The 2002 Conference

The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.

The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.

Desiging, Building & Launching a Home for Three Art Collections

Angela Sim
NUS Museums, National University of Singapore

I) Introduction

The building programme to house 3 art collections under one roof cost the National University of Singapore $12 million. This did not include land cost; it did, however, include the cost of fitting out the galleries and other facilities. It was a major project for the NUS not just in terms of the finances committed but because it impacted, apart from the museums department, at least 4 other departments:-

  • Office of Estate & Department
  • Office of Finance
  • Office of Human Resources (on account of staff increase and intake)
  • Central Library (because the Ng Eng Teng Gallery had to relocate from here to the new museum complex)

The National University of Singapore acknowledged that the building project as well as the official opening of NUS Museums was a landmark event for the institution and a highlight in the University’s calendar in the last financial year. This was so qualified a mention of it in the President’s annual State of the University address in July this year.


II) Background

The programme, from drawing board to finishing touches, evolved over a 5 year period. It began as a 2-storey building to house 1 art collection that of the Lee Kong Chian Art Museum. It ended as a 3-storey complex housing 4 galleries, a multi-purpose seminar room, a conservation workshop, a resource center, a members’ room for the exclusive use of our docents, a temporary holding area, a rest and refresh area and administrative and curatorial offices. At the beginning of the project in 1996, there were 6 full time staff members (myself included and 1 part-time consultant curator). When we officially inaugurated NUS Museums on 26 February 02, there were 27 staff members, all full-time, 9 were operations staff members, 3 administrative staff members, 10 curatorial staff members and 3 outreach officers.

The gala opening in February this year celebrated several important events:-

  • firstly, it unveiled the South and Southeast Asian Gallery, 20 years after it has been in storage;
  • secondly, it relaunched the Lee Kong Chian Art Museum and the Ng Eng Teng Gallery;
  • thirdly, it inaugurated the Visiting Exhibition Gallery which had, as its opening exhibition, Black/White woodcut prints of the 50’s and 60’s, a show which was intensely and intentionally Singaporean in content and flavour;
  • fourthly, two naming opportunities were realized: the ST Lee Atrium was named in honour of Dr Lee Sent Tee who pledged a substantial financial benefaction which the Arthur Lim Concourse was named in honour of Professor Arthur Lim who pledged a gift of artworks valued between $3 to $5 millions.

III) Guidelines and Gridlines

At all times, the development of NUS Museums, the building and the department which it houses, was guided rather than constrained by gridlines predetermined by:-

    • Our vision and mission
    • Budget and finance
    • Time frame


Vision and mission

Our vision is to be a university museum of repute and standing, supporting and reflecting the NUS mission, which is:

  • Advance knowledge and foster innovation
  • Educate students and nurture talent
  • In service of country and society

NUS Museums has interpreted this as a 5-point mission addressing excellent exhibitions, acquisitions, conservation, research and education/

Taking these objectives to heart, we translated and incorporated them into the planning of the 3-storey building so that rooms and spaces were carved to meet not just curatorial needs but also those of a museum, sensitive and responsive to the visitors, to education, research and teaching, to preservation, safety and security of our resources and operational considerations.

Our brief to the museum designer, a UK-based firm, in summary, was to propose the design and usage of exhibition spaces, taking into account our mission and our requirements for interactivity, visitor comfort and a quality museum experience.


Budget and Finance

As with all other NUS projects, the Office of Finance sets financial limits within which we had to work creatively. This meant having to make decisions - small or big - which impact on each other. Very often it means that we had to negotiate rather than to assert, and to gun for win-win solutions and situations whether these were decisions affecting the quality of showcases or type of floor treatments etc. Financial limits, while enabling discipline in spending, did not always allow for the latest and best technologies to be incorporated into the building programme.


Time Frame

Working within a given time frame impacted on choices and selections, plans and strategies. Settling for options requiring the least demand on time was quite often the way out of tight situations, given a scenario where various deadlines mish-mashed with each other.


