Friday 17 August 2012

Journal | Amassing Collections and Other Interests

The conversation was already lively to begin with but our excitement brewed over when Ashraf revealed that he had, among his friends, systematic collectors of comic books, toys and a myriad of other objects. Why do individuals collect objects and how have they given order to their collections? How can we make sense of their collections and what do their collections say about them? We pondered too – how do these private collections compare with exhibitionary institutions? Speaking to private collectors and viewing their treasure troves would help us answer some of these questions and prompt even more issues regarding collecting and collections to surface. We brainstormed on possible places to visit together, including the storage spaces of Karang Gunis, bomohs, Chinese medicine dispensaries and the homes of private collectors (but not dealers, who would be more commercially-minded). The word ‘collector’ is often associated with adults who are sufficiently well-to-do to maintain such a hobby. There is even a stereotype we heard that collectors must be rich bachelors! Yet, Zaccheus reminded us that children/teenagers can be collectors as well – on weekdays, primary and secondary school students (usually boys) can be spotted at Bishan MRT station exchanging ‘magic’ cards. How do these unacknowledged young curators make sense of their collections?

In addition, we shared about our research interests which could be further explored during the internship. For me, postcards and photographs featuring humans from colonial Malaya offer insights into the colonial gaze and relationships between anthropology and colonialism. Posters promoting tourism in colonial Malaya can be visually interesting, as well as telling of the essentialised, apparently alluring traits used to ‘sell’ this location to consumers. These are blurred photographs that I took of some colonial-period, discoloured tourism posters on a noticeboard outside Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in July’ 2011 (the last week when the station was still operational):

Working with the community is important for Zaccheus, who suggested that we make films about changing landscapes in Singapore and invite residents familiar with these changes to the film screenings to share their experiences. With such interaction, the line between curators and their public would be blurred. Perhaps, the categories of curator and public can also be challenged should we invite residents to select personal objects related to the investigated sites for display and provide short write-ups framing these items. Theoretical grounding for our suggestions was broached when Kamiliah introduced the notion of ‘autoethnography’. Self-reflexivity, she pointed out, is a central concern in the discipline of anthropology as well as in curatorship (as highlighted in several of our assigned texts). Curators could provide write-ups about themselves that would help to impress on their audience the crafted and subjective nature of exhibitions. We need to reflect on and be upfront about the question that Heman first posted to artists: what are our positions as curators?

Lee Min (on behalf of the NUS Museum group)

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