Journey to the West: A visit to the NUS Museum

(No, not the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.)

Museums can feel inapproachable. There’s so much contained within them to learn about, and absorb, that things can become overwhelming; eventually, the intimidated ones dismiss museums as places beyond their reach.

Honest disclaimer here: I’m one of those who don’t think they’re museum people, so, I was a little apprehensive when the NUS Museum invited Digital Senior to visit. What I found out about the museum was a really pleasant surprise, most of which I’ve condensed down below!

(The NUS Museum, for those who don’t know, is a museum centered on Asian regional art and culture. Permanent collections include artefacts like Indian Classical Sculptures, and local contemporary ink works.)

(Photo credit: NUS Museum)
(Photo credit: NUS Museum)

1. The NUS Museum is actually highly accessible

Don’t let its description scare you (like it did me). Here’s how said description begins, for the curious:

Comprehensive? Research? What’s a research museum? *sweats*
Comprehensive? Research? What’s a research museum? *sweats*

This sentence alone made the museum appear out-of-bounds to me but it most certainly isn’t! Walk into any of the galleries and you’ll notice that the artwork and artefacts don’t come with descriptions at the side. You’re free to take in a piece and if it piques your curiosity, learn more about it through one of the guides available at the reception desk.

Works of Batik artist Sarkasi Said, the “Baron of Batik”, on display.
Works of Batik artist Sarkasi Said, the “Baron of Batik”, on display.

The museum intersperses its permanent collections with its temporary exhibitions, placing them in a layout that encourages dialogue and different perspectives.

One step takes me from the Archaeology Library into Crossings, an exhibition by Wei Leng Tay (until Nov 2018) on lived and inherited migration. In the former, I admire stationary objects with stories. In the latter, I learn about people, travelling people, whom due to circumstances could be made immobile due to things like nation formation. I chew on this as I explore the other sections.

2. Open galleries

If you’re someone who feels a disconnect from having to look at artworks and artefacts at a distance, these will be your best find at the NUS Museum.

Doors to magic. The picture explains their concept way better than I can (Image credit: Harith Redzuan for the NUS Museum)
Doors to magic. The picture explains their concept way better than I can
(Image credit: Harith Redzuan for the NUS Museum)

Before this visit, I didn’t know such an interesting idea was happening in Singapore right under my nose.

A concept pioneered and materialized by the NUS Museum that are better known as prep rooms, these interactive spaces are sites for the exploration of ideas. For a period of time, researchers or practitioners are granted use of the space to develop projects or trains of thought to see where they will lead to. Eventually, all the work within a prep-room could result in an exhibition!

The museum also brings in academics to see if there’s potential to work together and make things grow. Really cool stuff.

Changes happen constantly, all the time. You can head in one week later to find the space totally different from how it was the week before, as the practitioners or researchers discover and explore new angles to their works.

A scene of organized chaos in After Ballads. Artist Fyerool Darma, in this prep room, explores the nature of knowledge and its production through the mediums of texts, artefacts and language — and how these affect society today.
A scene of organized chaos in After Ballads. Artist Fyerool Darma, in this prep room, explores the nature of knowledge and its production through the mediums of texts, artefacts and language — and how these affect society today.

You’re free to engage with the archival materials within these prep rooms and journey along in the curatorial process! It’s a novel way to engage the public.

A map in the prep room for Buaya: The making of a non-myth. The map locates sightings of crocodiles in Singapore, both alleged and proven
A map in the prep room for Buaya: The making of a non-myth. The map locates sightings of crocodiles in Singapore, both alleged and proven

If you’re lucky you might visit the prep room when the practitioner or artist (or any assisting individual) is in, and get a chance to exchange ideas or feedback.

3. They have online collections

Museums across the world have been venturing into the digital sphere for some time now, and NUS Museum has begun doing so as well. If a trip down to NUS isn’t possible for you anytime soon (or perhaps home is just a little cozy right now), check out what’s on display on your laptop!

Having done a quick scan of the online archive before my visit, because I didn’t want to go in totally clueless, I was instantly able to recognize a few pieces of Chinese calligraphy that were part of the Lee Kong Chian collection:

One of the pieces
One of the pieces
The piece in the online collection (all credits to NUS Museum)
The piece in the online collection (all credits to NUS Museum)

Being able to spot a piece I saw online (while randomly browsing the collections) made it easier to connect with what was before me. If you find museums to be a little overwhelming, start out here! Take your time to look at a piece and then make a trip down to see it in its full glory. Not everything is up yet, so do give them some time.

The NUS museum was a delightful surprise. Perhaps the word “cozy” isn’t usually paired with museums, but it’s a fitting adjective here. It’s a far cry from what I anticipated when I had an image of a research museum in mind, but you’ll have to see it to believe it.

One of the really eye-catching works in the South and Southeast Asian Gallery (Photo credit: Geraldine Kang, for the NUS Museum)
One of the really eye-catching works in the South and Southeast Asian Gallery
(Photo credit: Geraldine Kang, for the NUS Museum)

Tucked away in the corner of the first floor of NUS’s University Cultural Centre, the NUS Museum is open to the general public 5 days a week. If you find yourself within the area, why not swing by and have a quick look around? (:

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