Objectum: An Exhibition on the Shifting Meanings of Daily-Life Museum Objects by Wong Lee Min

Objectum: An Exhibition on the Shifting Meanings of Daily-Life Museum Objects
Wong Lee Min

Objectum explores the ambiguity of commonplace objects within museum collections. In collaboration with Ken Cheong, a photographer and former curator, this show revisits a 1995/6 exhibition at the Singapore History Museum, titled Memories of Yesteryear, and the daily-life objects that he helped to amass for the Museum. Objectum prompts an investigation into how easily things become embedded into discourses, and how different spaces and agents confer meanings onto them.

1. Introduction

The Singaporean photographer, Ken Cheong, is a familiar figure to many involved in the country’s heritage scene. Not only has he documented a large number of artefacts from local museums, he is often invited to photograph major events of the heritage industry. What is less known about Ken is that prior to becoming a full-time photographer, he worked as a curator at the Singapore History Museum (predecessor of the National Museum of Singapore, NMS) from 1994 to 2000. It was an opportune time to enter the museological field, for the government had only just begun to pay attention to the arts and heritage for nation-building purposes, after decades of focusing on economic progress, education, housing and defence. As an agent of the state initiative, Ken was tasked with accumulating daily-life objects of the Chinese community from the 1930s to 1960s. Driven by a desire to capture facets of the past for future generations, he tirelessly accessioned more than 6,000 items before leaving his curatorial position. These artefacts come from disparate settings, such as wayang, cinema, weddings, festivities, schools and unions, with the majority of them being badges and uniform buttons. Many of these items were featured in Memories of Yesteryear (19 July 1995 – 31 January 1996), an exhibition that Ken curated in commemoration of Singapore’s thirtieth anniversary of independence. Since then, most of the objects have been stowed away in the extensive storerooms of the Heritage Conservation Centre.

Ken’s accessions – commonplace things that are part of a museum collection, yet hardly ever exhibited – raise questions about their value as artefacts. Despite their ordinariness, these objects are accorded a degree of sacredness upon being extracted from everyday life by curators, the arbiters of culture. Shedding their utilitarian functions, these ex-commodities enter the museum as not-to-be-touched icons, preserved and admired for their association with the past and at times, their beauty.[1] They appear particularly useful in showcasing material progress and stirring up a sense of achievement, mixed with that of loss, among a large portion of the population whose lives they represent. In Memories of Yesteryear, daily-life objects from itinerant hawkers, coolies, five-footway tradesmen, cinemas and coffeeshops celebrated the numerous ordinary men and women who contributed to nation-building, rather than a few renowned politicians. Mr Wong Kan Seng, then Minister for Home Affairs, declared in the opening speech, ‘We are what we are today only with the participation of the man in the street in every sphere of life,’ and urged older Singaporeans to share their memories with the youth, ‘so that they will treasure Singapore’s fruits of success’.[2] In spite of their mass appeal, everyday museum objects are rarely displayed compared with artefacts of greater historical and aesthetic gravitas. No longer profane, but not as revered as other artefacts either, these lesser icons prompt us to ponder over how objects are transformed as they journey across different hands and spaces through time.

As a response to the ambiguous value of daily-life museum artefacts and Ken’s story, we – four NUS Museum interns in our twenties – curated Objectum. Under the mentorship of Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, our team consists of Ashraf Yoonus, Kamiliah Bahdar, Tabitha Lee and Wong Lee Min, who are academically trained in History, Anthropology and English Linguistics. Our exhibition comprises typical domestic articles from the 1950s to 1970s, which we acquired as a simulacrum of the 6,000-item NMS collection that Ken helped to build. In addition, the gallery presents Ken’s photographic interpretations of the newly-acquired objects, our video interview with him, and annotated texts that reflect our research process. Objectum, a Medieval Latin word meaning ‘thing presented to the mind’, alludes to the Latin scientific labels for zoological specimens, and lends a superficial air of scholarship and dignity to our run-of-the-mill exhibits, mimicking the process by which objects turn into icons upon being accessioned by the museum. From objectum, the modern English word object is derived. It carries three meanings:

1) (noun) a material thing that can be seen and touched
2) (noun) a person or thing to which a specified action or feeling is directed
3) (verb) to say something to express one’s disapproval of or disagreement with something

With reference to these definitions, Objectum refuses to impose a singular interpretation on artefacts, but inquires instead into the varied narratives in which they are embedded, and how different spaces (e.g. museums, homes and curio shops) and agents (e.g. curators, collectors, traders, artists and audiences) confer meanings onto them.

