Profile: Gene Tan

Published on 1 February 2016

From documenting the past to imagining the future, Gene Tan makes the transition from chief librarian to creative director in style.

BY pamela ho

Librarians fall easily into a stereotype. Quiet, bookish, proper. But Gene Tan, former director of the National Library, will probably bust every stereotype you have of the profession.

Tan confesses to being an ‘ordinary librarian’ who dabbled in a curious mix of projects that somehow paved the way for his current role as creative director of The Future of Us exhibition, initiated by the Ministry of National Development’s Centre for Liveable Cities.

While he started out behind the counter of the Science, Business and Technology section of the library, in the two decades he was with the National Library Board, he was roped in for creative projects like the renovation of the old library building at Stamford Road, setting up [email protected], as well as the new National Library building at Victoria Street.

Then, there’s his brainchild, an ‘Ask Stupid Questions’ workshop patterned after game shows, and ‘Aspiration Pathfinder’, a project to promote innovation in the public service, which won him The Enterprise Challenge Champion award. “It was about injecting pop culture into library services, and making them more accessible,” says Tan.

He also helmed the Singapore Memory Project, a movement to capture and document moments and memories about Singapore by Singaporeans. Realising that he really enjoyed choreographing content into experience made it easy for Tan to accept the role of creative director of The Future of Us when it was offered to him early last year.

The project sees Tan curating 15,000 ideas from consultations with over 100 organisations from the public, private and people sector into an immersive experience that offers a glimpse into how Singaporeans can live, work, learn and care in 2030. “For this, I want to celebrate librarianship!” declares the former president of the Library Association of Singapore. “My training as a librarian — cataloguing and organising content — really helped.”

When asked where he thinks his strength lies, Tan refers to a book he had read, The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris by Alicia Drake, which chronicles the rivalry between legendary fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld.

“I realise I’m not a Yves Saint Laurent, who created new silhouettes for fashion; I’m more a Karl Lagerfeld because he’s not an inventor, he’s a vampire. He sucks ideas from people and translates them into something else. Before this epiphany, I used to call myself a photocopier, so now I can say I’m Karl Lagerfeld!” says Tan with a chuckle. “I hope I’ve managed to do that: take what people give and push out something that’s decent to look at and moving enough to think about once in a while.”

The Future of Us exhibition, hosted at Gardens by the Bay, runs till 8 March. Admission is free, but pre-booking of tickets at www.thefutureofus.sg is advised.

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