Curators tell stories through their exhibits

Peek behind the scenes and find out how curators put together exhibitions, from blockbuster shows to niche displays

Being a curator is "being a storyteller", says Singapore Philatelic Museum curator Mishelle Lim, 37.

She is among a small but tireless group of curators behind the burgeoning museum scene in Singapore, who puts together exhibitions - from the blockbuster 19th-century art showcase Century Of Light at National Gallery Singapore to the Singapore Philatelic Museum's quirky little displays on stamps and pop culture.

From museum-hopping around the globe to climbing ladders and calling an undertaker, no day is the same for these keepers of heritage and art.

The Straits Times speaks to four curators behind ongoing exhibitions to find out what life is like behind the scenes at the museum.


To be a curator, you have to make friends

Mishelle Lim, 37

Singapore Philatelic Museum


Ms Mishelle Lim says an important part of her job as a curator at the Singapore Philatelic Museum is to win the trust of people so that they will loan their items to the museum for exhibitions. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, KELVIN CHNG

It is not easy making tiny pieces of paper stand out in an exhibition, but this is what Ms Lim has been doing for 11 years.

The Singapore Philatelic Museum curator is known for shaping colourful, interactive exhibitions, often drawing on pop culture, that illustrate the intricate worlds of each stamp collection.

"Stamps are small and flat," says Ms Lim. "They're not a big Ming vase or a 3,000-year-old mummy. They're easy to disregard.

"You cannot just display rows of stamps and tell people they're great. You have to use stamps to tell a story."

In June last year, she wrapped up the Harry Potter-themed exhibition Collecting Magic: From Stamps To Wands, which featured memorabilia from the wildly popular wizarding series and drew more than 83,000 visitors.

Her latest exhibition, Anime X Stamps, brings together more than 900 anime-themed stamps and philatelic materials, supplemented by collectibles such as figurines from pirate anime One Piece, rare original production artwork from Hayao Miyazaki's film My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and an electronic guitar that plays the Doraemon theme song.

  • VIEW IT/ ANIME X STAMPS

  • WHERE: Singapore Philatelic Museum, 23-B Coleman Street

    WHEN: Till April 15, 10am to 7pm daily

    ADMISSION: Free for Singaporeans and permanent residents; for foreigners: $8 for adults and $6 for children between three and 12 years old

    INFO: www.spm.org.sg

A former Land Transport Authority customer relations officer, she studied economics at the National University of Singapore, but formed an interest in the heritage industry after taking art electives.

She kept applying for jobs at museums, getting fourth time lucky with the philatelic museum.

She herself has been collecting stamps since she was nine, with a collection in the thousands.

As the curator of a small niche museum, she faces an uphill task of drawing visitors.

"People have pre-conceived notions about us," she says. "The common response is, 'I'm not a stamp collector, why should I come?' or 'Stamps are dying because nobody writes letters any more.'

"But stamps are windows to the world. As long as you are interested in good stories, you can visit us."

She tries to make each exhibition - there are around two a year - as interactive as possible.

This ranges from bringing in a wig with fake lice for an exhibition on Shakespeare stamps, to the Harry Potter exhibition, for which she worked with Nanyang Polytechnic students to make portraits come alive and let visitors "cast spells" at a screen using radio frequency technology.

"Museums in the past were very static, a textbook-on-the-wall approach," says Ms Lim, who is single.

"Nowadays, you can access information in two seconds on your phone. When people go to the museum, they want an in-person experience. They want to be able to absorb information not just with their eyes, but also with their bodies."

She is working on an exhibition about children's book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, which will open later this year.

While most people might think curation is first and foremost about collecting objects, she disagrees.

"It's about getting people to trust you enough that they are willing to loan you items that are like their babies. You've got to make friends," she says.


Collector of memories

Nalina Gopal, 34

Indian Heritage Centre

Ms Nalina Gopal helped the Indian Heritage Centre build up a collection of everyday items by persuading local families to donate things such as hats, baskets and saris.
Ms Nalina Gopal helped the Indian Heritage Centre build up a collection of everyday items by persuading local families to donate things such as hats, baskets and saris. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

What may seem like domestic detritus in a household could one day be precious artefacts in a museum, says Ms Gopal, curator at the Indian Heritage Centre.

