Pushing boundaries: The Life interview with National Museum director Angelita Teo

An appetite for the new drives National Museum of Singapore director Angelita Teo to find different ways of doing things

Ms Angelita Teo, director of the National Museum of Singapore, wears her strengths and weaknesses on two slim, silvery bangles on her right wrist.

Engraved on the bands, gifts from her family, are the words "patience" and "be present" - reminders to balance her insatiable curiosity and zest for life.

"Because I get very excited by things, I can also get a bit impatient," says the 44-year-old in an interview with The Straits Times. She is seated in her office at the museum in Stamford Road, wearing an Apple Watch on her left wrist and four stud earrings - three on her left ear and one on her right.

The other bangle that reads "be present" is a prompt to make sure her mind, often buzzing with ideas, does not drift away on a tangent.

"I'm one of those people who, if a door opens, I need to poke my head through, I cannot resist it," she says. "I tend to explore opportunities that land before me without turning them down first."

A rapid-fire speaker, she adds: "I'm always looking for new things to do and new ways of doing things because I don't think we should stick to something just because we're familiar with it."

Museums don't excite the majority of Singaporeans that much... So our plan, now that our galleries are open after the revamp, is to collaborate with partners to bring new audiences. What is a national museum if Singaporeans themselves don't come?

MS ANGELITA TEO on the museum's push to win over new audiences

Her inquisitive nature and appetite for the new are why she readily embraces change and it is met by her two recent appointments in the National Heritage Board.

Besides leading the National Museum under the board, she has, since the start of this year, been overseeing its festivals and precinct development, which includes events such as the Singapore Night Festival and helming the Museum Roundtable, a National Heritage Board initiative that brings together public and private museums to promote a museum-going culture.

She describes her initial reaction to the new appointments as "reflex action - my hand just stretched out," and she is equally candid about taking on an expanded portfolio. "It sounds like a lot more work, but in reality, I see it as an opportunity to leverage and streamline things," she says.

An example is seen in the upcoming Children's Season. The month-long programme of activities during the June school holidays targets young audiences and it is held at museums islandwide, including the National Museum.

As leader of the roundtable, she has an overall view of what the different museums will offer and as head of festival development she is able to package and promote complementary offerings by the different museums.

This push to attract younger audiences has also been the focus of the National Museum since she became its director in July 2013. She considers it a major change for the museum, which underwent a $10 million, year-long revamp of its permanent galleries, completed last September.

She says: "In order for the museum to attract a new audience, that audience has to be younger." And she is adamant that the children's first experience of the museum should not be as "part of a worksheet they have to complete", but an outing with the family so that they "associate the museum with being fun and a bit warm and fuzzy".

It is for this reason that she launched Play@NMS in 2014, an area within the museum that engages children aged three to seven through interactive exhibits and hands-on activities. She also expanded the scale of Children's Season at the museum, with activities spilling out of the gallery and into common spaces in the building, as well as its front lawn.

"We're not afraid that kids come in and run around and make noise. We're quite open to that," she says.

Play@NMS, which closed in December, will return later this year as an improved, enlarged family wing, swopping spaces with the museum's office that is spread over two floors. While it is still early to speak in detail about the new wing, she says it will "take care of the whole family", engaging everyone from grandchildren to grandparents.

Making history contemporary

This project is one of the "many exciting things that I can't wait to be completed", she says. The list includes a new installation by artist Suzann Victor, which will replace her well-loved red chandeliers above a link bridge in the museum, and a new gallery-cum-dining space. Both upcoming projects point to Ms Teo's openness to ideas and eagerness to collaborate.

The chandeliers were originally scheduled for routine maintenance, but new possibilities arose when she spoke with the artist and she pursued them. The result: the new chandeliers are made of Swarovski crystal instead of glass and the public can now interact with the work, choosing the way the chandeliers swing and how the lights change colour.

Victor, 56, praises Ms Teo for turning a "routine problem-solving exercise" into an "exciting journey" that gave her the chance to update a permanent museum artwork. "Angelita is a most creative thinker, bringing out the very best in the people she works with, including myself."

