Musings On Museums [Part 2]: Cartwright Hall, Bradford vs. the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore

[Image: Cartwright Hall, Bradford]


Part 2


Last week in Part 1 of this series, I wrote about the background of both Cartwright Hall in Bradford and the Malay Heritage Centre in Singapore, discussing their interests in engaging their surrounding communities (read Part 1 HERE). In part 2, I will explore their strategies for doing so, with a focus on contemporary art.

To me, collecting contemporary art to engage an ethnic minority seems counter-intuitive considering that most aspects of contemporary art derive from particular histories of Western art. At Cartwright Hall however, this has worked brilliantly. Work by artists of different nationalities is shown to be inspired by, and resonant with, art of their own and of other cultures. The false dichotomy of a ‘pure’ but traditional and backward Eastern art, in opposition to a ‘progressive’ and ‘original’ Western art inspired by Eastern forms, is challenged and eroded.

This is done simply through displaying cross-cultural exchanges (instead of a one-way transaction) and the myriad responses to contemporary life, by artists of various backgrounds – without making a distinction between ‘East’ and ‘West’. As a result, both artists and non-artists of South Asian background in Bradford have begun to feel more connected to the gallery. In the process, their visiting has allowed the older Victorian collections to be shown in a more meaningful manner as well, with cross-connections made with the newer collections. For instance, in the ‘Icons’ gallery, one painting of a boy of aristocratic descent is shown alongside pop music icons and a Hindi film poster; representing the different notions of Icons across time and space, while also acknowledging a certain underlying similarity that might have otherwise gone unrecognised in those works.


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A gallery of various city interpretations sit alongside a children’s play set with elements to build a mini cityscape.


This sub-gallery is situated in the suite of revamped permanent galleries which are collectively titled ‘Connect’, and only opened in 2008. They represent a conscious and active effort to make connections, also encouraging visitors to make their own to the artworks. This is vital, because as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (Emeritus Professor of Museum Studies) writes, the enjoyment of art is only possible if some kind of personal connection is made to the artwork.

The galleries are divided into the broad, universal categories of ‘People’, ‘Places’ and ‘Imagination’. Each object is said to have ‘a story to tell’; the story of how and why the object was made or what it depicts, or the stories it evokes for the viewer. The first suggestion on the entrance poster is to ‘Just look’ at the objects which capture their attention, immediately making clear that the agenda is not a didactic one with a fixed message, but an inclusive one where everyone is invited to engage on their own terms. The other important suggestion is to ‘Join the community’ through the artworks on display. Initially this can be by using the works as a window to different cultures and places, but also by re-connecting them back to Bradford since ‘much of what you see has a Bradford connection’, and the majority of visitors to the gallery are likely to be from the Bradford area. For those who find it difficult to engage with art, there is a more subtle encouragement in the form of a video, where visitors talk about their experiences at the gallery, or of particular artworks that they do or do not like. The language used is not of art criticism but that of everyday conversations from people of all ages, providing a less intimidating way of approaching the galleries. At Cartwright Hall, the enjoyment of art is an end in itself, although there is also the broader underlying goal of promoting understanding, unity and harmony amongst different ethnic groups, as well as a sense of belonging.

Back at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC), the goal of showcasing contemporary art is a bit more complex and indirect. It is used to elucidate the heritage collections and stories already on display, while showing their relevance to the present through the ways in which aspects are adopted, adapted and contemporised by artists. It also aims to uncover current issues that have emerged from the historical development of Southeast Asia, such as those concerning religious beliefs. This is particularly complex in Singapore, where Malays used to form a majority but became outnumbered by the ethnic Chinese during colonial times.

In the permanent galleries, the final gallery showcases some contemporary artworks by Malay filmmakers, giving their perspectives on the interpretation and connection of Malay cultural heritage and identity, to the present. This continues well from the permanent galleries which explore Malay contributors and contributions to the Singaporean nation during its early years up until today. It is a much more narrative and factual means of presentation rather than a loosely themed one like in Cartwright Hall. However, its purpose is more aligned towards preservation of heritage rather than integration of communities, as the Malay community forms an essential part of the country and was never considered an outsider group, unlike the South Asian communities around Cartwright Hall.


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Video art in final room at Malay Heritage Centre


Follow the link to take a Virtual Tour of the MHC:


The Malay Heritage Centre changes the focus of its galleries and events yearly, aiming to give expression to different (ethnic) segments of the Malay community, who are far from a homogenous group. Therefore, the objects play more of a supporting role in an information-based display, rather than being shown purely for their artistic merit as is the case in Cartwright Hall. The Malay Heritage Centre also displays contemporary art as part of its temporary exhibitions. These complement the main displays whilst providing an avenue to explore either more generalised concepts or specialised aspects, which may not fit into the main narrative of the permanent galleries. This in itself forms a way of expanding engagement with diverse audiences, and of forming more inclusive narratives, assisted by input from relevant members of the Malay communities being represented.


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Artefact and photograph displays at the Malay Heritage Centre


Another striking difference between the two museums is that while Cartwright Hall exclusively uses English as its medium of communication, the Malay Heritage Centre uses both Malay and English in its displays. At Cartwright Hall, the use of English reflects the museum’s location in England, but also its context, history and aim of providing a site of interaction and integration rather than the re-formation of communal groups. The Malay Heritage Centre on the other hand, comes from a different background, and its aim to preserve fast-disappearing traditional culture includes the preservation of Malay languages, both current and old, such as Jawi. Additionally, there is a recognition that language is always the medium and mediator of culture. Many cultural concepts cannot be completely translated into another language without losing some of their original flavour and connotations. Thus the Malay Heritage Centre often begins with Malay words as titles for exhibitions, sections or objects, and then proceeds to unpack these in both English and Malay to cater to the widest possible audience while remaining true to the original ideas behind the objects and cultural practices.

Cartwright Hall tries to make its collections resonate with local Bradford stories, as its target audience is mainly the communities in and around Bradford. It does not, however, try to dictate a particular way of viewing its collections, thus making them accessible to visitors from farther afield as well. The Malay Heritage Centre’s remit is much more specific and its target audience can be separated more neatly into a few categories. It caters to the Malay communities in Singapore who want to reconnect with their heritage, or to study its intricacies. It also caters for school trips; for students to learn about the history of Singapore from a Malay perspective. Finally, it provides for local visitors and tourists who may have little knowledge about the objects on display, may not understand any Malay or attend a guided tour, hence making the wall texts very important. While contemporary art may be more central to Cartwright Hall’s displays, it is used equally as effectively at the Malay Heritage Centre to connect past with present and to address issues of identity that have inevitably arisen in both places.

Ruchi Mittal

Filed under: Art & Photography