ARTS & CUL­TURE: Cul­tural Cat­a­lyst

An­gelita Teo, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Sin­ga­pore, tells Ade­line Loh why the mu­seum strives to be an in­cu­ba­tor of the fu­ture as much as it is a repos­i­tory of the past


By col­lab­o­rat­ing with di­verse part­ners who live and breathe in­no­va­tion, the Na­tional Mu­seum of Sin­ga­pore is striv­ing to be an in­cu­ba­tor of the fu­ture as much as it is a repos­i­tory of the past, says di­rec­tor An­gelita Teo

Ask an­gelita teo what her moon­shot goal for the Na­tional Mu­seum of Sin­ga­pore (NMS) is as its di­rec­tor, and she doesn’t hold back: “For it to not only show­case the world to Sin­ga­pore, but also proudly rep­re­sent Sin­ga­pore as an in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised icon.” To achieve this dream, the coun­try’s old­est mu­seum, which dates back to 1849, has em­braced ex­per­i­men­ta­tion—from col­lab­o­rat­ing with di­verse sec­tors to in­tro­duc­ing new tech­nolo­gies. As An­gelita puts it: “We’ve al­ways held the be­lief that we are the old­est mu­seum with the youngest soul.”

“Col­lab­o­rat­ing with those who live and breathe in­no­va­tion has been vi­tal to our mis­sion of pre­sent­ing fresh per­spec­tives to our vis­i­tors”

How has your view of a mu­seum’s role evolved?

Be­yond serv­ing as a repos­i­tory of our past, I be­lieve the role of the mu­seum to­day should be to cre­ate a con­nec­tion with the present. What is core to the mu­seum, its col­lec­tion, re­mains im­por­tant and rel­e­vant. The mu­se­um­go­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, has shifted from a largely per­sonal one to a more emo­tive and shared jour­ney. Be­yond knowl­edge gath­er­ing, we try to bring our vis­i­tors through a range of emo­tions that can start from mo­ments of self-re­flec­tion to pas­sion­ate ex­changes of sto­ries and mem­o­ries.

In this age of dis­rup­tion, how has a sto­ried in­sti­tu­tion like the mu­seum had to rein­vent it­self?

Our fo­cus lies in re­defin­ing the con­ven­tional mu­seum ex­pe­ri­ence. We con­stantly seek new and in­no­va­tive ways to con­nect with our au­di­ences across dif­fer­ent plat­forms, with our col­lec­tion form­ing the ba­sis for any strat­egy or ap­proach we take. For in­stance, we have in­tro­duced dig­i­tal pro­jec­tions and in­ter­ac­tive tech­nol­ogy to fa­cil­i­tate the vis­i­tors’ jour­ney through our gal­leries, but the ex­hib­ited arte­facts are still cen­tral to the sto­ries we tell. At the start of 2017, we launched our first dig­i­tal gallery, Gallery10, an ex­per­i­men­tal space that ex­plores the re­la­tion­ship be­tween art and dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy. We were able to cre­ate an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence for vis­i­tors to en­gage with his­tory and art. In­stal­la­tions such as Story of the For­est by renowned mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary art col­lec­tive, team­lab, are also ground­break­ing and in­no­va­tive works that marry tech­nol­ogy with art, and even his­tory. We will con­tinue to push the bound­aries in th­ese ar­eas.

What do you see as the core chal­lenges fac­ing mu­se­ums around the world and in Sin­ga­pore?

Mu­se­ums to­day are faced with a gen­er­a­tion of vis­i­tors who crave com­pelling and im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences and ideas. One of the core chal­lenges is meet­ing their in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated needs and ex­pec­ta­tions with­out los­ing sight of our core mis­sion, and main­tain­ing our schol­arly and pro­fes­sional stan­dards.

NMS launched the Digimuse project to ex­plore dig­i­tal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in cul­tural spa­ces. Which re­sult­ing in­no­va­tions have been par­tic­u­larly promis­ing?

For Digimuse, we in­vited artists, tech­nol­o­gists and cul­ture pro­fes­sion­als to co-cre­ate projects. In Au­gust 2018, we show­cased Digimuse Presents, fea­tur­ing seven dig­i­tally-led pro­to­type projects. Some promis­ing ini­tia­tives in­cluded the use of wear­able mixed re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy known as Hololens, through which vis­i­tors could en­joy a unique look into the process of con­serv­ing artworks, and An Ex­ca­va­tion Through Time, a vir­tual re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence which al­lowed vis­i­tors to “un­earth” and un­cover buried arte­facts from Sin­ga­pore’s Te­masek pe­riod. We also pre­sented the app-based pro­gramme Mul­ti­plic­ity, de­vel­oped by home­grown so­cial startup Big Red But­ton, which en­ables vis­i­tors to ac­cess the dif­fer­ent view­points of his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters. An­other in­ter­est­ing project was Ask William, an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence mes­sen­ger plat­form cre­ated by Uni­fied In­box, which of­fered vis­i­tors in­for­ma­tive nuggets about the William Far­quhar Col­lec­tion of Nat­u­ral His­tory Draw­ings. We are ex­plor­ing projects like th­ese, which har­ness tech­nol­ogy to bet­ter en­gage mu­seum-go­ers, as ways to im­ple­ment dig­i­tal in­no­va­tion across our mu­seum of­fer­ings.

Has such cross-sec­tor col­lab­o­ra­tion been im­por­tant for ex­pand­ing in­no­va­tion?

For sure! We have worked with nu­mer­ous part­ners across di­verse back­grounds and ex­per­tise, from cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, to dig­i­tal de­sign­ers and cre­ative pro­fes­sion­als. Col­lab­o­rat­ing with those who live and breathe in­no­va­tion has been vi­tal to our mis­sion of pre­sent­ing fresh per­spec­tives to our vis­i­tors, and Digimuse al­lows us to do just that.

EX­PER­I­MEN­TAL EN­DEAV­OURS The in­stal­la­tion, Story of the For­est (pic­tured), was a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Ja­panese dig­i­tal art col­lec­tive team­lab and the Na­tional Mu­seum of Sin­ga­pore; Cosa Men­tale (op­po­site), one of the seven dig­i­tally-led projects, was ex­hib­ited un­der the Digimuse ini­tia­tive

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