Tuesday, September 23, 2008

National Museum of Singapore - Light System

Lightemotion uses illumination as scenography for the National Museum of Singapore's collection.

By David Sokol (Architectural Record - February 2008)

A major renovation and expansion of the National Museum of Singapore by Singapore-based W Architects presented a tabula rasa for light designers at Lightemotion and exhibition designers from GSM Group. François Roupinian, who founded Montreal-based Lightemotion in 2002, likens the museum’s 126,000-square-foot addition to a “complete black box.”

Founded as a natural history museum in 1887, the institution used its recent construction project also to expand its curatorial focus, which now encompasses cultural identity and nation building.

This broader scope meant that the museum’s collection would be spread thin across the new galleries, creating the need for the exhibition and lighting designers to engender a sense of intimacy in the cavernous interiors.

In a gallery located inside the original Neoclassical building, for example, curators lined the room’s perimeter with handmade Singaporean fabrics, but little else.

To concentrate visitors’ attention on these panels, Lightemotion grazed each textile with an AR111 tightened to a 4-degree beam spread. “Grazing really makes a strong statement,” Roupinian says, “so just by illuminating those layers, by highlighting their texture and making them shimmer, we could make the space pop.”

In addition to providing the illusion of a smaller scale, the designers at Lightemotion helped reinforce the museum’s narrative. “We tried to make lighting a third character,” states Roupinian. “The lighting became the scenography.”

In a gallery devoted to Singapore’s theatrical traditions, the firm suspended bare light bulbs from the ceiling, letting the electrical cords swag this way and that.

A century ago, Singaporean opera singers worked as itinerant performers, explains Roupinian. So “we tried to create a bit of the feeling of the nomadic dressing room, where performers would hang all those light bulbs to do their makeup,” he says.

While the original galleries now focus on themes such as fashion and theater, the extension designed by W Architects houses the museum’s permanent collection. Rather than divide galleries thematically, GSM designed two paths that follow the chronology of Singapore’s political and social histories.

One of the rare intersections between the two paths serves as the entryway to galleries devoted to the Japanese occupation. Here, too, suspended lighting does the work of props. “We wanted people to experience—in a metaphorical way—the anguish and fear [that residents felt during the occupation],” Roupinian says.

So GSM designed an angled concrete wall that outlines the route, and Lightemotion illuminated it with attenuated Edison bulbs whose filaments are dimmed to 5 percent. “They shake a bit just so you can feel the fragility,” Roupinian says of the quivering filaments.

Prior to this junction, along the social-history path, museumgoers can explore a re-created opium den where paper lanterns hang from the ceiling; a metal-halide/fiber-optic system integrated in the raised floor uplights a metal-mesh ceiling, where shadows evoke smoke. As the permanent collection approaches the most recent decades, a gallery devoted to contemporary manufacturing features a ceiling of myriad luminaires fabricated in Singapore.

The designers also used projected images to help fill the National Museum’s abundant space. In one example, at the start of the permanent collection, they created a collage of still images that dance across lycra panels stretched inside a drumlike volume.

At the end of the journey, films of contemporary Singaporean life play on canted walls, and embedded fiber optics in vitrines give the impression that the exhibition cases have somehow captured the spillover light.

A cinematic approach characterizes GSM and Lightemotion’s work at the National Museum of Singapore. In the pools of light that underscore certain artifacts, for example, the designers created counterparts to the range of luminous and emotional intensity found in film.

“Singaporeans are used to a wash of fluorescent light,” Roupinian says. That the National Museum of Singapore does the opposite offers testimony to a trusting client, and adds a new layer of meaning to the island nation’s relatively brief history.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Muzium Negara - A New Dawn?

Muzium Negara, the national repository of the country's heritage is undergoing a physical change for the first time since its inception in the early 60s. Under the patronage of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the national museum was the place to showcase a proud heritage that traverses across colors and race.

However in recent years, the national museum and the exhibits are losing its frantic battle to draw more visitors. The museum has become notorious of becoming museum piece itself.

Few were to be blamed.

Society changed and museums, at least in Malaysia, are no longer the place to take your kids to. The mushrooming of mega malls did not help either.

The axe finally came when policy makers turned blind eyed to the latest science and technology in museulogy. Key museum players simply fail to overhaul Muzium Negara and make the museum relevant to the changing taste of the public.
Generations of visitors are continuously greeted by the same mundane features on keris, bridal chambers, stuffed animals and wayang kulit. Countless internet postings came with a frightening verdict - Muzium Negara is BORING!

Yet there is hope now.

Years of increasing revenue from the tourism industry have make the government to view the National Museum in a whole new perspective. Malaysian government is giving it the long overdue facelift to entice more foreigners to visit the country. In fact, the new minister in charge in his Museum Day 2008 speech, has listed it as one of the two main functions of Muzium Negara.

The overhaul project valued at some RM20 million was first mooted in August 2006 and after several rounds of delay, the project is currently at its final stage of completion due late 2008.

