2. On Representation

The institutions we have chosen to discuss in after|thought have one consistent trait among them – they seek to represent. One may represent something by bringing it into presence, or by embodying it in a new way. In doing so, the institution is then also a site of power, since it holds agency in generating new configurations of information, which can be perceived and consumed as truth. Mediums such as textbooks, museums and media are all the more powerful due to their potential to reach large numbers of people and their ability to construct collective memories for the public.

We chose to explore these three forms of state channels that proclaim the Singapore Story, in particular the representation of 9 August 1965. Each of these mediums has been used as platforms to understand history, and represent the past for a generation that has not lived through those pivotal moments. The newspaper can be seen as a representation of each day by virtue of the need for it to be current and kept up to date on a daily basis. Looking at The Straits Times edition of 10 August 1965 allows us insight to what else was deemed important enough to warrant public attention on the day that the nation came into being. This also highlights the discrepancy between how the event was represented, and thus perceived, nearer to the time of its occurrence and now, in 2013. Today, the press is charged to share the responsibility of nation building with the state, representing events in a particular manner that largely echoes the national narrative.

The history presented in the History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore is essentially public history, where the narrative is directed by the need to engage the general public and also suit in the state’s objectives for National Education, an educational programme developed by the government to inculcate values and knowledge to foster national cohesion. Nevertheless, the politics that belie the Gallery should not be overstated as the curatorial team had sought to present a layered history that invites the viewer to select between a ‘personal’ or ‘events’ path, giving them the agency to choose how they want to experience Singapore history, albeit still working within the framework of the Singapore Story. Together with the public’s response to the display, a complex negotiation takes place between institutional objectives, the viewer, and the curator, as popular imagination and curatorial interventions intersect to articulate new meanings and interpretations of Singapore history. The space becomes a site for discussion and hence complicates the act of representing.

The last medium after|thought focused on was the history textbook that was first introduced to schools in 1984. While the textbook (and history lesson) was meant to educate Singaporeans on the history of their country, it also reassesses how history should be consumed and used by the nation, with very specific aims to inculcate a sense of loyalty and shape collective memory by imparting the useful values the younger generation could learn. What is represented is therefore not just history, but also the moral lessons for the future generations to emulate, angled towards preserving the prosperity and sustainability of a successful nation. For most Singaporeans, the textbook and the history lesson is where they first encounter a detailed account of the past, one that is also a narrative undergird by the need to teach what is necessary for Singapore’s survival.

In a more self-reflexive turn, the exhibition can be seen as a commentary on curating in a broader sense. The act of curating is essentially about re-presenting an idea, even complicating what is already present. Exhibitions are essentially systems of representations and iconographies that convey meaning and interpretations expressed by the curator. As such, our crafting of after|thought is also our representation of 9 August 1965 to the viewers, one that looks at the date as an event taught to us rather than experienced. In this sense, after|thought itself has also become a metaphor for the practice.

Visitors browsing through archival material on the three institutions that were on display at the exhibition.

One thought on “2. On Representation”

  1. If you grew up with your elders having informed you about 1965, conversations of their past, their lives, their dreams then (because no one initiates a conversation let’s talk 1965, perhaps on National Day?), you would have connected what they told you with what you were taught.

    But if you didn’t have the dialogue then, then examine your inner selves and ask why there wasn’t a dialogue. It’s more about you, not the state.

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