Monday 3 December 2012

essay | Ambiguous Museum Objects

By Wong Lee Min

The Stowed-away Museum:
Ambiguous Meanings of Rarely and Never-before Exhibited Commonplace Artefacts

More often than not, ambiguity – as seen in images, objects, or situations – prompt a certain lack. We tend to disregard its utility. Perhaps another way of thinking about the ambiguous are the potentials it may accommodate; to regard ambiguity not simply as something opposed to clarity, but to consider its indistinct form(s) as ways to locate a set of meanings within the work or exhibition. – Heman Chong (6 Modules)
The extraction of objects from circulation in everyday life into the closed, climate-controlled sphere of museums is often described as entailing a total transformation in the significance of these objects. No longer just ordinary and replaceable commodities, accessioned objects are made unique with reference to their material qualities, social life and the milieux in which they were circulated. This change does not necessarily arise from any innate value of the objects, but rather, through the special treatment of them as sacred icons, laid behind plexiglass or railings in the gallery, prohibited from being touched except by qualified handlers and ruled impossible to be de-accessioned. More than their utilitarian and aesthetic qualities, museum objects are cherished for their ability to signify invisible meanings outside of themselves and can be understood as what Krzysztof Pomian terms semiophores, ‘objects prized for their capacity to produce meaning rather than for their usefulness’. Such morphing from use value to symbolic value experienced by museum objects is often couched in terms of a ‘promotion’.[1]

This analysis, however, generalises the transforming powers of accession, leaving no room to explain the presence of rarely or never-before exhibited commonplace artefacts in the museum collection. Sure enough, due to spatial and thematic restrictions, the museum cannot utilise every piece in its collection. The point here is that some museum artefacts, despite being accessioned, remain limited by their previous ordinariness or circumstances of collection, and subsequently what they can signify, leaving them with hardly any possibility of being exhibited. They are ‘promoted’ to an ambiguous position in the museum collection, unable to perform their symbolic value as semiophores because they are not exhibited, but no longer just banal disposable things of at least some use value. Suspended from their use and symbolic values, these artefacts are relegated to the liminal darkened space of storage, where they await the day of being displayed that may or may never come. Using as a case study the approximately 6000 rarely-exhibited ordinary objects accessioned by Ken Cheong, previously a curator at the Singapore History Museum (now the National Museum of Singapore) from 1994 to 2000, this essay considers the creation and deployment of ambiguous artefacts to tease out some aspects in the economy and politics of museum collections and display. Museum objects do not end up merely as holders of different levels of symbolic value. Instead, their symbolic values are the malleable basis for another type of use value in achieving the ideological goals of museums.

The Making of Ambiguous Artefacts

The massive collection that Ken helped to amass is situated in a larger canvas of nation-building through the development of Singapore’s art and heritage scene in the 1990s. An intensified pace of globalization and increased mobility of Singaporeans had weakened their sense of belonging to the state and was manifested in the growing numbers of Singaporean migrations. Attuned to this phenomenon, Singapore’s nation-building strategy shifted from the foci on tangibles such as economic progress, defence and housing, to the intangible aspect of cultivating emotional ties to the nation. The reason behind the government’s attention on museums after a period of neglect was, as the then-Minister for Information and the Arts Brigadier-General George Yeo explained in 1992, to ‘help Singapore find its soul for it cannot be by bread alone that [Singaporeans] live.’[2] To this end, knowing the long histories of various Singaporean communities was fundamental – ‘the idea is for Singaporeans to feel that while we are a young nation, we're an ancient people. […] Being an ancient people gives us spiritual strength. If you are down or starving, knowing this gives you new strength to go on.’[3] The National Heritage Board was therefore established in 1993 with the explicit aims to showcase ‘the heritage and nationhood of the people of Singapore in the context of their ancestral cultures’, educate the public on the arts, culture and heritage, and ‘record, preserve and disseminate the history of Singapore’.[4]

