Giving back to the museums

Giving back to the museums

Sixty-nine heritage heroes receive the National Heritage Board's annual Patron of Heritage awards today. These are a celebration of individuals, corporations and organisations which donate generously - in cash and in kind - to help the arts, culture and heritage thrive.

Last year, their contributions amounted to more than $8.5 million. This included $4.4 million in cash and $4.1 million in-kind or as artefact donations.

The figures have dropped from 2013, when contributions totalled $20.54 million and a record number of 108 patrons were honoured.

In its response, the board says that last year, it introduced the new Supporter category, which recognises gifts valued between $10,000 and $50,000. The previous minimum donation criteria was $50,000 and above. This new category was one reason for the record number of patrons honoured from 2013.

It adds that "donations and loans fluctuate on a yearly basis due to situational factors".

For instance, it did not receive any loans of objects last year, which could have contributed to the decrease in the total value of contributions.

However, there is cause for cheer in that this year, there are 36 new donors, pointing to more individuals coming forward to support heritage causes. Of the 69 recipients of the awards this year, 37 are organisations and 32 individuals.

Only one donor, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, will receive the Distinguished Patron award for contributions of $2 million and above.

The temple in Waterloo Street is a long-time supporter of arts and heritage causes. It is recognised for its cash donation to the Asian Civilisations Museum and The Peranakan Museum.

The heritage board adds that these generous gifts have enabled it to strengthen the exhibition offerings, outreach initiatives and programmes at its seven museums and heritage centres.

The donations have also contributed to the building up of Singapore's national collection and museum and heritage capabilities, all of which the heritage board says has "greater meaning as we celebrate Singapore's 50th anniversary this year".

Among those being recognised are long-time donor Ms Agnes Tan, the daughter of prominent Straits Chinese community leader Tun Tan Cheng Lock. She has supported the NUS Museum by donating various objects to the museum's Straits Chinese Collection, including portraits, furniture, porcelain, ceramics and an assortment of domestic utensils and display objects. The NUS Museum is managed by the National University of Singapore.

Banyan Tree Holdings' senior vice-president Claire Chiang is also recognised this year for her cash donation to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, as is Dr Shahzad Nasim, group executive chairman of engineering and consultancy firm Meinhardt, for his cash donation to the Indian Heritage Centre.

Another donor, Mr Hugh Young, managing director of Aberdeen Asset Management Asia Limited, is being recognised for his support to the Founder's Circle. Through this, the National Museum of Singapore aims to cultivate patrons, who are champions for the museum.

Mr Young, 56, tells Life! he decided to get involved because he has loved museums since childhood.

"Growing up in London, I was lucky to be spoilt with museum overload. Museums are such an important part of culture and I think especially important for a relatively young country."

The Briton has lived in Singapore for more than 20 years and says that "it has been great to see museums here start coming to life and bringing that life to the people - no longer the rather stiff places I remember from 50 years ago". Established in 2006, the Patron of Heritage awards aim to cultivate a pool of supporters for the museums and encourage others to be involved in adding to, treasuring and preserving Singapore's unique heritage.

This year, the impact of the $200-million Cultural Matching Fund, launched by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth in 2012, can be felt.

The Fund provides dollar-for-dollar matching grants for private cash donations to the arts and heritage.

To date, $60 million worth of applications for matching funds have been received.

Says Ms Jane Binks, the heritage board's director of philanthropy: "Such heart-warming response from the community is telling of the heightened passion and interest that Singaporeans have in our arts and culture."

Ronney Tan

It is the first time accountant Ronney Tan has made a donation to a museum.

For this contribution, he is being awarded the Supporter of Heritage given to donors who have contributed between $10,000 and $49,999 in cash or in kind.

Mr Tan, 60, has donated portraits of Tan Beng Chong (below left) and Yeo Swee Neo (below right) to add to the NUS Museum's study of 19th- and early-20th century portraiture in this region. Tan Beng Chong was one of the founders of the Keng Teck Whay Association, set up in the 19th century by 36 Hokkien Baba merchants as a self-help group for business and family matters, and Yeo Swee Neo was his wife.

He has grown up with both portraits that used to hang in the study of his grandfather's house at Ayer Leleh in Malacca, Malaysia, "for as long as I can remember". Tan Beng Chong (1799-1875) was his great-great-great-grandfather and the pair of portraits were handed down from one generation to the next.

On why he decided to donate them to the museum, Mr Tan said: "There are stories behind these portraits which I think are better for the museum to preserve and present to future generations to enjoy. Also given the weather conditions in Singapore, I feel these rare portraits will deteriorate in future due to high humidity and heat."

Mr Tan says that the date of the paintings is unknown and that they form an indelible part of his memory of his grandfather, a collector who also displayed in his study "the coffin to be used for his future funeral". This was a common practice then.

What is known is that Tan Beng Chong's father, Tan Siang Long, settled in Dutch-occupied Malacca sometime in 1790 after trading as a merchant in Batavia (Indonesia) and Siam (now Thailand).

To a historian, the portraits are significant because they show, as commissioned portraits did during that time, that the family was well-off.

They also lend themselves to a study of portraiture techniques, the fashion of the time and how the subjects posed for studio shots.

Mr Tan, who is married with a son, 26, likes the thought that donating from a family collection is a larger contribution to public knowledge.

He says: "I believe such contributions enrich our understanding of the past. By showcasing these portraits from my family collection, comparison can be made with pictures of similar time periods. New knowledge may evolve from these studies by historians."

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