Singapore's ArtScience Museum: Lots of museum, not so much artscience

Singapore's ArtScience Museum: Lots of museum, not so much artscience

It's dramatic and it's modern, but Singapore's ArtScience Museum threatens to overshadow the exhibits it should be highlighting
Genghis Khan
All hail the great Genghis Khan as you walk back in time.

Visiting the brand new ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands initially threw up more questions than answers.

Firstly, what is ArtScience? The broad term can be applied to anything and while it offers the museum endless options, it also poses the risk of ambiguity. For some, this particular classification is as thought-provoking as the museum's architecture.

Designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the building is shaped like a lotus flower in bloom, and sits on a small, reflecting pool with falling water cascading down its vertical axis. The result, a very modern and very Eastern structure. 

Inside, the lotus flower boasts 50,000 square-feet of space and 21 galleries where four exhibitions -- "Travelling the Silk Road," "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds," "Genghis Khan: The Exhibition" and "ArtScience: A Journey Through Creativity" -- are currently on show.

ArtScience MuseumThe museum is divided into three convenient categories: Curiosity, Inspiration and Expression.

With the exception of the latter, which was developed for this museum to illustrate what it is all about, the other roving exhibitions have been brought in, keeping with the museum's slightly unusual policy of not having a permanent collection, preferring instead to act as a receptacle of sorts for other museums.

"Travelling the Silk Road" and "Genghis Khan" hail from the United States, while "Tang Treasures" is
a collaboration between the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Smithsonian) and Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board and the Singapore Tourism Board.

Given that the Silk Road, Tang dynasty antiques and Genghis Khan are all historical Asian subjects -- incorporating elements of art and science, but not clearly one or the other, or both –- we asked Museum Director Tom Zaller on how he plans to define this elusive term.

Ghengis KhanExplore the historic mystique of a re-created Mongolia Ger.

“ArtScience is about curiosity, inspiration and expression,” says Zaller. “For example, the inspiration for this building, or for da Vinci’s flying machines. Why do people do what they do?

"We look at the creative process. The most important thing is to connect with the audience on an emotional level. You do that by talking to them like a human, using human stories. We’re all just story tellers.”

"A Journey Through Creativity" encapsulates this process clearly, with a looping multimedia presentation, interactive exhibits and fantastical inventions hanging from high ceilings.

Comparatively, the other three exhibitions feel heavy and static, comprising mainly artifacts in showcases or stagnant, illustrated, descriptive panels.

Tang DynastyCenturies on, these shipwrecked Changsha Bowls from the Tang Dynasty era remain perfectly intact.

The blame does not fall to the artifacts or the curated content -- which are top notch, in-depth and academically sound –- but it's the presentation that doesn't quite live up to the amazing gallery space it has to work with.

For instance, in "Genghis Khan" we see rare pieces of jewelry, ornaments, silk robes and pottery on display, as well as recreations of scenes from the Genghis Khan era.

All of the above was interesting but as a whole felt static and didn’t move you through the exhibition. Transport it to a square room and not ArtScience’s winding galleries, and it might have been very different.

As one fellow visitor remarked, “You keep seeing the museum, and not the exhibition.”

Traveling The Silk RoadA water clock from the "Traveling The Silk Road" exhibition.

Similarly, "Tang Treasures" presented amazing artifacts of great historical interest. A shipwreck cargo of gold, silver, and ceramics, including rare specimens such as a tall pitcher measuring over a meter high with a dragon-head stopper.

While the objects were beautifully laid out and labeled, the exhibition remained one-dimensional and lacking in interactive value.

With its broad classification, theoretically, the ArtScience Museum has an endless supply of global collections to choose from and should be able to bring us a wide variety of stimulating exhibitions.

But will they?

“As we bring in other shows, you’ll see things that are totally different from what we see now," says Zaller. "You’ll see fine art, pop culture, ancient antiquities, and we want to layer in these exhibitions with stories of people and their inspiration."

Traveling the Silk RoadGet on the camel train ... The Camel Caravan showcase at the "Traveling the Silk Road" exhibition.

“Rather than to pitch ourselves into one area, we choose to work with every collection in the world," says Zaller. "We partner with The Hermitage, The American Museum of Natural History, The Smithsonian Institute, MoMA, The Tate Gallery, The British Museum … whoever it might be."

"I think it’s a great model that fits well with the resort, because we’re an entertainment destination, and we have to keep being fresh.”

Fresh it is, and with an offering that is way ahead of anything Singapore or indeed Southeast Asia has had before, its likely to stay fresh for some time to come.

ArtScience Museum

Marina Bay Sands
10 Bayfront Avenue
www.marinabaysands.com/ArtScienceMuseum

Daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m., last entry 9 p.m.; S$30 (adult), S$17 (child)

Elaine Ee writes about Singapore, the city she lives in, covering the arts, events, personalities and social issues. Her stories have appeared in Time Out SingaporeTatler HomesFood & Travel and Jetstar Asia. She’s also an editor at publichouse.sg, a Singapore community-driven website run by socially conscious denizens. When she’s not at her laptop, she practises Bikram yoga, spends time with her three kids and makes it a point to keep trying something new. 

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