Joining the Singapore History Museum as an assistant curator in 1994, Ken was involved in what can be described as the National Heritage Board’s frenzied accumulation of everyday-life objects in Singapore. While museum donation drives calling for the public’s objects had been organised since the 1980s, they reached a feverish pitch in the 1990s. The 1994 donation drive, reported to have sold the idea that ‘the past will be better appreciated if people let go of it’, went to the extent of holding a lucky draw in which ten winners were each given a $150 camera.[5] In 1995, Ken curated an exhibition titled ‘Memories of Yesteryear’, featuring approximately 1000 daily-life objects dating from the 1950s and 1960s. These objects included F&N bottles, matchboxes, cinema tickets, posters, handbills, paper currency and items from barbers and provision shops, half of which came from fifty individuals.[6] The six-month long exhibition celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Singapore’s independence by stocktaking the odds overcome and progress attained by the nation. More importantly, it emphasised the contributions of ordinary people in this process of nation-building, as opposed to the great men already memorialised in history.[7] For Ken, the exhibits ‘may be simple things but they are meaningful and important [because they] give us a memory, identity and a sense of the past’. On another level, he wished that the exhibition would clear the common misconception that museums only acquired expensive or ‘high culture’ objects. ‘Hopefully’, he said, ‘we will persuade more people to come out with their collections to build on what we have at the museum.’[8] In the following year’s well-subscribed donation drive, the museum received around two hundred objects, and called for even more everyday-life objects: ‘pre-1960 school uniforms, textbooks, platform shoes, kampung games, old society magazines and National Library cards, […] household items [, old] campaign posters and pictures of air-raid shelters in older estates’.[9] Supplementing objects from these public donation drives with purchases and further donations from individuals and curio shops, Ken had accessioned more than 6000 items from Singapore of the 1930s to 1960s into the National Heritage Board’s collection by the time he left his curatorial position in 2000. Among these artefacts were: Chinese opera objects, school textbooks, government publications, insurance policies, receipts, movie tickets and posters, handbills, vinyl records, cameras, hair creams, bottles, toys, cigarette boxes, objects found in the kitchen and at festivities and special occasions, with buttons and badges constituting the majority.

Few of these artefacts, however, have been displayed in museums since the 1995 exhibition. One reason behind this situation lies in the abundance of these daily-life objects in the museum collection, many of which are of the same type, e.g. bottles, badges, buttons, while some items are in fact identical. These recurrences probably arose through donations made to the museum, especially in the form of collections, which made it difficult for curators to reject certain items if they wanted others within the same set. Nonetheless, recurrences diminish the uniqueness of a museum artefact, reduce the probability of it being displayed and thus, transformed into semiophores. When there are many artefacts of the same type, artefacts without outstanding aesthetic qualities, social lives or signified milieux are exchangeable with one another, e.g. an empty F&N orange glass bottle and a Coke glass bottle of the same height, width, shape and material. Whether or not they are displayed then depend on the random choice of curators and their decisions on how many artefacts of the same kind should be shown. If there are identical objects, again of little difference in their conditions, histories and significance, only one is chosen for display, implying that the other objects, ostensibly icons by nature of being accessioned, are merely superfluous second bests and replacements of the selected exhibit.

In addition, a sizeable number of commonplace objects acquired by the museums were initially gathered in private collections founded on principles which clash with that of the museum, leading to difficulties in incorporating them into exhibitions. Susan Pearce identified three modes of collecting: collections as systematics, souvenirs and fetish objects. The first mode describes museum collections while the latter two apply to private collections. Objects in museums are organised and collected according to somewhat empirical taxonomies and are meant to carry meanings public enough to engage a range of visitors. In contrast, souvenirs are linked to life experiences of individuals or groups and can be fascinating or boring to visitors depending on the fame of their previous owners, for as Pearce explicates, souvenirs encapsulate ‘an intensely individual past – no one is interested in other people’s souvenirs’. Consequently, souvenirs are not displayed except in exhibitions which allow for an illustration of their social lives. Fetish collections are results of individual whims to amass as many objects as possible in accordance to one’s desired categories, such that objects entering the collector’s ‘private universe’ lose their original meanings and contexts, and become defined solely in relation to the collector’s passions. This shedding of relationships to the larger world undergone by fetish objects is the key reason why they are rarely exhibited unless some other aesthetic or historical value can be laid upon them.[10] In general then, whether or not commonplace artefacts are exhibited hinges on how successfully their previously private meanings can be converted to a public, widely-accessible significance, which brings us to the next section of this essay on how these ambiguous artefacts have been deployed, when they finally are, in museums.

Potentials of the Ambiguous Artefacts

Commonplace objects appear particularly amenable as insertions into narratives that are compatible with the ideologies espoused by museums as state institutions. As conceptualised by Tony Bennett, museums are part of an ‘exhibitionary complex’ of ‘disciplinary and power relations’ employed by the state, a ‘set of cultural technologies concerned to organise a voluntarily self-regulating citizenry’.[11] He asserts that the exhibitionary complex did not function by threatening visitors into believing its representations. Instead, it used its epistemological power to arrange objects and people in an order, persuading visitors to accept their positions in that order and in doing so, recognise the state’s power as their own or at least one which is beneficial for them.[12] Following this formulation, the display of daily-life objects that are familiar to visitors from different classes is arguably more effective in convincing them to identify with the depicted order of things.