In the permanent collection she has helped build up for the heritage centre are everyday items she has persuaded local families to donate. Hats, baskets and saris that were disintegrating in storage now gleam, restored to their full glory, in display cases.

"We collect memories," she says.

As the curator of one of Singapore's youngest museums - the Indian Heritage Centre opened in 2015 - she had to ask many donors to take a leap of faith and promise their heirlooms to a museum that was, at the time, an empty plot of land.

As an immigrant from India, Ms Gopal says she feels a sense of connection with the stories of those who came before her, albeit under greater hardships.

Born in Chennai, she studied history at the University of Madras, moved to Singapore in 2008 and is now a permanent resident.

  • VIEW IT/ SYMBOLS AND SCRIPTS: THE LANGUAGE OF CRAFT

  • WHERE: Indian Heritage Centre, 5 Campbell Lane

    WHEN: Till June 30; 10am to 7pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays), 10am to 8pm (Fridays and Saturdays), 10am to 4pm (Sundays and public holidays), closed on Mondays

    ADMISSION: Free for Singaporeans, permanent residents and all children aged six and below. For foreigners, $6 for adults, $4 for seniors, students and persons with disabilities

    INFO: indianheritage.org.sg

Her great-grandfather deciphered inscriptions on temple walls and she has inherited his taste for the historical.

Ms Gopal, who previously worked at living-history museum DakshinaChitra near Chennai, says she was drawn to the Indian Heritage Centre because of its unusual status as a diaspora museum that focuses on the stories of the migrant community.

The transfer of culture occurs in more than just the material, she says.

The most recent exhibition she has curated is Symbols And Scripts: The Language Of Craft, which traces how scripts and symbols in handcrafted objects reflect the culture that made them.

Part of the exhibition involves 14 guest craftsmen from across India, who take turns appearing at the exhibition at fortnightly intervals to demonstrate their vanishing trades - from leather shadowpuppet making to scroll painting.

Also in the exhibition is the oldest object displayed in the museum so far: a 3,000BC Indus Valley square seal depicting a unicorn.

Ms Gopal, who is single, says she is still partly in disbelief that the centre was able to get the National Museum of India to loan it the seal, along with two others dating back to 2,700BC. She has received envious messages from friends from India, who have not had the chance to see it themselves.

"I am myself a member of the diaspora," she says.

"To be able to tell the story of this diaspora, to connect people with their culture in a way that is rarely done, is a rare opportunity. I love doing it."


Curating feels like making a movie

Tan Huism, 52

National Library Board

Ms Tan Huism has curated about 20 exhibitions with institutions including the Asian Civilisations Museum and National Library Board.
Ms Tan Huism has curated about 20 exhibitions with institutions including the Asian Civilisations Museum and National Library Board. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

In her more than 20 years as a curator, Ms Tan has done a number of strange things, although the time she had to order a coffin probably takes the cake.

When she was putting together the Peranakan Museum's section on funeral rites, she had to call undertakers for a coffin because the superstitious contractor refused to do it.

Unfortunately, the coffin proved too big for the hole in the exhibition and she ended up getting fabricators to sculpt a foam coffin instead.

She has curated about 20 exhibitions with institutions including the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and National Library Board (NLB), where she is the National Library's deputy director of content and services.

"It's like you're producing a movie where you are also the director, the screenwriter, the casting director and the costume and set designer," she says of her job. "All so you can engage with the audience and tell a compelling story."

The Singaporean who was raised in Brunei, was tasked, as a young girl, to take family guests to the Brunei museum, which piqued her interest in exhibitions.

  • VIEW IT / TALES OF THE MALAY WORLD: MANUSCRIPTS AND EARLY BOOKS

  • WHERE: Level 10 Gallery, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Till Feb 25, 10am to 9pm daily; closed at 5pm on the eve of Chinese New Year, closed on public holidays

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.nlb.gov.sg

She moved to Singapore when she was 18 and majored in sociology at the National University of Singapore.

After graduating, she landed a job as a television researcher, but gave it up after three months to join the National Museum in the early 1990s, taking a 20 per cent pay cut.

Her friends were perplexed at her decision to give up an "exciting career in the media" for the quiet museum scene, which she joined even before the National Heritage Board came into existence in 1993.

