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National Museum director reveals how it has grown arts appreciation in Singapore

The National Museum brings people together to understand each other and the past, says museum director Angelita Teo.

At 130 years young, the National Museum may be the senior member among Singapore’s cultural institutions, but there has been an extra spring in its step lately. Preserving and protecting the country’s cultural heritage has always been an essential part of its mission (it started life in 1849 as the Raffles Library and Museum), but so is keeping up with the changing times. Leading the way is current museum director Angelita Teo, who has been the chief cultural cheerleader and primary driving force behind a slate of exhibitions and events designed to capture the imagination of a wider audience. It’s been making a difference – last year, more than 800,000 people visited the museum.

Teo, 45, studied anthropology and started her cultural career as a curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum before joining the National Museum in 2003, where she was an integral part of its redevelopment programme. Later, she earned a master’s degree in art curatorship and served the museum in various capacities before her appointment as director in 2013. Since then she has made it her mission to broaden its base, enhance its appeal and stay relevant for a modern-day museum-going audience. Along the way, she has injected a healthy dose of creativity into the visitor experience. In addition to the more “typical” blockbuster exhibitions such as Treasures of the World from The British Museum, the National Museum broadens its reach by engaging the public through events like Short Cuts, a showcase for local short films, and organising exhibitions on fashion and photography. Teo also oversees popular annual events like the Singapore Night Festival (which has seen a 10-fold increase in attendance since it started a decade ago) and chairs the Museum Roundtable, an initiative aimed at encouraging a museum-going culture.

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What do you see as the role of the National Museum?

It has to be a place to bring Singaporeans together, to understand each other, have a clearer understanding of our past and to move ahead. I spent my first three years trying to create programmes and activities that cater to young families. Where we’re heading now is programmes that are dedicated more towards seniors, those with special needs, kids with autism who might benefit from having social activities. We’re always trying to create exciting new things, and we also hope to make it easier for older people to explore. We are probably the museum most open to working with different partners to bring people here, such as local free-to-air channels. The museum has a certain buzz now.

How has the museum-going experience changed since its 19th-century roots as a history museum?

Museums have evolved a lot in the past 200 years, developing from a time when scholarship was the most important thing. Today, they have to play a significant role in society – even though we’re a social history museum we’re trying to present a reflection of what’s happening around us. I always ask our curators: ‘What are the key takeaways for our audience?’ There are a lot of things you can learn – our programmes try to serve as opportunities for people to gather. Museum entry has been free for Singaporeans and PRs for about three years, and we are seeing an increase in return visitors. A lot depends on the specific exhibitions, but we’re trying to encourage whole families to visit. Singaporeans are well-travelled and they do visit museums but getting them to come to museums here in their own backyard, that’s the challenge for us.

How do you stay up to speed in our fast-paced, fast-changing modern-day society?

We’ve done a lot of successful events – we recognise the value of film as a medium to reach out, and for local talents to be creative. A lot of local filmmakers started their careers through us. We’ve brought in some of the best fashion and design exhibitions to highlight the value of fashion in our society. The museum dedicates its permanent galleries to the history of Singapore; we see ourselves as making a difference by presenting Singapore, and we’re bringing the world to Singapore at the same time. The public is slowly maturing – we don’t always have to justify why we’re doing something. As long as the museum is starting conversations, that means we’re relevant. We have to get people interested in our own history, because we’re surprisingly ignorant about it. We’re also hoping that going to museums and galleries will become more natural – every two to three months is about right.

Describe your personal style in running the National Museum. What are some of its future projects?

All of us who work in the cultural sector, you have to love it. This is a job I grew into. There is a lot of opportunity for creativity – to be able to work on a variety of different projects. We get to do serious, traditional exhibitions where research and scholarship are important, and also reach out to young people by playing with technology. Often, we lack the physical space to talk about why things happen. Next year there will be a focus on design. There’s also no running away from 2019, which marks the arrival of (Stamford) Raffles 200 years ago, and we’re in the process of building a new children’s wing by 2021.

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How has being a museum director changed your view of the world and what’s in store for you personally?

Something I’ve learned to appreciate in the last few years is contemporary art – I visit a lot of contemporary art museums when I travel. Contemporary art challenges you – whether it’s good art or bad, it creates the opportunity to think about things. It’s just too convenient to not have an opinion nowadays. For me, there’s still a lot of work ahead, the momentum has to continue. There’s a few more things I’m hoping to achieve in the museum profession. I always joke that if I was not with the museum I’d like to do carpentry. When I was young, my father kept me occupied by giving me a hammer, nails and a piece of wood. I admire people who make beautiful furniture. My grandfather was a mechanic – he insisted I learn how to change tyres, so that made me quite a hands-on person. I also used to play golf regularly but I haven’t seen my clubs since I became museum director – at some stage I will reacquaint myself with them.

Story first appeared on The Business Times.

HEADER PHOTO KELVN CHNG / THE BUSINESS TIMES