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