One Small Voice: Kennie Ting

Published on 26 May 2017

Museum director KENNIE TING leads the Asian Civilisations Museum in its pursuit of new identity.

Interview by DAPHNE ONG

I have always been an arts administrator and was already handling the corporate side of running museums before stepping into this role as director of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). My predecessor Alan Chong had been thinking of shifting the ACM’s curatorial focus from distinct geographic regions to transnational themes, and started to get me involved in the process even before I officially took on this role nine months ago. The transition has been smooth.

In addition to planning and running the museum, a large part of my time is spent engaging with various groups of people — patrons, donors, collectors, members of the community, student groups, and docents — mostly so I can communicate the change in our mission. Many people visit expecting to see the old ACM, where everything was organised according to geographic region, such as East Asia, West Asia, India, and so on, and now we are doing something different. We are progressively working on the permanent galleries to reflect this change and will finish in 2019.

The change in ACM’s mission and curatorial focus reflects the worldwide shift towards taking a transnational perspective in looking at Asian art and history. In this phase of world politics, it is very timely to talk about Asia in terms of networks and flows rather than boundaries and borders.

Credit: Asian Civilisations Museum

Asia has always been cross-cultural, just like many of the objects in our collection. This reflects Singapore because we have always been a multicultural, multireligious trading city. This theme of flow, continuity and adaptation in trade, migration and religion underlies our working principle: that we are viewing Asia through the lens of Singapore.

Take our star collection, the ninth-century Tang shipwreck, as an example. The artefacts are neither purely Chinese nor purely Middle Eastern — they were made by Chinese craftsmen to Middle Eastern tastes for export to the Middle East, a sort of hybrid of both cultures. We like to show this kind of interaction, to show that religions, cultures and civilisations are not static and that they do not exist in isolation from each other.

Of course, we also have targeted exhibitions, such as the current Joseon Korea: Court Treasures and City Life, which is very popular, especially given the popularity of Korean dramas! At the same time, we also see our educational role, and the need to provide surprising nuggets of information, things you would never discover unless you step foot into the museum.

I hope the museum will become central in discussions about what being Singaporean and Asian means today. I think our exhibitions and programmes will cut to the heart of issues of identity: where we come from, where we are going, and how we are linked up with the world.

EXPERT ADVICE

Tips for museum visitors: Explore until you see something that absolutely stuns you. Rather than try to see and remember every single thing, pick out the few items that strike you as very beautiful or noteworthy, and that is enough.

Kennie Ting is director of the Asian Civilisations Museum, and concurrently group director of museums, at the National Heritage Board (NHB), overseeing national museums and festivals managed by the NHB. Before NHB, he worked in the former Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, where he was involved in developing strategies for heritage and the arts, including the Renaissance City Plan III and the recent Arts and Culture Strategic Review. He is interested in the history of travel and the heritage of Asian port cities and is the author of the books, The Romance of the Grand Tour — 100 Years of Travel in South East Asia and Singapore Chronicles: HERITAGE.

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