(IV) Working with the Architect

Right from the start, RSP Architects & Planners, our main contractor made it easy by instituting weekly Friday-morning site-meetings. Every issue was thrashed during these half-day meetings which could also involve sub-contractors and what we term sub-sub-contractors. As the project evolved over the years, these meetings became the vehicle during which a new direction - or idea - was communicated and translated into brick and mortar. All meetings were minuted without fail.

NUS Museums' requirements for a purpose-built museum were presented prior to, and reinforced during, these site-meetings. These requirements include building as few windows as possible, high ceilings, temperature and humidity controlled.


(V) Working with the Designer

From the experience of working with an overseas designer, we learnt that it neither cost-effective nor expeditious. One of our greatest worries was the non-compliance of deadlines or the stretching of it.

On ground level, our education officers experienced very real anxieties when wall texts laid out by the overseas designer got lost, diluted or delayed in transit. However, having said all of that, our UK consultants were true-blue professionals who understood our requirements, interpreted our brief to them astutely, translated this into not just workable but pleasing results and provided expertise which met with our expectations.


(VI) The Big Move

NUS Museums’ move can be described as a multi-level exercise requiring excellent coordination, time and human resource management. Because we had three collections to be moved from 3 locations - some for display in the new complex, the rest for storage in four different facilities - and administrative and curatorial offices to boot, the exercise took four weeks to complete. To add to the extravagance (or confusion), all art objects of textile, wood, paper and painting were first treated by fumigation.

For this to take place, the art works in Ng Eng Teng Gallery had first to be packed up, non-paper and painting items removed, leaving behind those requiring the treatment. The gallery then became the venue of the exercise, with art objects of like media from the other two collections added. Making it all the merrier was a collection of art books and journals numbering into the two thousands.


(VII) Installation of the Exhibitions

NUS Museums appointed a mount specialist to facilitate the display of rare Indian sculptures and other rare classical sculptures. Guest curators appointed for the opening exhibitions were present to install the various sections of the exhibitions. 3DC, our UK consultant, made a special trip to dress up the cases, adjust the lights and put finishing touches to each and every gallery. Education Officers vetted texts and labels and assisted in the placement of these labels and texts.

As you will/can see from the slides, our approach to display was one aiming for interaction, enjoyment and intellectual enrichment.


(VIII) Launching NUS Museums

Three months after our move into the new museum complex, on Tuesday, 26 February 2002, NUS Museums was officially launched by Mr S R Nathan, President of the Republic of Singapore, and Chancellor, National University of Singapore. The gala event, the culmination of a year's planning, creativity and hard work, involved many other NUS departments e.g., Office of Corporate Events, University Cultural Centre, Centre for the Arts and President's Office. It was attended by 650 guests, about 45% of those who received an invitation card. As it was a landmark event and a significant achievement for the NUS, very little was spared to make it memorable. The following were some of the evening's highlights:-

    • An Opening with pomp and pizzazz, officiated by our Guest-of-Honour, President SR Nathan.
    • A grand Buffet Dinner with food laid out on four stations to service 650 diners.
    • A Fashion Show utilising motifs from fabrics from our textile show at the South & Southeast Asian Collection.
    • An exclusive Guided Tour by Head of Museum to VIPS, led by President SR Nathan.
    • A live Jazz Band provides music and atmosphere before the arrival of President Nathan and during dinner

Also launched at the Official Opening were:-

    • 3 exhibition catalogues
    • NUS Museums' new corporate logo and video
    • NUS Museums' Volunteer Guides programme
    • A multi-media project for the Lee Kong Chian Art Museum and the South & Southeast Asian Gallery

The entire Opening Ceremony was recorded by our Centre for Instruction Technology and beamed live via NUSNET. I have brought along a CD ROM and would be happy to put it on for those interested in having a look - perhaps at a later point today.


Thank you for your attention and please come visit us.

Copyright © Angela Sim 2002.
All rights reserved.

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