Far Away and Familiar: Notes on the Museums of Singapore
September 13, 2012

It pays to listen to your coworkers! Especially on the days when they casually ask, “Hey, does anyone want to go to Singapore?” My colleague Dave posed this question after receiving an invitation for a visit from the Singapore Tourism Board. While the timing didn’t work for him, it was perfect for me—so I packed my bags and headed to the airport.

As a representative of the Tenement Museum, I presented the Museum’s work as part of a series exploring experience creation and storytelling.  I also served as judge for the Singapore Experience Awards (SEA) for the category of Best Visitor Attraction Experience.

The city itself was just as exciting as the work I was invited to do. I learned that Singapore turned 47 this summer; birthday banners and flags were brightly displayed throughout the country and signs for celebrations hung at nearly every cultural site I visited.  The more of the city I experienced, from its wet markets and food courts to its luxury malls and solar-powered supertrees, the more I wondered about its history and identity.

At a Medicine Shop in Singapore's Chinatown

Miriam browsing at a medicine shop in Singapore's Chinatown

New York and Singapore have some striking similarities: both are island cities; both first gained prominence as ports for the East India Company; both were ruled by the British. But unlike the United States, Singapore never revolted against British sovereignty and its influence seems much more apparent across the country. It’s present in the neat division of its neighborhoods along ethnic lines and its great appreciation of decorum and order.  I have never seen a Chinatown so clean and well-manicured than the one I visited in Singapore, nor considered the possibility that a country with such a large Chinese population would even have a designated Chinatown to visit.

Evening sky over Singapore's Chinatown

Evening sky over Singapore's Chinatown

Singapore’s Chinatown Heritage Centre bears striking similarities to the Tenement Museum. Housed in a restored shophouse along Pagoda Street, the museum recreated the building’s historic interiors to depict the lives of its immigrant and migrant tenants.  While the apartments were much smaller than the 325 square foot tenements of 97 Orchard Street, they housed residents with similar stories, aspirations, and struggles.  It was eerie to see the same iron we feature on our Sweatshop Workers tour telling the story of a different presser who also bent his back doing this labor thousands of miles away.

New York Public Library recreated

An amazing replica of the New York Public Library's facade!

The City ’s cultural riches were astounding. I had the surreal experience of sitting on the re-created steps of the New York Public Library at Universal Studios; learned about a unique hybrid culture at the Peranakan Museum; encountered a fascinating and bizarre sculpture garden at Haw Par Villa, and considered the impact of World War Two on Singapore—and the world at large—at the Changi Chapel and Museum.

The entrance to Haw Par Villa

The entrance to Haw Par Villa

The 24-hour flight home gave me ample time to think about these experiences and ponder the complexity of forging a national story.  I thought about all the people I met and the personal histories they shared. I contemplated the government’s omnipresent role in Singapore’s daily life. And I wondered: How do cultural institutions shape our national identities? What is the agenda of the government as it determines what’s worth preserving and what should be destroyed to make room for the next big attraction? And just how does the media fit into all of this? I also thought about what really makes an attraction the “best”? Is it the unique or fun factor, size or scale, historic importance or relevance, the restaurant or gift shop, or is there something else entirely? Whatever the answers are to these questions, Singapore gave me plenty of food for thought. – Posted by Miriam Bader