Amid Covid-19, S'pore museums can find ways to help people imagine different futures

SINGAPORE – While Covid-19 has been a disaster for museum visitorship, curators have had a chance to hit pause and rethink how best to ride the storm.

Last week, the National Heritage Board organised an International Museum Day symposium titled The Future of Museums: Recover and Re-Imagine. It was unsurprising that the most repeated term was Covid-19. Digitalisation was also a buzzword.

But there was a segment of the symposium that focused on how museums can play a key role in conversations about climate and sustainability. Beyond finding a viable business model during and after the pandemic, stakeholders were interested in how museums can help a battered economy build back better.

“As museums explore contemporary approaches to audience engagement and collecting, they have also sought to re-imagine their roles in promoting awareness and civic action around pressing global issues,” the National Heritage Board said.

During the panel discussion, the ArtScience Museum’s executive director Honor Harger called on museums to operate with this goal in mind. “I believe we are in an imagination battle and museums can carry the day,” she said.

“We need to find the courage and the clarity to imagine different futures. It isn’t just an act of creativity, a flight of fancy away from the stressors of the present, or some form of escapism, it’s an urgent requirement. We must insist on fairer and more sustainable futures.

“The first step to a better future is being able to imagine it.”

She cited various exhibitions that the ArtScience Museum has put up over the years that have helped with this imagining.

Into the Wild, an augmented reality experience it set up with the help of Google and Lenovo, brought the Sumatran forest to Marina Bay. It taught visitors about the rich diversity of the forest, where Sumatran tigers, tapirs, pangolins and orang utans roam, and it also had real world impact. For every virtual tree planted by visitors during the visit, an actual tree was planted in Rimbang Baling, Sumatra.

The result was over 10,000 trees planted.

Its 2219: Futures Imagined exhibition challenged visitors to imagine Singapore and the region 200 years from now. While immersive and fascinating in its range, with tiny worlds created by more than 20 artists, it also encouraged viewers to think about the impact of their consumption and norms that are today taken for granted.

She said: “The emotional connection made possible by art and the understanding made possible by science give us the tools to tackle systemic problems.”

Other institutions more recently have also had exhibitions themed around the environment. For instance, the National Library’s Humans x Nature: Environmental Histories of Singapore challenges viewers to reclaim their natural heritage through showing how the island’s flora and fauna have changed over 400 years.

Said Ms Neo Xiaoyun, 25, who was invited to the symposium as a youth ambassador: “Museums are a key part of experiential learning for the everyday Singaporean. How can curators re-present current collections for contemporary purposes?

“This starts from thinking of museum-goers not as consumers but citizens, not just of Singapore but of the Earth. Human events are only part of a larger story.”

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