story | Alysha Chandra, Editor
photo | NUS Museum
I had a class assignment a few weeks back involving a visit to the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum. When my professor announced it, many of my classmates weren’t sure where it was. Some helpfully suggested that it was the one with the dinosaurs that we had to visit for Scientific Inquiry. It is not.
The NUS museum is connected to the University Cultural Centre, just directly across from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. There are no dinosaur fossils or stuffed leopards, but it is still pretty exciting. I fell in love with the museum last semester when I had a meeting there and stumbled upon its exhibits.
The first exhibit I saw in the NUS Museum was Radio Malaya: Abridged Conversations about Art, which positions different works in the museum’s permanent collection in relation to writings on art and history, namely S. Rajaratnam’s radio play, Radio Malaya. Lines from Rajaratnam’s work snake along the walls of the exhibit, providing a backdrop to works like Georgette Chen paintings and centuries-old South East Asian stoneware.
By far my favorite parts of the museum are its “Prep-Rooms”, spaces where works in progress are shown. Artist Fyerool Darma has a Prep-Room entitled After Ballads, where he expands on the works presented in the Radio Malaya exhibit. He is currently examining the figure of Munshi Abdullah, who translated for the British colonial government.
In the room hangs a painting on the wall portraying who I think it is Munshi Abdullah, but I cannot be sure as his head is cut off. Fyerool Darma has sliced through the canvas and frame, leaving Abdullah’s severed head on the ground. My interpretation of this work is that Fyerool Darma seeks to discover what we’ve lost in the construction of a nation.
Another favorite exhibit of mine is Rediscovering Forgotten Masters of Thai Photography, which opened just last month. The project is by artist Manit Sriwanichpoom, who has gathered Thai images from the 1950s to the 1970s, from those of villagers posing as famous country singers to those of a Buddhist monk’s dharma riddles developed in a monastery darkroom. The photographs span farmlands and factory smoke to beauty queens and artful nudes that protest a fascist regime.
I spoke to Michelle Lee ’19 and Jiayang Kwok ’21, both of whom were research interns for the Radio Malaya exhibit at the museum. Over December break last year, Lee carried out research on the Trimurti performance artists and organized the exhibition bibliography, while Kwok researched on the artist Jimmy Ong and went through a shoebox of close to a thousand photographs, which Ong had donated to the museum.
Kwok brought up how the museum’s link to NUS is a large part of its identity that cannot be erased. For example, some of the spaces in the museum serve as educational resources, such as the Resource Gallery, the Scroll & Paper Study and the Resource Library. “Because it is linked to the school, the NUS Museum doesn’t have to react to market forces like a lot of other art spaces outside have to, giving it the freedom and the dexterity to focus on the art,” he said. “While this means that the museum can’t bring in super bombastic exhibits, it makes the museum very intentional in the exhibits it does bring in.”
Both Lee and Kwok said that they have had people mistakenly think they were talking about the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum when talking about the NUS Museum. Lee said, “To be fair, I didn’t know about the museum until I started interning there. I kind of like how the museum feels like a secret little place most Yale-NUS students don’t know about.”
There is a lot to explore outside the boundaries of University Town (UTown), and I’m really glad I took the trip out of UTown to discover the “secret little place” that is the NUS Museum.
The NUS Museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission is free. The permanent collections of the museum can also be accessed online.