1. Cover Page of the Exhibition Pamphlet
Cover Page of the Exhibition Pamphlet. The featured object is a cream piper.

2. Exhibits

2b. Gallery Impressions (left)

2. Gallery Impressions Top
Gallery Impressions

Objectum (18 January – 3 February 2013) was housed in Goodman Arts Centre, which was previously home to Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School, LASALLE College of the Arts and School of the Arts (Sota). A former classroom rather than a white-cube space with its conventions, our gallery complements the nature of the everyday items exhibited.

2c. Gallery Impressions (right)
Drawer of Quotes with Lists of Artefacts

On entering the gallery, one is greeted by two metal drawers containing cards with printed quotes, recalling the pre-digital age library catalogue where cards detailing information on books, arranged in alphabetical order, were packed tightly into drawers. The quotes come from various sources, ranging from karang guni [rag and bone men], antique collectors and traders to curators, artists and academics. Some anecdotes speak of the individuals’ dedicated efforts at amassing objects for sale, others for sentimental reasons, their tender attachment to their collections, and their thoughts on heritage conservation and how they contributed to it. A counterpoint to these stories can be found in the quotes of artists who re-used second-hand materials in ready-made art, thereby granting old things a new lease of life and opening them to interpretations beyond their historical values. Other scholarly extracts dissect the concepts of nostalgia, progress and memory, which are often referenced in the display of daily-life artefacts, and point to how meanings of museum objects are constructed. Foregrounding the drawer of quotes exhibit thus sets the tone for Objectum, which problematises univocal museum narratives of nostalgia and progress, and acknowledges the varied lives and meanings of objects.

Some of the quotes we used:

In the past, being a karang guni was considered a lowly job, and they only collected old clothes, newspapers and scrap metal; the job is now of a higher status, we are called ‘recycling heroes’. As ‘recycling heroes’, we contribute towards the preservation of history too…

– Ah Yuan, a karang guni (Lianhe Zaobao, 26 November 1995)

I use ‘found’ objects for my sculptures as I want to experiment with a new approach. I’m challenging the traditional concept of what a sculpture should or should not be. […] Art depends on the artist. Everybody should be allowed to do it his own way. A housewife can still line up three plates at home and call it art. It is not the subject or object which matters. It is how people react to it. I want them to form their own interpretations. My friends tell me that when they look at Flasks, they wonder who used them.

– Mohd. Faizal Fadil, on his sculpture “Study of Three Thermos Flasks”, composed of three flasks costing $5 each, from Sungei Road (The Straits Times, 1 December 1991)

The marking out of time into a series of stages comprising a linear path of evolution; the organisation of these stages into an itinerary that the visitor’s route retraces; the projection of the future as a course of limitless development: in all these ways the museum echoes and resonates with those new institutions of discipline and training [at the turn of the eighteenth century] through which, via the construction of a series of stages that were to be passed through by means of the successful acquisition of the appropriate skills, individuals were encouraged to relate to themselves as beings in incessant need of progressive development.

– Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum (1995)

Taxonomy of Buttons
A Taxonomy of Buttons

We acquired from curio shops domestic items dating from the 1950s to 1970s for Objectum. Displayed on tables along both lengths of the gallery, they are placed in three groups juxtaposed against each another. To the left, an assortment of buttons, buckles and cotton thread whorls are arranged according to type, size and colour, in imitation of the taxonomy employed in museums. Although these items are the cheapest, most numerous and least eye-catching, they are protected by a Plexiglas cover as if they were hallowed museum artefacts, thereby underscoring the elevation in symbolic value that even the most ordinary objects undergo upon being accessioned.

