An empty COVID
The National Museum of Singapore is also seeking to co-create its stories with the public and other agencies, given that it is the people’s museum, said Ms Chung.
The National Museum will display more recent Singapore history, including the COVID-19 pandemic period.
SINGAPORE: An empty vial that once contained Pfizer’s first COVID-19 vaccine in Singapore donated by the Ministry of Health will be among the exhibits at the National Museum as part of a revamp of the Singapore History Gallery.
The museum also commissioned photographers to document how Singaporeans were coping with the “circuit breaker” period, which was in place for about two months in 2020.
Such documentation is part of the National Museum’s efforts to to incorporate more contemporary history like the COVID-19 pandemic in the revamp that is expected to end in 2026.
The museum has been collecting material for its contemporary initiative in a more focused manner since May 2020, said its director Chung May Khuen.
“One of the the lessons that we learned over the last few years as a result of the pandemic and as a result of engaging our audience and different stakeholders is that they want to see how history actually relates to them,” she said.
“To do that, I think it is important to find important milestones or important events at the moment and make that connection immediately with our visitors and then bring them back into history so that they can see the relevance of history.”
The last revamp was in 2015.
Other than the history gallery, its five other permanent galleries on level two and the glass rotunda will also be revamped, the institution announced earlier this year.
The National Museum is seeking to co-create its stories with the public and other agencies, given that it is the people’s museum, said Ms Chung.
“We always think that there is value in co-creating content with the public and not just for the visitors at the moment, but also for the future generations to come,” she said.
“I think it's important that future generations are able to look at the past and be able to see the stories and very interesting objects that shed a bit more light about the history of their ancestors.”
At the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), getting more people involved is part of an aim to represent a wider variety of communities.
For instance, the museum put together two recent showcases on Sikhism and Judaism with the help of these smaller religious groups.
On display were Torah scroll cases the museum loaned from the Jewish Welfare Board. It worked with the Maghain Aboth Synagogue to pick out artefacts. The synagogue also advised the museum on how to display them in an appropriate manner.
The ACM is looking to showcase Taoism and Zoroastrianism - among the world's oldest religions - soon. Despite the age of the religions, the museum is looking to put a contemporary spin on the display.
"We're moving into the space of contemporary design. And so, that for us right now, would be a priority,” said the museum’s director Kennie Ting.
“It's a shift away from this idea of the museum being a very, very monolithic, top-down kind of space. Moving to contemporary allows us to work with living people,” he added.
This shift is also bringing in a new and younger audience, with data showing that since 2018, almost half of them are in their 20s, according to Mr Ting.
“It's made the museum feel a lot more relevant, and a lot more (in tune) with what people are thinking about,” he said.
He added that some audiences still prefer the museum's traditional offerings, but art historian Priya Jaradi told CNA that ACM's pivot towards contemporary collecting does not mean leaving the past behind.
"I'm imagining that this is not a way to present the past and the present, or the old and the new as being separate or disconnected. In fact, I think these contemporary objects are a way to show how the past and the present evolve in a continuum," she said.
She added that by diversifying their sources, museums could potentially avoid illicit channels of artefact trade.
Dr Jaradi also pointed out that there is a need for museums to “decolonise.”
To move away from eurocentric perspectives and practices that have been guiding the museum landscape for a long time, more inclusive policies have to be adopted in the building of collections and the way information is presented around objects or collections, she said.
For instance, Dr Jaradi, a senior lecturer and convenor of art history at the National University of Singapore, questioned the need for Singapore’s history to begin in 1819 when colonial administrator Stamford Raffles founded the country.
“Should we reconsider the writing of our history in a longer, complex and richer fashion, and perhaps from a more local or regional perspective?” she asked.
She added that communities are always connected across borders, whether through trade, colonisation or religion.
Any gallery that represents cultures, civilisations or nation states, must not resort to a single telling, she said.
“I think there should be multiple tellings of the same history, which means that we need to integrate multiple perspectives and voices. And I think it's also important to understand that no nation, state, culture, or people come into being in a silo,” she said.