by Michael Switow
A Chinese woman in black robes and a pointed witch’s hat welcomes me and a group of about 20 people into the first room of “Harry Potter: The Exhibition” in the basement of Singapore’s ArtScience Museum.
Just as the young witches and wizards who arrive at Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster movie and literary series for the first time, we are to be sorted into one of the school’s four residential houses.
The museum’s resident witch asks a woman in the middle of our batch which Hogwarts house is her favorite. “Ravenclaw,” she replies nervously. “Ah,” the witch replies, “the house of intelligence, knowledge, and wit. Come here. Let’s see what the Sorting Hat has to say…”
The museum-goer sits on a stool next to our host. She is visibly trembling. Yes, this 20-something woman is a true Harry Potter fan, and it’s important to her that she be sorted correctly.
The witch points the Sorting Hat at the woman—her hand inside the hat, most likely holding a remote control—until a voice booms through nearby speakers. “Ravenclaw,” it announces as Hogwart’s newest resident smiles and breathes a sigh of relief.
Not Your Father’s Museum
Like many contemporary museum exhibits, “Harry Potter: The Exhibition” uses videos, sounds, lighting, technology, and even scents to engage people … not to mention the occasional actor. “We are reinventing the museum in Asia for the 21st century by offering fun and exciting exhibitions that tell stories that are relevant to all of our lives,” says ArtScience Museum Executive Director Nick Dixon, who has been working in the museum sector for more than 25 years, both as a curator and a fundraiser. “We want visitors to be completely immersed in the subject matter.”
“Harry Potter: The Exhibition” showcases costumes and props from the film series, including Harry’s iconic eyeglasses and wand, the dresses and suits worn by Hermione, Harry, and Ron to the Yule Ball, re-creations of Hagrid’s Hut, the Great Hall, and more.
I had a chance to throw a Quidditch ball (which diehards will tell you is called a Quaffle), sit in Hagrid’s huge chair, pull a noisy “Mandrake” from its pot, and listen to the infamous enchanted wall portraits. And as I prepare to enter the dark Forbidden Forest, a child next to me gasps, “Uh oh, this looks scary!” I’m not sure if he heard Voldemort whispering into his ears, though that is a feature of the exhibit if you stand in the right spot.
The lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, which is owned by Marina Bay Sands, relies primarily on temporary exhibitions. While there is a permanent gallery space, there’s not much in it yet. Since opening in February 2011, the museum has featured exhibits about sunken treasure, Andy Warhol, Cartier Time Art, Genghis Khan, Salvador Dali, the Silk Road, and Vincent van Gogh. Its most popular exhibit to date, though, was “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” where visitors could walk through a re-creation of the ship’s staterooms, view artifacts recovered from the wreckage, and touch an iceberg to have a better idea of the extreme conditions faced by survivors. The exhibit attracted 287,000 visitors over six months, a Singapore record for museum exhibitions, according to Dixon.
Telling a Story
Just two kilometers (1.2 miles) away is Singapore’s National Museum, which traces its own history to 1887 when the governor of the British Straits Settlements opened the Raffles Library and Museum. The current National Museum is located in the same gorgeous neoclassical building on Stamford Avenue. After closing for renovations in 2003, it reopened three years later with a modernist extension of metal and glass and a new way of presenting artifacts. “We have to move away from the old-style academic approach,” says Iskander Mydin, senior curator at the museum. “We need to engage people and communicate. Curating is not routine. It allows for creative input. You create stories, but based on history, not fiction.”
Visitors to the National Museum use a free Kindle-like companion as they wander exhibition halls telling the Singapore story from the 14th century to modern times. The multimedia device has a keyboard and earphones so museum-goers can access additional information about specific artifacts and listen to or watch expert analysis and dramatized scenarios without intruding on other visitors.
The most popular permanent exhibitions, though, are likely located on the top floor, home to the museum’s “Living Galleries,” which feature four lifestyle collections about food, fashion, film, and photography from the 1950s to the 1970s. Here you can listen to music, watch film clips, see and smell the spices that make Singaporean cuisine so popular, and feel the texture of fabrics on display.