The Distinction of Plexiglas
The Distinction of Plexiglass

On the right of the gallery is a Plexiglas-covered table with small items such as a cream piper, enamel plate, toilet paper roll, toy boat, wedding invitation, brylcreem jar, cigarette case and lipstick. We retained the price tags of some objects to show the monetary value that curio shop owners placed on them. In contrast to the sewing items directly opposite, these objects are not grouped by type, so that viewers would not see them solely in terms of their utilitarian value, and thus merely as nostalgia-kindling, phased-out testimonies of progress. Instead, we organised these artefacts based on their formal and aesthetic qualities, leaving viewers to interpret them freely. Laid on an adjoining table, without being encased in Plexiglas, are the bulky and most costly items: a potty, tiffin carrier, egg whisk, radio, mirror and thermos flask. To stress their commonplace nature, visitors are allowed to handle these objects, unlike their counterparts displayed in museums. We sheltered with Plexiglas the table with the cheaper and smaller items, as though these displays are more symbolically charged and worthy of protection, to highlight the arbitrariness of values placed on daily-life objects in museums.

toy boat
Toy Boat. Photography by Ken Cheong.
lip sticks
Lipsticks. Photography by Ken Cheong.
egg whisk
Egg Whisk. Photography by Ken Cheong.
Radio. Photography by Ken Cheong.
toilet paper row
Toilet Paper Roll. Photography by Ken Cheong.

We invited Ken to photograph the items acquired for Objectum, and lined his pictures across all but one wall of the gallery. Ken seeks to go beyond his usual archival approach of documentation and his photographs reveal the strong sense of curiosity that drove his interaction with the exhibits. He spoke of his fascination for unknown objects:

[I]t’s interesting not to know what it is. So, you would try to look at it more closely, being something that you know is out of your realm of knowledge; you want to look at it really closely. And I think that it’s good for the photography as well.

On the other hand, Ken felt an emotional connection with the objects that he knew:

[T]here are a few [items] which really ring a bell, or just really affect you…if you’re familiar with certain items, you feel that kind of attachment with the past…Somehow some objects do sort of like struck me…[The object] does communicate. It sort of exhumates [exhumes] the imagination… Objects — they are part of your memory, somehow, somewhere you’ve lost it, and then it came back from your memory, you know, three-dimensional…

He imagines himself to be in a conversation with the artefact. It asks, ‘Why did you choose me? Where are you going to put me?’, while he inquires, ‘What is this? How can we find out more about the object?’ In this manner, Ken probes into the unknown details of familiar objects: their stories, missing pieces of information and the people around them.

our research materials
Our Research Materials with Ken’s Images

Interspersed with Ken’s photographs are selected materials from our research, which inform viewers of the questions, readings and contexts that shaped Objectum. In the form of newspaper articles, brochures and extracts from scholarly works, these documents are annotated with our scribbles and highlights, and positioned in correspondence with their adjacent images. They consist of short interviews with curators and collectors, and information on Ken and daily-life museum artefacts, such as Memories of Yesteryear (1995-1996), a public donation drive that Ken co-organised (1996) and his first solo photographic exhibition on Singapore’s disappearing landscapes (Isolated Moments, 1997). Other topics broached include: ready-made art from second-hand everyday objects, the changing values of ordinary things with time and space, and liminality. A concept that draws attention to a subject’s potential as it stands at the threshold of transition between stages,[3] liminality aptly encapsulates the multiple significance of undisplayed daily-life museum artefacts, caught between fulfilling their use values and symbolic values.

3. Programme: Nostos

Even as relatively-old everyday objects like those from Objectum enter museum collections as nostalgia-stirring witnesses of time, many similar items continue to be found and used in homes. This fine distinction between museum artefacts and domestic objects again foregrounds the ability of space, in addition to time, to bestow meaning onto things, a theme which our programme, Nostos, seeks to explore even after the exhibition’s closure. Nostos is derived from the ancient Greek word νόστος, ‘return home’. It takes up the suffix –algia, which denotes pain, to form the word nostalgia — torment caused by an unfulfilled desire to return to familiar grounds, the past, home.[4] Through Nostos, ordinary things that had journeyed from the marketplace to homes as utilitarian goods, then to curio shops as commodities again before being deployed as props in Objectum, will return home at long last.