Ms Tan, who is married with no children, went on to spend 18 years with ACM and five years with NLB, putting together exhibitions ranging from Islamic calligraphy to the NLB's ongoing Tales Of The Malay World: Manuscripts And Early Books, which brings together rare, ancient Malay manuscripts from collections around the world.

She has travelled through rural Malaysia documenting village pottery and slept under the stars in western Turkey while on a trip to commission carpets.

Curation, she says, goes beyond the mere selection of objects. "You have to imagine how they react to other objects in space. It's not just a supermarket display. Placement can make or break the story."

One of the toughest exhibitions she helmed was Serenity In Stone: The Qingzhou Discovery in 2009, which featured 6th-century Buddhist figures from Qingzhou, China.

Its centrepieces were some 3m-high stone stelae, which arrived in parts weighing half a tonne each and had to be stacked onsite by hand-cranked pulleys because the gallery could not admit a lifting machine. Ms Tan, "sweating like crazy" from nerves, oversaw the operation under the tense gaze of museum representatives from China.

While most exhibitions take a few years to put together, she once spent 10 years negotiating with Turkish museums to bring the treasures of the Ottoman Sultans to the ACM for the first time.

She moved to NLB five years ago, drawn in part by the new opportunities to engage with visitors - opening up its rare collection of 15,000 books and artefacts, for instance.

"At the library, we encourage you to come and use the collection. You can't do that in the museum."

Her goals include the continued digitisation of the library's resources, to make them accessible to the public.

"Learning should not stop after you leave the library," she adds.


When the job gets difficult and dirty

Clarissa Chikiamco, 34

National Gallery Singapore

Ms Clarissa Chikiamco once had to clean stinking styrofoam boxes from a market to use in an art exhibition.
Ms Clarissa Chikiamco once had to clean stinking styrofoam boxes from a market to use in an art exhibition. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Ms Chikiamco was filled with fear and awe when she encountered legendary Filipino artist Juan Luna's work for the first time.

She was on a primary school field trip to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila, when she saw the 1884 masterpiece Spoliarium, depicting defeated gladiators being dragged from the arena.

Fast-forward some decades and she has found herself putting together one of the biggest retrospectives on Luna, as part of National Gallery Singapore's blockbuster exhibition Between Worlds.

The exhibition, which is part of 19th-century art showcase Century Of Light and also features Indonesian artist Raden Saleh, opened in November and runs until March.

"This has been quite a journey," says Ms Chikiamco, who spent four years preparing for the exhibition.

She travelled to 10 museums in countries such as the United States and Spain, including the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, where she got emotional laying eyes for the first time on Cleopatra, the work that won Luna his first major prize in Europe in 1881 and which has rarely been seen in public until now.

  • BOOK IT / CENTURY OF LIGHT

  • WHERE: Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, City Hall Wing, Level 3 National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Till March 11, 10am to 7pm (Saturdays to Thursdays), 10am to 9pm (Fridays)

    ADMISSION: $15 for Singaporeans and permanent residents, $10 for concession-holders; $25 for non-Singaporeans, $20 for concession-holders; free for kids aged six and younger

    INFO: www.nationalgallery.sg

She also combed through archival materials on Luna's life, much of which were in Spanish.

"He was so incredibly famous that the volume of material on him was quite overwhelming. Our translation budget was limited so I think we scratched only the surface."

Ms Chikiamco, who grew up in the Philippines, took the road less travelled when she joined the second cohort of the Ateneo de Manila University's art management degree course, which had just four people. She also has a master's degree from the University of Melbourne in art curatorship.

She went on to work at museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Manila and the Ateneo Art Gallery, followed by a stint as an independent curator. In 2012, she moved to Singapore on an employment pass to join National Gallery Singapore.

The singleton says the life of an art curator is not all globetrotting glamour and drinking wine at exhibition openings.

She has had her hands dirty, such as when she had to clean stinking styrofoam boxes that had been used to store vegetables or pig heads at the Gwangju wet market in Seoul, as part of an art residency.

She had decided to pay homage to the market by using the boxes as part of the art exhibition.

"Being a curator is such a rare profession that I always get asked about it in airports or by taxi drivers," she says.

"It can be difficult, but it's incredibly rewarding."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2018, with the headline 'Telling stories in a museum'. Print Edition | Subscribe