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Rethinking the roles and responsibilities of museums to grow a more inclusive society

Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the CIMAM 2017 Annual Conference

10 November 2017

Ms Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, President, CIMAM
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen.

1. It gives me great pleasure to welcome all of you to the opening ceremony of CIMAM’s annual conference.

2. We are delighted and honoured to host CIMAM’s first conference in Southeast Asia, since its inception in 1962.

A diverse cultural landscape can shape a better society

3. We gather in a time of global uncertainty, where societies are becoming increasingly complex, polarised and divided, because of perceived differences. We are not immune to these forces in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, we are also home to a confluence of civilisations which for centuries have co-existed side-by-side, and have created a unique blend of cultures.

4. I believe that this diversity is a source of strength. It gives us a deep well to draw from, when seeking ideas and inspiration to meet the challenges of a modern, cosmopolitan society. Home to many cultures, Singapore celebrates our diversity through our arts and heritage offerings.  These provide platforms for us to express different views, exchange perspectives, build mutual empathy and understanding, and thereby shape a better society.

Rethinking the roles and responsibilities of museums to shape a more resilient and harmonious society

5. I would like to offer some perspectives on what we can do in this area, as we believe that museums can play an important role in impacting and improving the lives of our people. I would like to share my views along three areas – curation, spaces and partnerships.

Curation that encourage conversations

6. First, museums could curate their collections in a manner that creates conversations and deepens understanding among different communities. An example of a conversation that spanned both the local and transnational dimensions would be National Gallery Singapore’s (Gallery) “Artist and Empire: (En)countering Colonial Legacies” exhibition which ran from last October to March this year. This drew on Singapore’s National Collection to extend the narrative from Tate Britain’s “Artist and Empire”. Gallery’s addition provided perspectives from former colonies in this region, and included responses to colonialism by contemporary artists. For instance, the painting of the British bulldog, on the extreme right is by Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu. Titled “You see No Sunset on your soil, I saw your Son Sat on my paddy field”, the bulldog represents the waning of the British Empire, and marks a distinct post-colonial mood in the 1980s. This exhibition was complemented by public programmes that encouraged discourse, and explored the relationship between art, power and identity.

7. Our museums have also incorporated inter-generational dialogue as part of their exhibition narrative. The exhibition on World War Two at the National Museum of Singapore (National Museum),“Witness to War: Remembering 1942” is a case in point. The exhibition features six out of 50 oral interviews with local war survivors, conducted by school students as part of the Student Archivist Project. This helped to generate empathy and respect for the experiences of the older generation, and provided a bridge to make history more relevant and accessible to younger audiences. I hope that this is something that more families will experience, during the upcoming celebration of Grandparents’ Day on 25 November, at the National Museum.

Spaces that welcome diverse audiences

8. Second, we can make our museum spaces more accessible and attractive for diverse audiences. We have invested much in upgrading Singapore’s cultural infrastructure in recent years. This allows us to bring more cultural offerings and improve on physical accessibility. From designated parking spaces to restrooms for persons with disabilities, our institutions have incorporated universal design and made their spaces more barrier-free.

9. The National Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum and The Peranakan Museum have customised guided programmes for seniors and visitors with special needs. The National Heritage Board, which manages these museums, is also looking into how programming can make our museum spaces more attractive and meaningful for underserved groups, such as lower income families. We see this as a very important social objective, that having invested large sums of money in our cultural institutions, they must relate to all segments of the population.

10. Many of Singapore’s museums also have programmes designed for children.  For example, in its inaugural Children’s Biennale from May to October this year, Gallery installed interactive artworks in its public spaces, and transformed the entire museum into a learning space for young audiences. By moving beyond the traditional confines of an exhibition space, it succeeded in making the museum more inviting for children and their parents. In fact, the PAP Community Foundation (PCF), which is an anchor operator that offers pre-school education to the masses at affordable fees, chose the Gallery as the venue of their Family Day. Almost 10,000 people, including children from over 360 PCF preschools, had a day of fun with the artworks and activities.

Partnerships that amplify impact

11. Third, beyond collaborations with cultural professionals, we need to draw on resources and capabilities beyond the conventional cultural sector to amplify our impact. This is especially pertinent, as the breakneck speed of technological revolution and proliferation of media platforms, compel us to tap expertise beyond the cultural sector, in order to stay relevant.

12. Museums all over the world are exploring partnerships that harness the use of technology, to provide new offerings and attract a wider audience. Through its partnership with PRESENCE Pictures, a local start-up specialising in creating virtual reality content, the National Museum inspired its young audiences through an art-meets-tech programme. As part of this, children drew their imaginary future museum and cartoon Museum Buddy, animated it using their own body movements, and interacted with their final artworks in virtual reality.

13. Such co-creation opportunities, with partners outside the cultural sector, have certainly helped our cultural agencies extend their sphere of influence. For example, the National Heritage Board partnered the National University of Singapore’s Keio-NUS CUTE Centre to launch a heritage trail app in May last year, to consolidate all our heritage trails, onto a single platform. With over 80 trails to choose from, the public can embark on their self-guided journeys, discover stories behind the streets and landmarks in Singapore, and share their trail experiences with other users.


14. These are some of my thoughts on how our museums can play a more significant role in growing a more resilient and harmonious society. Underpinning all these possible initiatives are the people who serve as cultural leaders in each of our countries.  Their professional growth and development are instrumental to achieving our social objectives.  With this in mind, we established the Culture Academy in 2015 to groom the next generation of cultural leaders, professionals and administrators. Some of its programmes include monthly curatorial talks which are open to the public; and the Distinguished Speaker Series, which has featured cultural leaders, such as Dr Neil MacGregor, the former British Museum Director and Mr Jack Lang, the former French Minister for Culture and Education.

15. Beyond this, we are always looking for opportunities to learn from the best. This conference is thus opportune, in enabling us to engage with museum experts from around the world. We hope that you will find some time to visit our museums and galleries, and share with us your advice and suggestions. Once again, we warmly welcome members of CIMAM and wish you a fruitful meeting in Singapore.

Last Updated: 10 November 2017

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