On the exhibition’s final weekend (2 – 3 February 2013), we invited visitors to bring home any artefact of their choice, in exchange for filling in an acquisition form that asks why the object resonated with them and where its new home would be. Participants were encouraged to post updates on the item on Objectum’s Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/objectum2013/. The completed acquisition forms and photographs of artefacts were also made available on Nosto’s event page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.302741573162942&type=1.

container notesOne of the main reasons that participants cited for acquiring an artefact was that its oldness and unfamiliarity piqued their curiosity and made it ‘cool’. The new owner of a 1968 calendar confessed that he was ‘obsessed with old pin-ups’. Another participant found a Chinese-language Mathematics textbook ‘interesting’ and explained, ‘It is older than me and is so different from the ones I had back in my schooling years. And I have never seen Maths being taught in Chinese…’ Many visitors spoke of their chosen object as a nostalgic memento of their personal history: the item brings to their mind a similar one that they know intimately, as well as the people and experiences associated with it. The acquired artefact stands in for another lost object and inherits the recently-retrieved memories that it encapsulates, becoming a surrogate artefact. As a participant who took home a cigarette can recalled, ‘My old granny used to keep her money in the tin. I discovered her tin years [after] she passed on [and] with the old money she kept. J Full of good memory.’ Yet another group of participants picked artefacts based on the uses they offer. The reason for getting a ceramic coin bank, a visitor elaborated, ‘[is] to save money…until I can’t put anymore coins inside. Then I’ll have a party and break the pot to get the money out.’

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facebook post qThrough Facebook, we see artefacts from Objectum taking on new lives, mainly as functional products, but also as proudly-displayed relics that spur their owners on to learn about the past. It seems then that these former signifiers of museum objects, which are suspended from their utilitarian and symbolic values, are currently realising both values, as useable representatives of a time gone by. We hope that stories of the objects’ journeys and interactions with people documented on Facebook would infuse them with plentiful meanings — a layered richness that was missing when we first found the items in profit-driven curio shops, where their sentimental histories were ignored or forgotten.

4. Afterword: Learning to be Nostalgic

encounter with novel antiques
Our Encounter with ‘Novel Antiques’ at a Curio Shop

On hindsight, it would have been more challenging for us to dismiss the nostalgic value of artefacts in Objectum and embrace broader possibilities in interpreting them, if we had been more personally attached to them. These objects, however, were circulated a generation too early for us to develop any feelings towards them, as we came to realise in our conversations with Ken. We became sentimental when we spoke about things from the 1990s, whereas we have not seen before many of the older things that moved Ken. In fact, when choosing artefacts from the 1950s to the 1970s for Objectum, we had to depend on curio shop owners – cultural brokers in their own right – to advise us on which objects were the most common and occasionally, to educate us on their functions. Only then, did the antiques new to us gain an association with the past in our minds, turning into sources of curiosity and nostalgia for an imagined better age that we barely or never experienced.

5. Appendix: Artist Write-up and Interview Transcript

Ken Cheong was a curator at the Singapore History Museum (now known as the National Museum of Singapore) from 1994 to 2000 before he turned to photography full time. In both curating and photography, he is driven by a strong interest in local heritage and material culture. He curated exhibitions on the Fujian province, the Hakka community, Elizabeth Choy — Singapore’s war heroine, as well as Memories of Yesteryear, which commemorated Singapore’s thirtieth anniversary of independence. Ken’s first solo exhibition, Isolated Moments (1997), captured the rapidly-changing landscapes of Singapore prior to their erasure, casting these sites and people in a nostalgic light. His photographic works on Chinese street opera in Singapore were showcased in Incandescent: Culture Through the Lens (2003). Ken ­continues to photographically document local communities and museum artefacts today.

Interview with Ken Cheong
5 Jan 2013, prep-room, NUS Museum
Transcript by Kamiliah Bahdar, edited by Wong Lee Min

Note: The prep-room is an experimental space for projects. In that place of tentativeness, Objectum – an exhibition navigating the fluid meanings of objects passing through different hands and spaces – was conceptualised.

What do you think about the objects that we have acquired for Objectum?

Ken: There’s this wedding invite card. It’s something that’s quite common in those early days. But the thing is, there’s no year… no year was written on it. So I see that on the English part of it where they need to fill in the year, it’s 1950… there’s 5-dash something [195_].[5] So I think that was interesting. And I was thinking, well when they sent out the invite card, nobody bothered about the year. Maybe it’s a close relative or what. Anyway, it’s something interesting. It’s little things you pick up like this. I think that one, that’s an interesting document… yea, when did they get married? Which year? I think it’s common sense that if I send you an invite card, when somebody sends someone an invite card this year, it has to be this year.

Wedding Invite 2
Wedding Invite. Photography by Ken Cheong.
Wedding Invite 1
Wedding Invite. Photography by Ken Cheong.

