(Meditation) Night at the Museum

THE silence of the empty gallery at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is punctuated by a calm voice.

Along the aisles lined with artefacts, 15 listeners are silently following its instructions to focus on their breathing and pay attention to their postures.

The voice belongs to meditation and yoga instructor Erika Khoo, who is leading her class through a series of meditation techniques. This unusual scene has been playing out one night a week since January in the special exhibition gallery of the ACM, as participants enjoy an evening of serene meditation amid Thai Buddhist sculptures.

This month, the ACM also started yoga sessions on its manicured lawns along the scenic Singapore River during sunset. They will be held every Friday till April.

Such events are part of the overall direction being taken by museums to move beyond curating exhibits viewed only behind glass, to getting Singaporeans to engage more intimately with the artefacts. For example, when the National Museum put on a cheongsam exhibition last year, it invited amateur balloon sculptors to make wearable cheongsams from balloons.

Visitor numbers at the National Heritage Board's museums have hit new highs, rising to a record of 2.9 million in 2011 through museum and community outreach efforts.

These sorts of community events make the exhibits more accessible and help people approach and enjoy them in different ways, said Dr Alan Chong, director of the ACM. "There is no point bringing the exhibits all the way from the Middle East or Thailand if the public don't have access to them," he said.

The meditation classes begin when the museum closes at 7pm. Each hour-long session costs $10 and has to be booked in advance. Participants start with a walking meditation around the exhibits before proceeding to a quiet corner to continue meditating seated beside the exhibits.

Ms Khoo, the instructor, said she was surprised when she received a phone call from someone at the museum with the request.
"I was like 'Huh?' because it's not something museums normally do," said the 61-year-old, who has been teaching meditation and yoga for close to 40 years.

But it turned out to be an inspired idea. "The artefacts have their own energy so they create a conducive atmosphere where people can get into a meditative state of mind very easily," she said.

First-time participant Puyee Wong agreed. "The peaceful environment helps to clear the mind quickly and when I admire the objects, their curves, colours and shapes come up stronger," said Ms Wong, 41, who also teaches meditation full time.

Not everyone felt the setting made a difference. Mr Mike Tan, who attended all five sessions, said it did not enhance his meditative experience or provoke a deeper engagement with the historical pieces. "All the exhibits are just forms and at the end of the day, meditation depends on your own energy and feelings," said the 52-year-old engineer.

But that does not mean the venue was worth nothing. "I appreciate the museum opening up its spaces for community use and I believe the sessions will attract those who normally will not visit a museum," he said.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 13, 2013

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