Culture Vulture

I'm on a 10-month National Museum fast

Saying goodbye to National Museum galleries, shut for a revamp, is tough; and the new temporary show is disappointing

My 10-month fast of the National Museum of Singapore has begun.

Since August, the galleries for permanent exhibitions at Singapore's premier history museum have closed, one after another, for a year-long revamp to mark the country's 50th year of independence next year.

An admirer of the institution since the 1990s - it was love at first sight with the miniature dioramas of Singapore history in a dim, musty room - I spent the last few weeks slowly saying goodbye to each gallery.

The first adieu went to the fashion exhibit, the earliest to shut its doors. The saris, sarongs and cheongsams from the last millennium were as I remembered them, worn on headless, limbless black dress forms that disappeared in the dark gallery and looking fashionably aloof.

When it came time to part with the film and wayang gallery, devoted to home-grown films and traditional puppet theatre, I strolled along the plush carpeted room and took in, for the last time, the rich display of handbills, posters and ticket stubs, additions from the gallery's last renovation in 2012.

It is only now, as I write this, that I realise how much I miss the handsome cinematic space.

The food gallery, which I never warmed to because of the disorienting display boards that slope, slant and jut at awkward angles, got a goodbye too. I figured it was time to let bygones be bygones. Besides, I was rather fond of the collection of hand-made cake moulds and old-school kopitiam cups tucked at the back of the room.

My farewell to the mystifying photography gallery - the front half of the gallery shows not photographs, but reproductions of photographs on digital screens - involved deep inhalations. On good days, the gallery, which sits above the European restaurant Flutes, smells of butter melting in a warm pan.

The one gallery I did not bid a proper au revoir to was the Goh Seng Choo Gallery. Goodbyes are tough when you do not want to let go and I like to think that the works in there continue to hang in a room in my mind.

The gallery was home to the stunning collection of natural history drawings, previously owned by Singapore's first Resident Commandant William Farquhar. The set of 477 paintings of flora and fauna, a portion of which was on display, was bought at an auction in 1993 by Singapore tycoon Goh Geok Khim and donated to the museum. The gallery was named in honour of his father.

The last auf wiedersehen went to the Singapore history gallery.

As I listened for the nth time to the opening symphony play on the audio guide while I descended the spiral ramp to the history gallery, a swell of feelings rose. But it was no time to be mawkish. I had a task ahead of me - to cast a sharper gaze on the gallery and assemble a "before makeover" picture in my mind, hopeful that after the major revamp, the contrast would induce sputters of awe.

After the final "so long" was whispered, I said "hello" to a new exhibition, Singapura: 700 Years. While the permanent galleries are closed until next September, this show remains open at the museum.

It opened last month and occupies the two galleries in the basement of the museum, which typically hosts temporary shows. The exhibition covers about seven centuries of Singapore history, going back to the 1300s.

With the emphasis on chronicling 700 years of Singapore's past, the museum aligns itself with a recent shift in mainstream history here that roots Singapore's beginnings in the pre-modern era instead of with the arrival of British colonialism in 1819. Instrumental to this rethinking is the book Singapore: A 700-Year History - From Early Emporium To World City (2009) by historians Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng and Tan Tai Yong, and published by the National Archives of Singapore.

The museum touts the new show as an immersive, interactive exhibition and a test bed for the redesign of the other galleries. This tantalising promise made me optimistic about the future of the museum and of stealing an early glimpse. But I should have known better; curiosity killed the cat.

The disappointments came in waves and I shrugged them off until I could no longer.

A map in the first segment of the show, for example, was glaringly inconsistent in naming places. In which history book does Singapore, as named, exist alongside the Majapahit kingdom in east Java from the 13th to 16th century?

Pottery shards can be meaningful in telling stories - I speak with the appreciation of having been on an archaeological dig - but unidentified pieces of humble stoneware placed in three display cases with the same label repeated three times over does not magnify the significance of the artefacts.

Most exasperating, though, is the smattering of original artefacts on display. The show is mainly stuffed with reproductions of photographs and photographs of artefacts, as well as text-heavy information panels. I wish I could say it reads like a storybook come to life but it is really pages from a largely leaden textbook rendered in 3-D.

Perhaps I am a fool to expect an interim exhibition in a museum undergoing a major revamp to have artefacts on display. But this poverty does raise two pertinent issues.

First, it questions the identity of a history museum. Should it not, at heart, be a space that chiefly values the irreplaceable aura of original artefacts and handles this powerful force sensitively to make history heartfelt? If artefacts are seen as merely means to an end - an immersive, interactive experience with a historical bent - is it time to say "goodbye" to the history museum and "hello" to an edutainment centre?

The second is telling Singapore's pre-modern history in a skilful, compelling manner. The storyline for this period in Singapura: 700 Years is convoluted. The names of different annals, records and historical figures from across five centuries are tossed around and sometimes mentioned in the same breath with little clarity. The museum has its work cut out.

I left the exhibition in giddy defeat on the two occasions that I visited it (yes, I gave it a second chance). The students in uniform whom I met on my way out both times, however, were giddy with delight.

They had made their way through the exhibition in mere minutes and were spinning on a recreated merry-go-round, once a common sight in Housing Board estate playgrounds, that was placed right before the gallery exit. I rue not following their example of skipping through the exhibition. I hope the 10-month detox will erase some sour memories from my mind.

lijie@sph.com.sg