Out of all the artefacts, over forty pieces, I think this thing in particular [holds up cream piper]… Frankly, I do not know what it is. And I think that it’s interesting not to know what it is. So, you would try to look at it more closely, being something that you know is out of your realm of knowledge, you want to look at it really closely. And I think that it’s good for the photography as well. Well… maybe… well, I’ll find out from you guys what this is actually. It looks very much like a phallic symbol. Anyway, this is one mystery item.

This next item [holds up egg whisk], yes, it may have slipped out of my memory but I do not know what this is also. I can make a guess; it looks like something that reminds me of the joss sticks in the temple, in the Philip Street temple with the circular joss. Of course this is not that, so maybe this is used for cooking, maybe? Okay, it doesn’t ring a bell. Let me know. This is interesting.

All the items are interesting, but of course there are a few which really rings a bell, or just really affects you. I think the matchbox also, because it’s National you know.[6] Something we know when we’re young kids, something we’re familiar with. I think that familiarity, if you’re familiar with certain items, you feel that kind of attachment with the past. So this [matchbox] is a nice thing… National, there you look at it… although it may not… you know, we don’t really come in contact with it. I don’t really come in touch with this world during the younger days. But somehow it is associated with the National, the brand, the kind of symbol for the things you see in daily life.

Somehow some objects do sort of like struck me. For example, the calendar from 1968, of course, that’s my year of birth, and I think it does communicate. It sort of exhumates [exhumes] the imagination, which I think [is] what daily objects do create in the visitor’s mind… for the ’68, of course I thought that’s the year of birth and then, it’s like wow, should I flip to September? But on top of that, there’s the Scott’s Emulsion advertisement. Yea, something that we experience… Objects — they are part of your memory, somehow, somewhere you’ve lost it, and then it came back from your memory, you know, three-dimensional and something that you forgot.

Matchbox with National Advertisement

1968 Calendar
1968 Calendar. Photography by Ken Cheong.

And the other object would be the Max Factor lipstick. Wow, okay. Where do we place it, you know? Like the objects may ask the question, ‘Eh, where do you want to put me? Why choose me?’ When you walk into an antique shop and you look at all these objects, and why you know. And I think for this, if I were to consider such object for the… well, it was never considered for the Memories exhibition because I think if looking at that exhibition now and with these objects, I think yea, then maybe that is one area that perhaps we didn’t look at. The objects reflect the daily life of really common people. When we talk about class, like the toilet paper you know. The toilet paper you’re looking, hey, that is something very unique you know. Yea, can you find this thing in a Chinatown cubicle? Maybe we do, maybe different brand. But that’s a really ang moh brand [Puresof] that you have there. Yea, it’s a interesting thing.

Like I said, that question part, the object will ask, ‘Why you choose me? Where are you going to put me?’ And we’ll ask the question, ‘What is this? What else can we get or are there information we can research or find out about the object?’ And I think you need a bit of imagination when you look at the objects… Or anyone, including the visitor, when they look at, like, a cinema ticket. Probably want to think, ‘Yea, it brings you back to the past.’ Maybe you want to imagine, ‘Is this the only cinema ticket for that show that this particular person bought? Did he go there alone, or as a group, or as part of a couple?’ I think maybe a curator would try to look at any other aspect that might make it more interesting. If we want to write captions about the objects, how do we go about it for daily life? I think a lot of the information may not be about the object itself unless it’s something like a Peranakan bowl; something that has motifs and certain kind of craft that goes into the making of it that you could write about the object — the object itself, what you can see on the object. But for daily life, apart from what you see on the object, I think you write about things that’s behind, that’s more than the object. The historical interest part of it: where you normally find it, where do you normally see this object in the past, where do people… how do people deal with it, how they use it, and things like that. In a way, the caption or writing for the daily life object can be not about the object itself because it’s very self-explanatory when you look at it. A coke bottle is a coke bottle. I think the background information is more important and can add on to the object itself, to the value of the object itself.

During your days as a curator at the Singapore History Museum, what informed your choice when it comes to the acquisition of objects?

Ken: When faced with such objects, we normally would categorise them. They’ll fall in what we call the folk life collection of the past, or daily life objects. So if you’re to work on collecting such objects, I think curiosity is one thing because we don’t live through certain times; we don’t live through the ‘50s… It’s a kind of like archaeological work, but you’re not really digging through soil, you go through what the antique shops have; you dig through their shelves or the drawers.

