One Small Voice: Szan Tan

Published on 5 January 2016

What does organising an international travelling exhibition entail? Curator Szan Tan details the process.


It takes years of consulting and courting to convince people to bring their show to Singapore. With the Treasures of the World from the British Museum exhibition, the collaboration between the National Museum of Singapore and The British Museum started two years ago — which is actually quite a short time!

What’s different about curating a travelling exhibition, as opposed to an in-house one, is that you’re usually responding to a list of artefacts. You study the overall concept and themes, then negotiate for works that are thematically stronger, more familiar to your audience, or will better appeal to them. With the British Museum, what was important to us was ensuring the Asian collection was well represented, and beefing up the Raffles collection because of its significance to Singapore.

With some foreign exhibitions, you’re thrown a set of untranslated texts for catalogues and displays. After translating, if the text is verbose or too academic, you have to rewrite it or expand on certain portions to give your audience some context, because the information may be more familiar to a Western audience. These translations and rewrites then have to be verified — it takes time.

We then look at our own collection to see if there’s a possibility of a Singapore response to that collection — to draw equivalence or parallels. With the Treasures of the World From the British Museum exhibition, we included two works by Singaporean artist Anthony Poon and potter Iskandar Jalil.

There is definitely a place for travelling exhibitions because through them, we understand how people in different cultures negotiated life, confronted death and organised society. In many ways, we’re actually very similar. As clichéd as it may sound, if we don’t promote understanding and acceptance between cultures, this world is not going to be a very peaceful one.

I feel that a National Museum has that role to play. It’s important for us to bring in international travelling exhibitions as we can’t just know about Singapore’s history — we have to understand Singapore in the wider context of the world.

As a curator of travelling exhibitions, you need to respect differences and deal with foreign partners. Another challenge is translating a list of artefacts into a three-dimensional space. Interactive elements are expected these days, but I feel they must still always revolve around the artefacts. We never want to steal the limelight from the objects.

Encounter the object first. Form your own perceptions of it before reading the text, because reading first frames your thinking. It’s always the object that will capture your imagination, provoke thought and inspiration; and will move you because there is life in it, an imprint of the craftsman’s hand in it.

Traditionally, a curator is a guardian or keeper of a collection. I see that as my role. As a curator, I’m also a mediator between the audience and the object. I weave a storyline around the object for them, so that they may be inspired to see things in a different way and to form their own thoughts about it.

Szan Tan is a senior curator with the National Museum of Singapore. Since joining the Museum in 2006, she has been responsible for a number of travelling exhibitions, including Greek Masterpieces From the Louvre; Masterpieces of Paintings, Drawings and Photography From the Musée d’Orsay and Treasures of the World From the British Museum. Tan has worked as a curator since 1997, and is also interested in the works of Singapore’s first- and second-generation artists. Treasures of the World From the British Museum is on at the National Museum of Singapore till 29 May.

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