5 Lessons for Public Storytelling from Singapore

Over the last several days, I’ve been exploring Singapore as part of a short layover before arriving in Tokyo. This brief stopover was largely organized by John, who designed this as an “eating vacation.” But between meals (which were universally superb, inexpensive, and filling), we managed to venture into Singapore’s vibrant heritage/tourism scenes. After six weeks in South Africa, where the lack of funding at important sites is almost universal, and many museums are further hampered by inadequate staffing, it was inspiring to see all of the ways in which Singapore has really made heritage preservation a national priority. With a very different history, geographic scope, and economic present from South Africa, Singapore has a lot going for it in terms of capital and resources that can fund these kinds of projects. Still, there are lessons in some of the curatorial decisions that I saw over the last three days that might be implemented across a diversity of museum contexts and budgets. These aren’t particularly new or innovative ideas, but just ones that were really brought to life by my experience in Singapore.

  1. A strong, cohesive curatorial vision can make a museum experience hang together. This was glaringly obvious at the Heritage Museum of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a recently opened institution designed to interpret the larger history of the landscape (which is the island’s only inscribed UNESCO site to date). Within a relatively small square footage, this museum was informative without being overwhelming, and adeptly used visual cues to direct the reader from one sub-section to the next. Digital interactives were polished to a high degree of resolution and invited deeper visitor engagement without forcing it. One example, a map that showed how the garden changed over time in response to the visitor turning a dial, was haptically fun to use, fascinating to watch as a graphic device, and layered with just the right density of historical information. All of these elements fit together into a well-tailored and complete curatorial vision—it was clear how the whole related to the sum of its parts.
  2. Engage the five senses. Next to the Heritage Museum, the Botanical Gardens also featured a new building (the CDL Green Gallery) with an exhibition devoted to the broad family of gingers. The plants themselves are grown in a separate “Ginger Garden” a few hundred meters away, so this exhibition had the challenge of making ginger relevant and interesting while not actually showing any live ginger plants. It did so effectively by creating a multi-sensory experience. One notable section included a “Stop & Sniff” station that invited visitors to take a whiff of turmeric, common ginger, and cardamom (all, it turns out, members of the ginger family). The sharpness of the spices and the clear difference between them made an important illustrative point. The exhibition’s parting shot continued this theme—a recipe for gingerbread, printed at such a scale and ratio such that it could be easily photographed on a smartphone and taken home. This trend, towards encouraging rather than discouraging photography of the exhibit, is something I’ve seen elsewhere—in South Africa and in the U.S. Museums seem to have caught on to the fact that visitors won’t stop taking surreptitious pictures, and are starting to turn that proclivity into another moment for visitor engagement. Even “Museum Selfie Day” has the potential to elevate digital narcissism to critical thinking about representation and the reproducibility of images.
  3. Make exhibits accessible to all visitors… while you’re at it, make the rest of the site accessible too. Check out that picture of the “Stop & Sniff” station again… another thing that I loved about this installation was that there was a short shelf so that even really little kids could get in on the action without having to be lifted up by a parent. This attention to the needs of different kinds of visitors was echoed in the restrooms of the gardens, where short sinks were provided for children, and ample area was provided for families with nursing infants or rambunctious toddlers.
  4. Designing a site as “Edutainment” is a recipe for vacuousness. As part of Singapore’s continuing drive to become a “city in a garden,” more “living” attractions have sprung up in the wake of the original Botanical Gardens. One of these is the Gardens by the Bay, a phantasmagoria of botanical “edutainment” complete with heavy sculptural adornment, man-made clouds, and lavish landscaping. The highlight is a seven-story tower of ferns and foliage meant to evoke… a rainforest? In addition to theme zones devoted to Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, and numerous fairy gardens, there are also exhibits about the water cycle, geological formations, and global warming. I would have been much more sold on this whole affair if it had just been advertised as “art”—admittedly the arrangements were technically and visually impressive, and it wasn’t a bad way to spend a rainy, hot afternoon inside a climate-controlled environment.
  5. Let heritage be… everywhere. Embrace the mundane and the monumental in the everyday streetscape. The final thing that really stood out about Singapore was the sheer amount of historical signage on the outside and inside of buildings, and throughout various parks and precincts. Some of this signage told the story of former land use (the clove and nutmeg plantations, for instance, that were later replaced by Chinatown). Some of it spoke to the role of colonial legislation in shaping the built environment of the city, such as Sir Stamford Raffles’s mandate that every building’s second story have a five-foot overhang, creating a shaded arcade between the frontage of the ground floor and the street. Though building styles differ between various precincts, these walkways are everywhere, and serve to create architectural continuity across the city. Notably, Singapore’s signage wasn’t just about venerable architects and major monuments, but about the landscape of the everyday as well. The hawker stalls, that are today still such a prominent and important part of Singapore’s food landscape, have received their own heritage research and interpretation. It’s hard to find a hawker stall in the city that doesn’t have a plaque about the building’s history. Additionally, throughout districts like Chinatown and Little India, heritage trails create networks of related signs and string them into large narratives that can be picked up over the course of a casual, touristic meander through the streets. For a city whose past has been so heavily colored by colonialism and violet occupation, these markers are a reminder of the diversity of cultures, actors, and factors that contributed to the city’s vibrant makeup today. While Singapore might be known for its skyscrapers and multinational corporate prowess, it’s really the fabric of the old city that gives continual life and architectural interest to the experience at ground level on the streets.

In other news…

My first SAH blog post just went live! You can check it out here.

2 thoughts on “5 Lessons for Public Storytelling from Singapore”

  1. Sweetheart, I’m enjoying so much your posts on your tour. I’ m happy you have landed safely in the east and the pictures and commentary your are posting are wonderful! We think of you both daily and love you so much!


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