Basically, I think knowledge, how are we informed about these objects, what kind of information, who provides you with the information — the antique dealer or through reading, or through different types of research work, you find out more. And as you get more information, from there, you decide whether that object will be important. From research, we identify whether it’s more important. Research can be based on the historical significance and also the rarity of the piece, or whether it comes in a big collection. Sometimes we are presented with this whole collection of comic books. But of course, comic books, there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of titles. But when you’re presented with this huge collection of comic books, one may say, ‘Why don’t you just buy one? It’s representative.’ But when the vendor wants to sell it to you, they’re not thinking about one piece. And if you’re a collector, you don’t collect just one when you get the chance to collect all. For those that may not be displayed at the moment, we treat them as reference items — items that can be used for reference or research. Reference as in if you need to do a replica of certain things, or recreate certain street-side library, then you have these very nice comic books with you. Even if you grab your hands, which we missed, I think there was once someone mentioned about selling off these covers, those comic books covers of the paper library, and this collector bought thousands of it. The museum did not have a chance to look at it. Yea, collecting — there’s hits and misses. And I think collecting for who and collecting for what purpose. And at that time, it was basically collecting with a cause, and that’s for the museum, and based on certain subjects, and I think, curiosity and interest and historical significance.

In the choosing of objects, or proposing to the museum about purchasing — of course, that’s related to the acquisition policy also. One of it would be the theme of the museums – development theme – or what you’re going to use it in the future, in the future galleries of the museum. By following all these little themes, you’re more focussed in what to buy. But it’s all under a very broad theme, like community, Chinese community, folk life, you know, classification of objects. Interest may be historical. I think that’s a very good question because it all boils down to our own personal knowledge, or what we feel is important. Maybe when you look at the object, you can be fond of the object itself and its historical background.

The next group of objects may be objects based on knowledge. That means if you’re informed, you would think or know that it’s important. If you are not informed, you will miss it or you will not even want to consider it. Maybe, you know, a brick from a donation drive for Nantah or Nanyang University or something like that. When you look at a pawnshop receipt, which you have, and looking at using the pawnshop receipt to show the numerous pawnshops in Chinatown or Serangoon Road and then you will target, when you come across such a paper document, you will find that it’s important. Maybe if you’re being shown like five or ten receipts, then you can only choose one, it’s like shopping, then you have to choose, then maybe other kind of knowledge. Maybe is there anything from the oral history? Could there be a particular pawnshop owned by someone who has been interviewed before? If not, then probably you may want to look at the graphic elements in that document – the designs, the graphic part, whether it’s really beautiful, some can be very colourful, and some can be just very plain.

How did you curate daily-life objects for the 1995 exhibition Memories of Yesteryear and what were the underlying messages behind such artefact deployments?

Ken: In 1995, we had this double-bill kind of two exhibitions that celebrates anniversaries, anniversary shows. One of it is the Singapore’s independence, 30 years; the other is the end of the Second World War, 1945 to 1995, so it’s 50 years. And right before that we had this opportunity to grab hold of this Cheng Zhang Lang(程章烺)collection which is a very interesting collection, thousands of items.[7] The kind of varieties that we have from this collection, we could use it to build some very interesting daily life stuff — daily life objects that tells the daily life stories, be it badges that shows the different organisations in schools, cigarette boxes, stuff like that. I think we did use quite a bit of the cigarette boxes. It’s interesting because it’s part of living, the daily life of people, I mean smokers. I think one apprehension we had at that time was, ‘Well how you want to… you’re not promoting smoking right?’ If you’re displaying some items like that, the fear was that yea, when we display these boxes, we are not promoting smoking, but [we] should bring up something that’s part of what people do. It’s normal… let’s not discuss the moral side of smoking… the health part. Let’s talk about [it] plainly, as some objects from the past. And I think [that’s] why it was displayed alongside the mamak shop, along five-foot ways and what can you find there…

The artefacts we displayed [in Memories of Yesteryear] come in numbers. [There are many artefacts of the same type.] It’s taken out from the Cheng Zhang Lang collection. When you talk about soft drink bottles, we have many you know. And I think that’s what excites people when they look at, when they are confronted [by] the objects. They are excited visually because there’s so many things to see. It excites their senses, the variety of colours and shapes [of the different types of exhibits].

