National Heritage Board seeks to widen pool of digital volunteers

(From left) National Heritage Board’s deputy chief executive of policy and community Alvin Tan with digital volunteers Jimm Wong and Victor Yue holding Nian Hua pieces from Mr Wong’s collection at Thian Hock Keng Temple
(From left) National Heritage Board’s deputy chief executive of policy and community Alvin Tan with digital volunteers Jimm Wong and Victor Yue holding Nian Hua pieces from Mr Wong’s collection at Thian Hock Keng Temple ST PHOTO: YONG LI XUAN

SINGAPORE - A postgraduate student based in Canada, a father of three in his late 40s and a 69-year-old retiree are among 11 persons who are taking the virtual road to help the National Heritage Board (NHB).

Their discussion topic on a recent Saturday afternoon via video conferencing platform Zoom? An upcoming exhibition on Chinese door gods and Nian Hua - woodblock prints which typically portray these gods and are used as auspicious decorations during Chinese New Year.

The 11 are among a growing number of digital volunteers who contribute to the NHB's outreach and education efforts.

This development began early last year when movement restrictions kicked in due to the Covid-19 pandemic, said NHB's deputy chief executive of policy and community Alvin Tan.

He added that from last year to end-June this year, 1,373 unique volunteering opportunities were filled.

Of these, 290 were taken up by existing NHB volunteers while 1,083 were snapped up by others lending help for the first time.

NHB's digital volunteers currently chip in in three broad ways - developing content like virtual guided tours, helping to run activities during events like Singapore HeritageFest, and working on ad-hoc projects like exhibitions.

The 11 fall in the latter category, and are being tapped for their expertise for an exhibition called Nian Hua: Of Deities, Guardians And Auspicious Art. It will be held at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall from Jan 21 to July 24 next year.

The group members were brought together by Mr Victor Yue, a heritage enthusiast who was tapped by Mr Tan to help with the exhibition.

Mr Yue, a 69-year-old retiree, set up a Facebook group to discuss door gods and traditions surrounding them.

Among those who joined is Mr Jimm Wong, who described his involvement as serendipitous. "If not for the group, I would not have known that there is a community that is interested in this aspect of our culture," said the private collector of Nian Hua.

The 67-year-old - known as one of the last lantern makers here - has more than 320 pieces of the auspicious decorations, and will loan some to NHB's exhibition.

Mr Tan said the members of Mr Yue's Facebook group have generated ideas on content presentation, and provided insights on the use of Nian Hua locally over the years.

While the group came together in an informal manner, NHB has also offered digital volunteering opportunities for its regular volunteers, who number 951 at end-June. The figure has remained above 900 since its financial year that ended in March 2020.


S. Vicneswary, a docent at the Indian Heritage Centre, captured on a digital screen while filming a virtual docents' tour. PHOTO: INDIAN HERITAGE CENTRE

One regular volunteer who has contributed digitally is Ms S. Vicneswary, a docent at the Indian Heritage Centre since late 2019.

During the circuit breaker, she recorded a video at home where she introduced a ukulele donated to the centre by musician Alex Abisheganaden. The instrument was signed and given to the Cultural Medallion recipient by his students in appreciation of his dedication to music education.

While Ms Vicneswary misses the two-way interactions between guides and participants that in-person tours offer, she also feels digital volunteering will suit those who are busy, as time is saved on travelling to and from museums.

Mr Tan said digital volunteering has "transformed the way NHB has been thinking about volunteering... we are looking at how we can grow this volunteer base, and how we can create more platforms and opportunities for them to contribute to our museums and the heritage cause".

NHB has also been supporting volunteers by running workshops on storytelling for virtual tours, and preparing them for in-person guided tours for upcoming special exhibitions, he added.

Those keen to help out as docents can approach groups like Friends of the Museums or Museum Volunteers to find out more.

NHB's volunteering opportunities are also listed at this website while organisations like schools can e-mail volunteers@nhb.gov.sg