Then and Now
When Iskander joined the National Museum in 1990, the first exhibit he was asked to curate was about sea charts. He says if he were to prepare a similar exhibition today he would do it in a completely different manner.
Before, museums basically displayed artifacts and posted information about them on the cases and walls. The challenge was to make the exhibits interesting to the general public. “We tried not to be too didactic,” Iskander says. “Our captions had to be easy to understand without being a historical lecture. It wasn’t easy.”
Today, curating is often done in collaboration with script writers, filmmakers, and designers who work together to weave a coherent story. “You need a scene, an ambiance where (museum-goers) can follow the story, and the setting as well,” he says. “It is easier to make engaging exhibits now. With the new technology, all you need is creative ideas.”
Iskander says if he was to curate an exhibit about sea charts today, he would start by interviewing artisans from a local shop that has been making charts for more than a century. He would also show how these maps are used in a contemporary setting to settle—or dispute—territorial boundaries, like in the South China Sea, where islands are jointly claimed by China, Japan, and several Southeast Asian nations. Finally, he would engage students by creating a competition. It’s a far cry from simply hanging maps on a wall.
The Classics Draw the Crowds
The museum’s most popular exhibit of late was “Dreams & Reality,” a temporary display of paintings on loan from France’s Musee d’Orsay featuring more than 140 pieces of art, including Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus,” Cezanne’s “The Card Players,” and van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” “People appreciated that we brought this in because not everyone can travel to Paris,” notes Iskander’s colleague, Soo Ming Jie. The exhibit drew 120,000 visitors in three and a half months.
Storytelling and interactivity are also at the heart of the Maritime Experiential Museum, a large gallery situated by the water that opened less than a year ago by Resorts World Sentosa, and, from the outside, looks like the hull of an overturned ship. Inside, visitors “travel” the Maritime Silk Route, much as Chinese sailors did centuries ago.
Take a step inside and the first thing you notice is a life-sized re-creation of a Chinese Bao Chuan (“Treasure Ship”). Hundreds of smaller model ships are strung in the air on the port and starboard sides of the ship. An animated welcome video plays on the hull, alternating between English and Mandarin versions.
This area of the museum is free and open to the public. An animated welcome video plays every 20 minutes, alternating between English and Mandarin versions. “The idea here is to get you involved in the context of the museum and—particularly if you just walk in and don’t know what this is—get you excited enough to buy a ticket,” says Jason Horkin, a director with Resorts World Sentosa, which reportedly invested about $150 million to open this museum near Universal Studios Singapore less than a year ago.
Ticketed visitors walk through a series of ports that the Chinese armada would have visited in its journey from China to Africa. At each stop, museum-goers are introduced to a bit of the country’s culture and main trading items, but in a way that is more edutainment than textbook. “In a normal museum, you go in and go see a gallery, then you go to the next gallery,” adds Horkin. “Here the design was much more experiential. We think of it as the guests taking a journey as they go through the museum.”
There are more than a dozen interactive multimedia stations along the way. Visitors can create and decorate a virtual piece of pottery, try to navigate a ship, trade wares in a port while keeping watch for thieves, make a digital textile pattern, and dress up (digitally) as a Sumatran dancer. In each case, they can e-mail a copy of their work to themselves. The highlight of the museum for most visitors is the Typhoon Theatre, which re-creates the story of a shipwreck—winds, water, and all.
There are a few actual artifacts in the Maritime Experiential Museum—recovered from the shipwreck of an Arabian dhow off the coast of Indonesia—but these are dimly lit (for conservation reasons) and do not attract as much attention. There’s also a life-size replica of the ship that went down, the Jewel of Muscat. The museum was actually built around the ship (it was too big to fit in any other way) that voyagers sailed from Oman to Singapore in 2010.
Michael Switow is a Singapore-based freelance writer whose reports have appeared in Asian Journeys, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and others. He is a frequent contributor to Funworld.