Don't turn museums into theme parks

Dead and dangling from the ceiling of a second-floor nook at the Singapore Art Museum, tree branches stripped of leaves shape an interactive feature for the exhibition Unearthed.

The show, which opened at the museum last month, sheds light on the uneasy relationship between man and nature. A sign next to the tucked-away corner asks visitors a playful question inspired by the title of the show, "What would you like to unearth?"

Paper tags and pens are provided and visitors have responded by writing down their thoughts and hanging the tags on the suspended branches.

This curious display held my attention far longer than some pieces of art in the show and who could blame it for stealing the thunder?

I enjoy looking at art with my ears wide open, picking up furtive comments and whispered opinions of fellow viewers, relishing glimpses of dialogues that happen in secret between a work of art and its viewers.

This interactive feature is museum voyeurism at its best, egging on visitors to make public their private thoughts and reactions towards art.

Some viewers, responding directly to the theme of the exhibition, aspire to discover new ways of sustainable living.

Others, so distressed by the tension between man and nature and the sombre mood of the show, dismissed the question completely to voice their fraught emotions.

However, this wishing tree and the hodgepodge of comments it has drawn, is more than a frivolous sideshow.

As museums around the world strive to lose their stuffy image and seek deeper engagement with audiences, a premium has been placed on interactivity in exhibitions and the feature at the Singapore Art Museum is no exception.

In Vienna, the Kunstkammer Wien, which houses a spectacular array of centuries-old objects of art, including charming bronze statuettes and exquisite gameboards, deepens visitor experience through interactive elements in its galleries.

This push for interactivity is also at play in the digital realm, albeit in a big way, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Its shows incorporate video games and smartphone apps to appeal to a young, tech-savvy crowd.

The National Museum of Singapore, on the other hand, will be launching a new children's wing next month to get children interested in the country's history through good, old-fashioned play.

The section will feature interactive multimedia exhibits that include opportunities for children to dress up and engage in role play. The aim: to provide a fun, family-friendly space in the museum that will nurture a museum-going culture here and, in the process, have visitors learn more about Singapore.

It is encouraging that museums are consciously reaching out to audiences on their terms and turf, but such a drive should not be compelled solely by the desire to be perceived as fun, popular places of interest.

After all, what makes a museum a museum rather than a glorified amusement centre is not its newfangled, interactive toys or exhibits, but the knowledge it houses in the objects it studies and displays.

Certainly, that knowledge, when dressed up in an attractive way, goes a long way towards making a lasting impact. But there is no substitute for the surge of wonder that comes when a personal discovery is made.

This article by The Straits Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.

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