Musings On Museums: Cartwright Hall, Bradford vs. the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore

[Image: Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore]


Part 1

What could a Victorian-era art gallery have in common with a heritage institution tucked away in a maze of small streets in Singapore? Something quite important and fundamental, as it turns out. But first let me introduce the two.


Cartwright Hall is a large, purpose-built art gallery situated in Lister Park, Bradford. It was built by the city council in the early 1900s from the money donated by a rich entrepreneur in the textile industry, but slowly faded into irrelevance as Bradford expanded and the original occupants of the affluent area moved further out into the suburbs and working-class immigrants moved in. These immigrants were largely from South Asia, particularly Pakistan, and the artworks in the gallery meant little to them. Consequently, in 1986, curator Nina Poovaya-Smith was given the responsibility of making Cartwright Hall and its collections relevant to the community living around it.

To do this, she began an organised programme collecting contemporary art by South Asian artists, both in their home countries and amongst British migrants. She also began collecting contemporary and traditional craft objects from the region, with categories decided after consultation with members of the community. The aim was to collect objects that evoked strong responses from local visitors and that were able to represent aspects of their culture in an attempt to generate understanding and appreciation from visitors who came from a different background.

The most unusual thing about Cartwright Hall’s approach however, is that it chooses to display its collections thematically, with no segregation by artists’ race, nationality, gender or medium. Paintings are shown beside glassware or movie posters, with thematic connections made between them. Think about that for a moment. How many museums or galleries can you think of that display their permanent collection like that? Personally, this is the only gallery I know of that does, in the process upholding a non-discriminatory stance and constantly renewing its relevance to the community.


Image 2 (1)

Cartwright Hall, Bradford


The Malay Heritage Centre was opened in 2005 by Singapore’s Prime Minister, and is housed within a former Malay palace. It began as a government endeavour and continues to be managed as a government agency under the National Heritage Board. Situated in the Kampong Glam area, which was designated as a Malay and Arab quarter under British during colonial rule, the Malay Heritage Centre is meant to act ‘as a vital heritage institution for the Malay community in Singapore’ ( Its displays are organised based on narratives of Singapore’s history and of important individuals from a Malay background who played a part in its development. One of its aims is to spotlight different sub-groups amongst the Malay diasporas, researching, documenting and publicising their unique cultures and celebrating the richness of difference.

The Malay Heritage Centre also utilises contemporary art from the Southeast Asian region to raise questions and promote discussions about culture and identity. Its community engagement programme includes a calendar of talks, activities, forums and tours targeted at different segments of the community. However, many of the talks it hosts are conducted in Malay, limiting their audience in a country where the lingua franca is English.

Despite their different remits and contexts, both museums are inventing new solutions, using contemporary art, to the very central issue of engaging their surrounding communities. While engaging its audiences may seem a very obvious thing for a museum to do, it is in fact a relatively new idea that museums are more than repositories for objects and information, and their function as mediums of communication is only now being widely studied. Both museums have the sensitive task of representing and involving minority ethnic groups without excluding the majority. One of their main aims is to promote understanding and awareness of these cultures, both amongst people from other cultures and amongst the younger generation who have to navigate an identity between their family’s culture and the dominant culture in which they live. How both museums navigate these concerns will form the subject of this series of writings.

Ruchi Mittal

Read Part 2 HERE

Filed under: Art & Photography