That this is the role of daily-life exhibits conceived by the state in the 1995 exhibition ‘Memories of Yesteryear’ is evidenced by the opening speech delivered by then-Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng. Running through a list of memories evoked by the exhibits, he urged, ‘For those who lived through the turbulent years, you have witnessed and participated in the changes in Singapore. Whether you are in your thirties or older, it is hoped that when you visit this exhibition, you will share with the younger generation “memories of yesteryear”, so that they will treasure Singapore’s fruits of success.’ In particular, Minister Wong credited Singapore’s progress to sacrifices made by ordinary people, ‘the man in the street, the person who came to Singapore as an immigrant and stayed on to help build what we have today’, claiming that they ‘all came from an era of hardship in which individuals toiled for a better life. They worked hard so that their children could be brought up and be educated to lead a better life.’[13] These statements yield more meaning when read in the context of globalisation and increased migration, as well as the government’s view of the post-‘65 generation as individualistic and selfish, unwilling to make sacrifices for the nation and ignorant of the obstacles that the country had conquered prior to reaching its current prosperity. Daily-life objects are thus used in the exhibition not only to conjure a poignant image of selfless nation-building by the ‘65-yers to inspire the post-’65 generation to do the same, but also to enlist the ‘65-yers, through their identification with the exhibits and the narrative in which they are embedded, in the project of educating the youth.

In unravelling the ambiguous position of rarely or never-before displayed commonplace artefacts, this discussion has touched on the economy of symbolism that museum objects are located in, outlining ways in which, beyond the point of accession, the abundance and ability of artefacts to speak to a larger audience affect their symbolic values and therefore, their status as icons. When these artefacts are eventually exhibited, they can hold a powerful symbolic value, thanks to the visitors’ familiarity and identification with them, and be harnessed to promote certain ideologies. Perhaps, the ambiguity of these objects will fade with time, as they grow rare outside museums and more precious with age, though this also means that fewer visitors will be able to identify with them. When the past has become distant enough to be ‘a foreign country’, visitors may even flock to see these ethnographic curiosities and be grateful for their abundance. Afterall, aren’t many of the archaeological artefacts we treasure today everyday-life objects salvaged from rubbish middens?


Primary Sources
Agence France-Presse, 30 Jan. 1992.
National Archives of Singapore (NAS). “Speech by Mr Wong Kan Seng, Minister for Home Affairs, at the Opening of the Exhibition in Commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of Independence of Singapore at the National Museum on Wednesday, 19 July 1995 at 6.30 pm”. <>. Accessed on 25 Oct. 2012.
Straits Times, 31 Jan. 1992.
Straits Times, 25 July 1993.
Straits Times, 11 Nov. 1994.
Straits Times, 15 July 1995.
Straits Times, 30 Dec 1996.

Secondary Sources
Belk, Russell W. “Collectors and Collecting”. In Interpreting Objects and Collections, pp. 317-326. Edited by Susan Pearce. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Carman, John. “Promotion to Heritage: How Museum Objects are Made”. In Encouraging Collections Mobility: a Way Forward for Museums in Europe, pp. 74-85. Edited by S. Pettersson, M. Hagedorn-Saupe, T. Jyrkkiö and A. Weij. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery, 2010.
Pearce, Susan. “Collecting Reconsidered”. In Interpreting Objects and Collections, pp. 193-204. Edited by Susan Pearce. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

[1] Russell W. Belk, “Collectors and Collecting”, in Interpreting Objects and Collections, ed. Susan Pearce (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 320; John Carman, “Promotion to Heritage: How Museum Objects are Made”, in Encouraging Collections Mobility: a Way Forward for Museums in Europe, eds. S. Pettersson, M. Hagedorn-Saupe, T. Jyrkkiö and A. Weij (Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery, 2010), pp. 79, 81 and 84; Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 35 and 165 (quote).
[2] Agence France-Presse, 30 Jan. 1992.
[3] Straits Times (ST), 31 Jan. 1992.
[4] ST, 25 July 1993.
[5] ST, 11 Nov. 1994.
[6] ST, 15 July 1995.
[7] National Archives of Singapore (NAS), “Speech by Mr Wong Kan Seng, Minister for Home Affairs, at the Opening of the Exhibition in Commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of Independence of Singapore at the National Museum on Wednesday, 19 July 1995 at 6.30 pm”, <>, accessed on 25 Oct. 2012.
[8] ST, 15 July 1995.
[9] ST, 30 Dec 1996.
[10] Susan Pearce, “Collecting Reconsidered”, in Interpreting Objects and Collections, pp. 194-201. First quote from p. 195, second quote from p. 200.
[11] Bennett, Birth of the Museum, pp. 59 and 63 (third quote).
[12] Ibid., p. 67.
[13] NAS, “Speech by Mr Wong Kan Seng”.

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