Picture the National Museum of Singapore, and the first image that comes to mind is likely to be hallowed hallways of history, charting our country’s struggle with the Japanese Occupation and the road to independence. But under Director Chung May Khuen’s charge, that seems about to change, as she introduces a new curatorial direction that emphasises the visitor experience.
“I imagine the future of the museum to be very exciting,” says May Khuen. “Over the last 2 years, the pandemic allowed us to take pause and reflect on how we’ve done well in terms of depicting the history of Singapore. But we also realised that we had to go beyond that, which is why we started looking at how to have a greater connection with the audience of the present.”
That was the thought process that led to the exhibition Picturing The Pandemic: A Visual Record of COVID-19 in Singapore, which documented how Singaporeans were coping during the lockdown, where history was literally unfolding before us all. Commissioning local photographers, videographers, and collecting artefacts and footage of Singaporeans responding to the pandemic, the entire exhibition was created over the course of just 4 or so months, from October 2020 to February 2021. Beyond being a museum that captured the past, the National Museum of Singapore had begun its journey into an institution that explored the Singaporean identity, latching onto present day issues that resonated with locals.
“People have this perspective that we only show the history of Singapore, and another visit won’t offer anything new,” explains May Khuen. “And when we launched Picturing The Pandemic, we actually got a lot of positive responses, and even from our respondents, we amassed so many rich stories. We usually have a year or two to plan our exhibitions, and it was the first time we had such a short runway to curate this. It required us to respond very fast and be sensitive to what was happening on the ground. And when it opened in February, people were very appreciative and started to see us in a different light.”
This then led to the next exhibition in what was now being known as the Collecting Contemporary Singapore series – OFF / ON: Everyday Technology that Changed our Lives, 1970s – 2000s, which ran from June to October this year. Focusing on how everyday technological tools changed and shaped the lives of Singaporeans, OFF/ON also considered the sudden, inevitable pivoting to the digital realm during the pandemic, and was a way for the museum to bridge the present to the past. In addition, the exhibition featured multiple immersive sets, recreating rooms and scenes from the past, evoking nostalgia while visitors were allowed to physically touch and interact with the exhibits.
“We wanted to make it meaningful to come to the museum, not just to understand the past, but how the past affects the present and imagine how the future might look like,” says May Khuen. “OFF/ON was intended to stir up all these thoughts and conversations with friends and family or even yourself as a reflective platform. That’s what we will continue to push for in the future, moving away purely from a focus on artefacts into creating more authentic, genuine experiences.”
And that leads us to the current show – The Doraemon Exhibition Singapore 2022. Running from 5th November 2022, the travelling exhibition has arrived in Singapore straight from Japan, marking its first stop ever held outside of Japan. Taking over almost the entire museum, the exhibition showcases how one of the most beloved Japanese characters sprung out of the pages of a manga and into the hearts of generations of fans around the world. Exploring the past, present and the future of Doraemon, the multi-sited exhibition offers several experiences that include a contemporary art show; a showcase of original drawings and sketches by its creator, the late Mr Fujiko F Fujio; a Doraemon-themed cafe and limited-edition merchandise that engage visitors to make new memories with the iconic Japanese manga character.
Decided on in January after a fortuitous meeting with presents LEYOUKI, the exhibition had an intense 10 month runway to prepare for its opening. The team moved fast to work together with the Japanese side, and even managed to fly out to catch the last stop of the exhibition in Japan, to get a better idea of how it would look in person and continue their planning from there. “It’s a huge team that’s working together, including the Japanese side that flew in to install the exhibits and the most important part of collaborating is the communications aspect,” says May Khuen. “Between ourselves and the Japanese side, we were trying not to speak on each other’s behalf and always clarify any doubts we had.”
While it may be a bit of a head scratcher as to what Doraemon has to do with the National Museum of Singapore, May Khuen has an explanation. “A lot of us grew up reading the Doraemon manga, and watched the anime, which was dubbed in Chinese and Malay, so it actually cuts across ethnic communities,” she says. “By holding this exhibition at the museum and through the lens of a familiar, beloved character, it makes contemporary art more accessible to the public as well thru a familiar character. When people question why we’re doing an exhibition like this, I like to think about the original creation process from Fujiko F. Fujio, and hope that by seeing this exhibition, it encourages a creative culture and that it inspired more talented artists in Singapore. In conjunction with the exhibition, we also hope to bring in programmes that feature some of the Japanese artists, and nurture the creative sector through that as well.”
Part of that stems from the exclusive to Singapore section titled MANGA DORAEMON Original Drawings Exhibition, comprising more than 70 drawings and sketches by the late Mr Fujimoto. On loan from the Fujiko F Fujio Museum in Japan, this marks the very first public showcase of the original Doraemon creator’s inventive and formative illustrations outside Japan. The drawings will take visitors on a journey to explore the beginnings of Doraemon and his friends, as well as the stories behind some of his fascinating gadgets such as the ‘Memory Bread’ and the ‘Lying Mirror’.
