What they do
Yoong is behind the 2,010 sq ft fashion and textiles room while Wang, the one on Southeast Asian jewellery (which is a tad smaller at 1,640 sq ft). Putting together these spaces on the third floor of the Asian Civilisations Museum has been a behemoth task more than two years in the making, especially considering that they’re the first permanent galleries in Singapore and the world respectively specialising in their disciplines.
Certainly, a big part of the job is library research – how else could Wang have started assembling a breathtaking showcase of jewellery from the region hailing from as far back as the Neolithic period (read: more than 12,000 years ago) to the 20th century? Yoong is however quick to point out that being a curator is not all about burying oneself in books.
One of her favourite aspects of the job, for example, is meeting the collectors and families who loan or donate items. Through such interactions, she gleans intimate facts and anecdotes about the artefacts that are unlikely to have made it to literature or second-hand sources. (One fun fact that she learnt when working on the fashion gallery: The Mao suit on display at its debut exhibition – dedicated to Chinese dress between the late Qing period and 1976 – was crafted from extra-fine wool, revealing that its owner was of a high social status as such suits were typically made from cotton.)
And while all that research alone could take a year, making sense of the information and then translating it for a broad audience – all while being aware and respectful of factors such as cultural sensitivities – is another formidable task. Like how the museum labels that accompany each artwork or artefact must appeal to a casual attendee such as a child as much as the informed insider with history and context all crammed into approximately 60 words. Not an enviable job, but Wang wrote all 164 pieces for the jewellery room herself.
Then of course there’s the exhibition design: strategising how best to display selected artefacts for the user’s experience alongside technical considerations like scenography and lighting. (The latter’s partly why the fashion gallery will rotate exhibitions yearly – its exhibits tend to be fragile and can’t be exposed to strong lighting for an extended period. Unveiled to the public early last month, both galleries jointly showcase over 200 exhibits and tell diverse stories of Asian history and culture and how they’ve shaped identities through history. And when it’s time to change their installations, Yoong and Wang will do it all over again.
Their advice for those looking to break into the industry
Yoong points out that it is helpful to major in related fields of studies such as art history, but volunteering at a preferred institution is also a good way to get a sense of whether the job – and place – is suitable. Adds Wang: “Liking history or the visual arts is not enough. Having a specific area of interest that you really want to explore, research and add value to will help to set you apart.”