Museums can find ways to help people imagine different futures

"The first step to a better future is being able to imagine it," says executive director Honor Harger of ArtScience Museum (left). She cited various exhibitions at the museum that have helped with this imagining.
"The first step to a better future is being able to imagine it," says executive director Honor Harger of ArtScience Museum (left). She cited various exhibitions at the museum that have helped with this imagining.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

While Covid-19 has been a disaster for museum visitorship, curators have had a chance to hit pause and rethink how best to ride the storm.

Last week, the National Heritage Board (NHB) organised an International Museum Day symposium titled The Future of Museums: Recover and Re-Imagine. It was unsurprising that the most repeated term was Covid-19. Digitalisation was also a buzzword.

But a segment of the symposium focused on how museums can play a key role in conversations about climate and sustainability. Beyond finding a viable business model during and after the pandemic, stakeholders were interested in how museums can help a battered economy build back better.

"As museums explore contemporary approaches to audience engagement and collecting, they have also sought to re-imagine their roles in promoting awareness and civic action around pressing global issues," the NHB said.

During the panel discussion, the ArtScience Museum's executive director, Ms Honor Harger, called on museums to operate with this goal in mind. "I believe we are in an imagination battle and museums can carry the day," she said.

"We need to find the courage and the clarity to imagine different futures. It isn't just an act of creativity, a flight of fancy away from the stressors of the present, or some form of escapism, it's an urgent requirement. We must insist on fairer and more sustainable futures.

"The first step to a better future is being able to imagine it."

She cited various exhibitions that the ArtScience Museum has put up over the years that have helped with this imagining.

Into the Wild, an augmented reality experience it set up with the help of Google and Lenovo, brought the Sumatran forest to Marina Bay. It taught visitors about the rich diversity of the forest, where Sumatran tigers, tapirs, pangolins and orang utans roam, and it also had real world impact.

For every virtual tree planted by visitors during their visit, an actual tree was planted in Rimbang Baling, Sumatra. As a result, over 10,000 trees were planted.

She said: "The emotional connection made possible by art and the understanding made possible by science give us the tools to tackle systemic problems."

Said Ms Neo Xiaoyun, 25, who was invited to the symposium as a youth ambassador: "Museums are a key part of experiential learning for the everyday Singaporean. How can curators re-present current collections for contemporary purposes?

"This starts from thinking of museum-goers not as consumers but citizens, not just of Singapore but of the Earth. Human events are only part of a larger story."

Clement Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2021, with the headline 'Museums can find ways to help people imagine different futures'. Subscribe