In addition to the drawings, visitors can experience selected highlights from the Doraemon the Movie series. They can also interact with a reproduction of Mr Fujimoto’s desk in his workroom where he created many of the Doraemon drawings, featuring his drawing tools as well as books and figures on his favourite themes such as dinosaurs and outer space that inspired his rich world of works. Visitors can also get a glimpse of the manga production process, with insight from Mr Fujimoto himself, to better understand the creative process behind the iconic character.
En route to the basement, where the next segment of the exhibition is, you’ll encounter a pop-up gift shop, featuring an exclusive line-up of Doraemon merchandise from The Doraemon Exhibition and the Fujiko F Fujio Museum, as well as exclusive Doraemon collectibles. These include tote bags, mugs, and stationery items, among others.
And when you take the escalator down to the basement, you’ll be greeted by yet another surprise pop-up – a Doraemon-themed cafe experience at the Basement Gallery Foyer created in collaboration with Toraya, an esteemed wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) maker with a history of close to 500 years, where visitors can enjoy a Singapore-exclusive Dorayaki set inspired by the character’s favourite snack as well as other snacks imported from Japan.
“The whole exhibition focuses on creating an immersive experience for visitors,” explains May Khuen. “With our fantastic facilities, state-of-the art technology, and a great team able to deliver such an experience to our visitors, it allows us to develop the scope of our exhibitions, increasing footfall and visitor numbers, by crafting and curating an exhibition that breaks boundaries, and provides a more tactile way of experiencing the art.”
The highlight of the exhibition finally comes in the form of the sprawling selection of artworks featured in the basement galleries, starting with two specially commissioned works by Singaporean artists. Contemporary artist Jahan Loh’s contribution to the exhibition, titled My Journey with Doraemon, is a sculptural artwork that explores the idea of teleportation and intergalactic destinations, inspired by his childhood memories of reading Doraemon manga. He imagines himself using one of Doraemon’s magical devices, while harnessing the power of art, science, and technology to explore the dizzying realms of the past, present and future, with Doraemon by his side, who sees past, present and future with all three of his eyes.
The second artwork is by Japan-based Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee titled, IMAGINE, which envisions a world of ‘Love, Peace, One, You, Me, Doraemon’. The artwork is a collaboration between nine models of diverse backgrounds, orchestrated by Kee, featuring Thom Browne’s Fall 2022 collection. The series of blue-tinted portraits is a light-hearted and fun take on the beauty and seriousness of skin tones, much like how he remembers the way Doraemon makes him feel.
On collaborating with local artists, May Khuen comments: “This year, we are excited to see two artworks by our homegrown artists, Jahan Loh and Leslie Kee, that will present their relationship, memories and future with Doraemon, alongside artworks by prominent Japanese contemporary artists. Even as the National Museum continues to present accessible international exhibitions and stories of the world, we constantly look for opportunities to engage our local communities to co-create meaningful and relevant content and experiences that present a unique Singapore perspective.”
The remaining artworks, collected in a section titled Create Your Own Original Doraemon, features contemporary pieces by 28 leading contemporary Japanese artists and arts groups who were invited to create their own unique version of Doraemon based on their personal memories, and situate the iconic character in today’s changing world.
The galleries themselves are split across two sections, with artworks that range from painting and sculptures to graphics and photography. The first, Act 1, features 18 Japanese artists and art groups, with artworks that respond to the prompt “Create Your Own Original Doraemon”. Artists were free to interpret and represent the unlimited possibilities of the iconic Doraemon character. These include works by renowned artists such as Yoshitomo Nara, who has reinterpreted Doraemon character Dorami in his signature style, and Takashi Murakami, who incorporates Doraemon characters into his familiar smiling flowers.
In the second, Act 2, 10 contemporary artists created their own interpretation of Doraemon while taking reference from their favourite Doraemon movies produced over the years such as, Doraemon: Nobita’s Great Adventure into the Underworld and Doraemon: Nobita and the Kingdom of Clouds, among others. The artists and artist groups featured here range from having crafted models of Doraemon’s devices, to lush, detailed paintings, to even a working model train set that uses everyday objects and light to cast shadows on the wall to reflect the journey taken during the film.
“Of the exhibits, beyond the Singaporean artworks, I do like The Final Weapon by Sebastian Matsuda best, perhaps because it evokes such a raw feeling, and when you see it, you don’t have to think too hard to understand it,” says May Khuen. “It’s an artwork that just makes you want to hug it, and has so much resonance such that anyone who visits will feel an immediate joy. Art isn’t necessarily hard to understand, and in fact, this is an art work I’ll never get tired of looking at because of all the details, where different perspectives and different angles will always reveal a new layer to it, just like how the museum encourages visitors to look at events and history from different perspectives.”
“I was trained as a curator and I’ve seen how our role has evolved over the last 2 decades, where exhibitions are no longer just a case where whatever the curator says is the be all and end all, but that we also consider the people’s perspective, and incorporate elements like tech and multimedia,” says May Khuen. “You don’t have to go to the art museum anymore just to see art, and I think to build that awareness and education in art, we start at the National Museum of Singapore.”
The Doraemon Exhibition Singapore 2022 will open to the public from 5th November 2022 to 5th February 2023 from 10am to 7pm daily. Tickets available here
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