Beyond the Glass Cases

WRITTEN BY JEFFREY KANG

I have always had a soft spot for museums. Since young, I have been fascinated by history – from the wondrous discoveries of humankind to how diverse cultures function across time and space. I would spend hours getting lost in museums, immersing myself within vast collections of antiquities and artworks from the past. 

However, as I grew up, I started to feel the disconnect between my passion for history and everyday lifestyle and practices, each forming two discrete worlds within myself. Regardless how much and how often I spend time in the museums, there has always been an alterity between the objects behind the glass display cases and how my life is normally pursued and stylised. 

This disconnect continued to hound me. Even after joining the Arts and Culture Management (ACM) programme at Singapore Management University, I constantly questioned the true relevance of arts managers, particularly in terms of how arts managers could make history relevant to today’s urban world of ceaseless distractions and spectacle. “Could history ever exist beyond glass cases? Could heritage be more than just romanticised nostalgia? What exactly could I, as an aspiring arts manager, do to achieve this?”, I asked.

Fortunately, undertaking “ACM214: Arts, Culture Industries and Everyday Life” module enabled me to find the answers. To my surprise, the module required us to develop a progamme for the Singapore Heritage Festival! I was genuinely excited by the opportunity to craft a cultural programme that had real-world stakes beyond the classroom, and would also have to be about connecting contemporary audiences to heritage. 


Together with my groupmates, I spent hours first searching for a lesser-known story from Singapore’s past. After multiple rounds of consultation with our Professor, we finally decided to focus on the often overlooked and hence vanishing heritage of the handwoven carpet trade as the story to base our programme upon. 


Although our focus was in line with the festival’s aim and mission, my group continued to experience difficulties conceiving of a programme design that would enable the public to relate to these carpets. There was a large gap between the carpets and the public to close, mainly because handwoven carpets today are a disappearing sight from our everyday lives. 


However, when I went to personally explore the carpet galleries at Dempsey Hill, my perspective on history and heritage changed. One gallery owner generously took my groupmate and myself on a tour of his carpet collections, where he would painstakingly share intricate details of the traditional craftmanship behind each handwoven carpet. This was when I realised that heritage encompasses more than simple old antiquities. Hearing his tales of carpet weaving demonstrated how heritage is not something that is confined to the past but comprises everyday practices, skills and trades that are passed down, kept alive and constantly reshaped by present-day communities.


My experiential learning was further fortified when we went to The Projector for a learning journey. Apart from a tour, we also heard from the General Manager Prashant Somosundram, who passionately shared how The Projector and its Intermission Bar attempt to connect audiences with the space through cultural programming. As he shared, cultural programmes such as film quiz nights and dance parties transform this historic site into a shared space where people are able to socialize, bond and share experiences. These cultural programmes also intermediate and connect many to important causes like LGBTQ+ and local independent cinema, and allow them to become aware of the multiple layers and dimensions of human existence.  Importantly, these programmes empower The Projector – a space with historical value – to be kept alive by becoming a place where anyone can experience and interact with heritage in their everyday lives, and forge precious shared memories. 


Ultimately, not only have these learning experiences enabled my group to conceptualise a programme that celebrates intangible cultural heritage as a living, everyday experience that brings people together through shared experiences and memories, but I also learnt the value of the arts manager as cultural intermediary.  Simply defined, a cultural intermediary denotes a brokerage role that connects creators and producers to audiences and publics. In this case, arts managers function as cultural intermediaries by developing meaningful programmes that celebrate heritage as an active process that is not dislocated from everyday life and contemporary culture. Be it the amazing talents behind The Projector or the programming team behind the Singapore Heritage Festival, cultural intermediaries are significant because they connect the public to the arts and culture in rich, multi-layered ways.  


It has been a year since I joined the ACM programme, and the most transformative change thus far is undoubtedly my fuller appreciation of the value of heritage and its relevance to everyday life. During ACM214, not only was I presented with an opportunity to learn about how the connection could be fostered through cultural programming, but I was also able to translate what I learnt in the classroom into actual practice. These experiences have expanded my understanding of the possibilities and potentialities of arts managers as cultural intermediaries, especially in terms of context of connecting and relating the past to the present. 


Finally, I have also realized that if I aspire to become an arts manager who wishes to bring heritage out and beyond the glass cases, it is imperative to stay open, flexible and inquisitive so that I will always be able to search for the touchpoints that enable the public to discover their own meanings of heritage within their everyday lives.

ABOUT JEFFREY KANG

Jeffrey Kang Jiwoo is a second year Arts and Culture Management student at Singapore Management University. Originally from South Korea, he came to Singapore seeking to learn more about how arts management could imbue him with the capabilities to contribute meaningfully to the arts. While he has a deep passion for heritage and the visual arts, he remains open and inquisitive about all art forms and art-making. He is still learning more about the possible intersections between arts management and curatorial practices and how the two can work together to convey the intrinsic value of the arts to all.