For Ms Teo, such partnerships are among her "most rewarding" experiences as a museum director. "There are so many people out there with good ideas and when you allow a conversation to flow, it evolves and gets more and more exciting."

The new gallery-cum-dining room in the space that was formerly Chef Chan's Restaurant similarly sprang from a meeting of minds. Companies and individuals are keen to hold events in the museum, which they see as an interesting, alternative space, while the museum is eager to work with up-and-coming talents in the arts and creative fields.

"I'm a strong believer that we have to keep history relevant and presenting it through contemporary work is one way," she says. She envisions the gallery as a "white box of possibilities" for shows in various mediums and genres, but without artefacts so that food can be served there.

While the museum has seen much transformation under her watch, she views her role simply as "a temporary custodian", albeit one she takes seriously. "While you're here, you do what you can for it because you're proud that you have a chance," she says.

She is, in fact, a latecomer to the culture and heritage industry, pursuing a career in this field only at age 30.

It was an archaeology elective she casually signed up for as a student at the University of British Columbia that first set her on the path. The class awoke in her a dormant love for the subject, which stemmed from a childhood spent watching Harrison Ford play Indiana Jones.

When she told her parents, who ran a furniture business, that she was changing her major from mass communications to anthropology, her mother said: "What are you gonna do? You want to dig Sentosa?"

But they allowed her to make her decision and she enjoyed her education. Still, she realised after attending field school that the rough-and-tough life of an archaeologist was not for her.

She says: "We had to camp out and I brought a four-man tent for myself and a blow-up cushion. When people came to visit the site, my professor would say, 'Have you seen our little Hilton over there?'"

After graduation, she returned to Singapore, anxious to find a job with her bachelor's degree in anthropology. She applied for every opening at the National Heritage Board, including the role of a conservator and was hired as an assistant curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum, which was then setting up its first home in Armenian Street.

The museum's founding director Kenson Kwok, 66, says: "She was a no-nonsense, straightforward, can-do kind of person. She took on a job that she was unfamiliar with, but ran with it without panicking."

She left the museum after two years, however, when she was asked to join a friend's start-up firm that invested in dotcom businesses. "An assistant curator's job then was about research and it was like school, I didn't want that," she says. "And I've always loved technology. I'm always the first one to buy the latest gadget."

After the dotcom bubble burst, she worked at her family's furniture business, taking care of retail.

In 2003, then National Museum director Lee Chor Lin knocked on her door. The two were former colleagues at the Asian Civilisations Museum who got along well and stayed in touch over the years.

Ms Lee, then heading the museum's major redevelopment, needed help and Ms Teo, being "resourceful, a problem-solver and team-player" was well-suited for the job of assistant project director, she says.

Ms Teo, who did not hesitate to take up the offer, says: "It was a combination of all the things I have always liked - museums, putting up exhibitions, working with designers and contractors. This was really the beginning of my career."

After the museum reopened in 2006, she oversaw its daily operations, including estate, exhibition and hospitality management. In 2010, she left her deputy director role at the museum to pursue a master's in art curatorship at the University of Melbourne on a board scholarship. Upon her return, she was appointed director of festivals and precinct development, before becoming the museum's director.

The last two years at work were extremely hectic, she says, given the tight deadline for the museum revamp. She was so busy that she seldom made it home in time for dinner with her family.

She is married to a freelance creative professional and they live with her parents, who have since retired, in an apartment in Bedok. She has a younger brother who is studying for an MBA in London.

Ironically, while her portfolio has expanded this year, she has managed to find time to return to the gym after a two-year hiatus, to try and lose the 8kg she has put on. "I know my colleagues better now and there is a lot of understanding and trust so although we are still trying to do a lot of things, it's better," she says, before joking half-seriously, "I force them to friend me on Facebook."

She does not mind that the walls come down between her and her 60-strong staff. "I think it's important that people see you as a person. As a person, you have your strengths, your beliefs, but you also have your weaknesses," she says. "If they know that you are human, they are a lot more understanding because you do demand a lot from them - the hours they spend at the museum working, being away from their families.

"We spend so much more time at work than at home, it's wonderful when you can call your colleagues friends. We're almost like family."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Pushing boundaries'. Print Edition | Subscribe