And we, like the audience, were also excited when we first come in touch with these things, these objects. So I think it’s basically like sharing, a kind of sharing, when you bring the objects out and you share the same feelings, you have the same experience with your audience. And then, it’s always great when you listen to what the audience say. There’s this visitor, this father who told the kids, ‘Hey look, this is what daddy used to read or see when I was young.’ That person is a tourist; he came from Hong Kong. You realised, anyway, sometimes some things speak across the dimension of space, country, what we do is not just the objects… because commodities, these objects, some of them are goods, they travel, they are sold in different countries, they are exported to many places, so it’s not just really purely Singapore per se. Yea, it forms part of the memory, it may also form part of a bigger, more international idea of people’s lives in the past.

I think what the idea of the exhibition is [was] to showcase the life of the commoner, the normal man in the street. We have coolies, what coolies wear, the tools that they use. We did a mock up of a provision shop, which strangely, a few years later I realise we can still see them like that in Malaysia, or in other countries. But anyway, then we have the mamak shop, which we used much of the Cheng Zhang Lang collection. Then we have the comic books and entertainment. Basically more about people, not about those things that are highbrow expensive objects, it’s not a few million-dollar painting — things that people associate with value in the museum at that time. Because even when we purchase items like daily life objects, we were still concerned whether we were buying things which are normally… it’s different from what people would normally associate with value. It’s not a Qing dynasty, Qian Long time vase. We’re looking at very plain… And some people would say karang guni you know. I think that the word was used, it was always in our minds. ‘Are we karang guni man, you know?’ or ‘What are these things that we’re picking up?’ This daily life stuff, well, it has its intrinsic value, so yeah, I think that was some of the issues.

The exhibitions like Memories and the 50th anniversary which relied on or displayed a lot of daily life objects, I think both of them did at that time created some curiosity or interest over daily life objects. Because I think it is one time that the museum really showcased such items to most of the visitors. There was even surprise, they say, ‘Well, wow, I have this at home’ or ‘Whoever whoever has it.’ They realise that things around them actually do have a value in time to come. You know, yea, I think at that time this idea of karang guni, the idea of whether we’ll end up being karang guni, in fact it’s not.

Daily object determined by more or less what you want to do, and whether there’s a theme to bound it, to restrict your area of acquisition, or what you fancy as important. On a broader theme that you’re keeping for the nation, then you have a very wide range of choice. So yes, and I think the thing that struck me was when I was in Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden, I went to the store, I did chance to be in the store, and the curatorial assistant just pulled out this drawer and then I was stunned that they collected daily life things in China, from the 19th century, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ And this was many years after I left the museum. Then you know, daily life objects is important, and I think that when you see what others are doing and it just strengthens your idea about these things.


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.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 2004 [1994].

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.

Lianhe Zaobao, 26 Nov. 1995, p. 65.

Lianhe Zaobao, 13 Dec. 1995, p. 31.

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”. <www.a2o.com.sg>. Accessed on 25 Oct. 2012.

OED Online. “-algia, comb. form”. <http://www.oed.com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/view/Entry/233781>. Accessed on 29 Nov. 2013.

OED Online. “nostalgia, n.”. <http://www.oed.com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/view/Entry/128472?redirectedFrom=nostalgia>. Accessed on 29 Nov. 2013.

The Straits Times, 1 Dec. 1991, p. 20.

[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.

[2] 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”, <www.a2o.com.sg>, accessed on 25 Oct. 2012.

[3] See Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2004[1994]), p. 5.

[4] OED Online, “nostalgia, n.”, <http://www.oed.com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/view/Entry/128472?redirectedFrom=nostalgia>, accessed  on 29 Nov. 2013; OED Online, “-algia, comb. form”, <http://www.oed.com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/view/Entry/233781>, accessed on 29 Nov. 2013.

[5] The wedding invite was printed in English and Chinese.

[6] Printed on the matchbox is an advertisement for National, a brand of electrical products.

[7] Cheng Zhang Lang’s collection of everyday items, started in the 1950s, boasted of more than twenty types of objects, including documents, bus tickets, lottery tickets, newspapers, song books, textbooks, labels and harmonicas. In the mid-1990s, the sexagenarian sold and donated part of his collection, mainly of matchboxes and badges, to the Singapore History Museum. Lianhe Zaobao, 13 Dec. 1995, p. 31.