Musings On Museums [Part 4]: Cartwright Hall, Bradford vs. the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore
[Image © Cartwright Hall, Bradford]
Having written about the different ways in which Cartwright Hall and the Malay Heritage Centre respond to the challenges of audience engagement and diversification, I want to conclude with a single important observation about both museums. They both display a clear desire to challenge the status quo. They do this not through shock tactics or violent protest, but through radically different approaches to display categories and methods, which are politically aware, critical of existing modes of exhibition, and which privilege integration over categorisation.
Both museums deal with questions of ethnicity, but do not reinforce stereotypes about markers or boundaries of ethnic groups. Instead, they question the stability of ethnicity as a meaningful category.
At Cartwright Hall, this is done by displaying art from artists with very different ethnic backgrounds, that is influenced by other traditions, as well as by displaying art from South Asia beside art from Britain that is produced by artists of South Asian descent. This is juxtaposed with art from around the world, including Victorian British art, the result of which is to bring out unexpected connections, but also eliminate hierarchies, avoid the usual categorisation by ‘region’, and bring forth the uniqueness of each artwork that is otherwise suppressed by over-generalised and unimportant categories.
Connect Place Gallery. Foreground Dhruva Mistry’s Guardian 1 1993, with Salima Hashmi’s painting Zones of Dreams, 1996. © Cartwright Hall
In contrast, the Malay Heritage Centre questions the notion of ‘Malay’, but not because it considers the category unimportant. Instead, it attempts to reclaim all of the different ethnicities that are contained within and flattened out by the term ‘Malay’, including for instance the Bugis, the Baweanese and the Javanese to name a few. Because much of Southeast Asia consists of separate islands and different languages, customs and traditions evolved that interacted with each other but still retained their unique characters. Through socio-historical developments, the category of ‘Malay’ was redefined and largely arbitrary geopolitical boundaries drawn, which formed the constellation of countries we see today. Thus the Malay Heritage Centre takes on the two-fold task of spreading awareness about these different cultures that are conveniently grouped under the category of Malay, as well as integrating their cultural products with those of the larger Singaporean society. The latter is often done through public events, talks and display of contemporary art, such as showing that the art of some ‘Malay’ artists may be rooted in tradition, but has wider significance, as the issues they address are relevant to people living in the entire country or region, and often even the world.
Exhibition at Malay Heritage Centre – ‘Changing Times: Baweanese Culture and Heritage in Singapore’
Through these methods, both museums challenge visitors’ perceptions and stereotypes about ethnicity, not just of the creators of the works displayed, but of the visitors’ own ethnicity and of ethnicity as a concept.
Alongside the question of ethnicity is usually placed the contentious issue of immigration. While Cartwright Hall does not directly address this issue, the way it is curated allows for ‘in-betweenness’, and hybridity. This means that it is able to provide a space for immigrants and descendants of immigrants who may partially or fully identify as British. It also forms a bridge for understanding between cultures to flourish, and cross-fertilisation to be celebrated rather than treated with suspicion.
The Malay Heritage Centre in a way has a less daunting task when dealing with the immigration, as Singapore is still a fairly young country whose citizens are largely descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Furthermore, the nature of Southeast Asia meant that until recently, the usual way of life involved trade between the countless islands, and this constant traffic meant that short and long term immigration was commonplace. The demonstration of cultural differences between people from different parts of Southeast Asia who ended up staying in Singapore necessarily means showing the travel and immigration process as a natural and positive phenomenon, although its historical nature makes it less problematic than present-day immigration. Although neither museum deals with immigration as an issue head-on, they both play a role in indirectly influencing opinions about it.
Cartwright Hall and the Malay Heritage Centre both play important roles in their respective communities, but are also brilliant museums in their own right, with interesting objects displayed in understandable ways. Their experimental and innovative approaches have been very successful, and are worth examining more closely, and possibly even adapted by other museums.
Filed under: Art & Photography