors a playful question inspired by the title of the show, "What would you like to unearth?"

Paper tags and pens are provided and visitors have responded by writing down their thoughts and hanging the tags on the suspended branches.

This curious display held my attention far longer than some pieces of art in the show and who could blame it for stealing the thunder?

I enjoy looking at art with my ears wide open, picking up furtive comments and whispered opinions of fellow viewers, relishing glimpses of dialogues that happen in secret between a work of art and its viewers. This interactive feature is museum voyeurism at its best, egging on visitors to make public their private thoughts and reactions towards art.

Some viewers, responding directly to the theme of the exhibition, aspire to discover new ways of sustainable living. Others, so distressed by the tension between man and nature and the sombre mood of the show, dismissed the question completely to voice their fraught emotions. A tag remarked, "came in happy, left depressed".

A cryptic note that piqued my interest read, "crap masquerading as art". Open for interpretation as a response to the question posed by the museum or as a personal evaluation of the show, there was, however, no mistaking its vehement tone, which sparked a mini-discussion among strangers to the show.

A visitor who read the note as a personal assessment of the show responded with, "Wow! That's brutally honest!" and an arrow indicating that his comment was directed at the note in question. The tag on the other side of the note chorused with the scribble "I.K.R.", shorthand slang for "I know, right". A third tag, hanging from the same branch, chimed in with the charge that the author of the loaded comment could be close- minded and biased.

Other visitors who also spoke from the bottom of their hearts had less strident comments. Some wanted to dig up happy childhood memories while others sought lost innocence and passion. One ticklish comment had "daddy's belt" accompanied by a simple drawing.

The mix of responses also included generic wishes for health, peace and stellar examination grades, which blissfully ignored the premise of the interactive feature and took cues instead, from the popular practice of writing one's wish on paper or cloth and tying it to a tree branch.

This wishing tree and the hodge- podge of comments it has drawn, however, is more than a frivolous side-show.

As museums around the world strive to lose their stuffy image and seek deeper engagement with audiences, a premium has been placed on interactivity in exhibitions and the feature at the Singapore Art Museum is no exception.

In Vienna, the Kunstkammer Wien, which houses a spectacular array of centuries-old objects of art including charming bronze statuettes and exquisite gameboards, deepens visitor experience through interactive elements in its galleries. It is put to good effect in the display of its elaborate automatons, with touchscreen videos that offer a view of the complex mechanical figures in action.

A dainty automaton that depicts the goddess Diana seated on a centaur, for example, springs to life as its four centuries-old clockwork mechanism causes it to glide across a table. Meanwhile, Diana and a hunting dog on the tableaux turn their heads and the centaur shifts his eyes before shooting an arrow from the bow he holds; cue coos and gasps of wonder.

This push for interactivity is also at play in the digital realm, albeit in a big way, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Its shows incorporate video games and smartphone apps to appeal to a young, tech-savvy crowd. The recently opened show on pterosaurs, an ancient animal, even boasts an interactive installation that allows visitors to fly like the winged creature; they stand in front of a screen that tracks gestures and flap their arms to make a digital pterosaur soar through a virtual environment.

The National Museum of Singapore, on the other hand, will be launching a new children's wing next month to get children interested in the country's history through good old-fashioned play. The section will feature interactive multimedia exhibits that include opportunities for children to dress up and engage in role-play. The aim: to provide a fun, family-friendly space in the museum that will nurture a museum-going culture here and, in the process, have visitors learn more about Singapore.

But as the wishing tree at the Singapore Art Museum shows, the outcome of interactive features in museums does not always follow according to plan and purpose. And for all the efforts museums make to relate to the masses through interactive exhibits, the question remains if such connections are meaningful.

It is encouraging that museums are consciously reaching out to audiences on their terms and turf, but such a drive should not be compelled solely by the desire to be perceived as fun, popular places of interest.

After all, what makes a museum a museum rather than a glorified amusement centre is not its newfangled, interactive toys or exhibits, but the knowledge it houses in the objects it studies and displays. Certainly, that knowledge, when dressed up in an attractive way, goes a long way towards making a lasting impact. But there is no substitute for the surge of wonder that comes when a personal discovery is made.