Obviously, the museum authority has high hopes. Rais Yatim was quoted to have set it on par if not exceed some of the leading museum establishments in the region, notably in Singapore. Others are predicting that ticket sales will hit all time high.

Sadly, not much is said about the quality of the exhibition galleries.

Gallery C and D were opened to visitors since August 2007. The new Gallery C will take visitors through the different colonial eras with dioramas of on-board a Portuguese Galleon as it pounded Malacca in the 15th century. Close by, you can pretend to be a British guard at Fort Cornwallis. Or perhaps bear witness to the signing of the Perak Treaty in the 18th century on board on a steamer. Then there is more on the bloodied history of colonial conquests and regional forces like the Dutch and Bugis. Gallery C also dwells on the formation years the country took as a tin and rubber producer. Ingots and a large tin dredge model gave visitors a small but impressive display of the tin industry in the country.

It is perhaps the best of the two because visitors are left asking for more next.

In Gallery D, nationalism theme takes center stage but ends up trying too hard to impress visitors. Bad lighting and a rather disappointing choice of displays spell future downfall.

According to reliable inside source, the galleries have turned turf wars between the people running Muzium Negara and those from the ministry.

The overhaul of the two galleries upstairs were administered separately and the museum management basically were told to lay their hands off. Hence the adversary. Choose carefully when you praise these galleries, otherwise you'll get a mouthful how these galleries are no different from a showroom. You'll hear discontentment and disapproval over how basic museum guidelines like the positioning of display fonts are thrown into the air.

The rivalry is only natural because the first stage of the renovation are directives from the ministry and they have put something completely alien right under the nose of the Muzium Negara management.

But on the other hand, the museum management is guilty of idling too long and not attuned to position Muzium Negara as the nation premier museum.

However, the museum management now have their hands full of revenge at least till the year end. The stake is high for them to show how they can successfully turn around Galleries A and B on the ground floor.

Exclusive work progress report has revealed that the star attraction in Gallery A will be the Perak Man housed in a cave diorama. Also in the pipeline is a walk through timeline of Malaysian flora and faunas and a section with the opportunity to experience 'earthquake'.

The source also notes that Gallery B will confine to solely feature the emergence of the Malay Sultanate since the 13th. century. Maybe offering a completely new way to view royal regalia but it would not surprise anyone if it is just to know who's who in the Malay palaces and their long lineage.

Nevertheless, it appears that the 'new' museum has completely discarded the museum early day's concept of showcasing the many rich and colorful racial diversity. Malaysian minorities highlights are completely ignored. Polarization again bears its ugly head and Malaysians again is at its losing end.

It is ironic to me that Muzium Negara which falls under the same ministry that oversees Unity in the country has left this important factor out when they sat collectively to plan the future for the country's main repository of culture and heritage!

Unless one reads along the line of the authority and their sole objective. Muzium Negara will be Malaysia's latest cash cow and it is to bankroll on more tourists.

One can then understand why there are also fundamental change in the new museum's DNA.

It has also opted to move away from research theme in their displays. Story telling now are visually more stimulating but the information is frustratingly brief. Anyone wanting a rewarding outing at the museum will find walking on the corridors of Muzium Negara is no different from browsing through tour brochures.

Questions still remain if the rejuvenated Muzium Negara will reclaim its rightful place among Malaysians as the place to visit and the center of research in the region.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Stadium Merdeka Wins UNESCO Award

A jury of 12 conservation experts gave Stadium Merdeka the Award of Excellence and the Suffolk house in Penang the Award of Distinction in the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture and Heritage Conservation held in Bangkok (NST Sept 8, 08)

For those who fought hard to preserve the stadium’s historical importance, the award is a well earned recognition for a national monument that Malaysians accept as the symbol of our nationhood and its birth.

Not all share the belief unfortunately, and in the late 90s, the fate of Merdeka Stadium laid precariously in the hands of development juggernaut. A would-be victim of an outrageous trading chip by Tun Mahathir to fund his fancy Commonwealth Sports Complex in Bukit Jalil.

The more cynical ones perceived it all part of an elaborate scheme to discard the memoirs of our beloved Tunku - Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. However, the arrival of Pak Lah a decade later at the power helm, finally offered a ray of hope to the iconic football stadium.

Award-winning architect cum conservationist Laurence Poh was put in charge to put glory back to Stadium Merdeka. Soon, an army of jackhammers and hard hats descended on the bitumen track and concrete stands to give the stadium a new facelift.

Its seating capacity of previous high of 60,000 was scaled back to the heydays of Merdeka at under 20,000. The reduced seating capacity is far from the days when the Stadium housed Malaysia as an Asian football power house, but the new overall look is similar to what Tunku had envisioned when he led JKR engineers to transform Kuala Lumpur in time to celebrate our independence from the British.

At the core of the conservation plan is the preservation of the main façade of the grandstand. A mini museum cum photo gallery was included to showcase the stadium and its many historical events.