The very home of the National Gallery, which opened last week, stands for much that is grand and important. It telescopes the city-state's colonial roots, the seat of the first independent government, and the accomplished journey of the nation since then. With its Corinthian columns, carefully re-engineered foundations and basement, and commanding presence next to the iconic Padang, the buildings ought to be cherished for many generations to come. Classic structures housing national collections of art and artefacts tend to be kept in a stately manner everywhere. Those in countries which can draw from longer and deeper historical and cultural traditions attract visitors in droves too, like the Louvre in Paris. Given the $532 million tag for the National Gallery, some have wondered if it can attract enough people with its 8,000 works of Singaporean and South-east Asian art, ranging from the 19th century to present times.
Given the huge effort to develop the National Gallery, it is right that it should aim high with hopes of becoming a "key museum destination", a showcase of South-east Asian art, a means of projecting Singapore's soft power internationally, and a magnet for up to five million visitors annually. These might well transpire over time if the arts scene continues to flower here and in the region, and future generations remain committed to these visions. For the present, what is important is that the National Gallery is a much-visited and much-loved place among Singaporeans seeking to discover and remember the soul of Singapore expressed by the historic site, the artistic works on display, and the interactions with exhibits and people there.
One might derive a frisson of recognition when seeing Cheong Soo Pieng's Drying Salted Fish painting in all its artistic delicacy after having encountered the image countless times at the back of a $50 bill. Walking by the masters of old here, like Georgette Chen and Chua Mia Tee, and seeing the works of regional greats like Indonesia's Raden Saleh Sjarif Boestaman, is to sojourn through periods and cultures that all contributed to the sensibilities and impulses of contemporary Singaporeans. Appreciating this experience is the best justification for this grand project. People without a sound grasp of the past are doomed to dismiss the common threads that bind and form the social fabric. While helping to curate worthy exhibitions, the managers and friends of the National Gallery must not lose sight of its larger experiential potential. Visitors should be viewed as participants who can engage with the place as a whole (for example, with the aid of better markers to evoke the historical significance of a room or site), and to engage with each other. Serving as a source of inspiration for Singaporeans ought to be the raison d' etre of the National Gallery.