Is this the best museum in Asia?

I love the new National Gallery. Opened at the end of last year, I believe it is the cultural landmark the Lion City has been waiting for, for decades.

 

Singapore has struggled to shake off a reputation for sterility and well, having little to do bar shopping and of course — the national sport — eating.

 

An economic titan but a cultural pygmy — that has been the derisory slur employed by a whole range of detractors against my Singaporean homeland.

 

While that criticism has never really been fully justified, we’ve never had an emphatic counter. We don’t have a Louvre, a Borobudur or a Forbidden City to throw back at our critics, or rather we didn’t, but now with the National Gallery we do!

 

It is, I think, quite emphatically the strongest collection of South-east Asian art in the world. Which means it is significant for the region and beyond. Housing over 8,000 pieces, it gathers the major artistic achievements of a region of over 500 million people and hundreds of cultures.

 

A general view of the newly-restored National Gallery, formerly the City Hall and High Court building, before it was opened last year. — Picture from AFPA general view of the newly-restored National Gallery, formerly the City Hall and High Court building, before it was opened last year. — Picture from AFPThe Gallery’s various halls explore themes; colonialism and nationalism, the revival of vernacular forms, the influence of Western movements and style on Asian aesthetics, that have not fully been fully explored in other major international galleries.

 

There are beautiful and thought-provoking pieces by big names — Juan Luna, Hernando Ocampo, Affendi, among many others, and outstanding work from hundreds of less prominent artists. And it’s all housed in the stunningly converted and merged colonial High Court and City Hall buildings.

 

The Gallery, in its entirety, is nothing less than a palace with its vast halls, a slick roof top terrace and amazing gallery spaces – it is also an out and out architectural triumph; an icon of British rule turned into a repository for the artistic achievements of all of South-east Asia.

 

There is nothing in the region like it; in fact, very little that even comes close. Because of our unique role as a hub, heavily resourced and with a range of cultures, we can transcend a single nation or culture, channel the best of the wider region and present it to the world.

 

The range of the collection, the quality of the facility, the savvy curation I know that only Singapore could have pulled it off — and every time I visit, which is often, that fills me with a sense of pride.

 

I think that also tells me something about being Singaporean. Because there is so much positive about the experience. There are things that really only this nation can achieve and we can, at our best, rival any part of the world — whether it is in education, technology, or even, culture.

 

Yet while the Gallery’s curation of regional movements — for freedom, for reform — strikes me as razor sharp, I feel some of the rather deep issues pertaining to expression, censorship and race in Singapore have been sidestepped. Perhaps inevitable in a country where dissent and criticism can still be met with serious consequences?

 

This for me is by far the deepest question posed by the National Gallery — how is it that we can look at the wider region and the evolution of political dynamics across nations without wondering how those same dynamics play out at home? And how is it that a nation that can produce something as deeply civilized, undoubtedly valuable and excellent as the National Gallery divert some of its resources to taking action against online bloggers and young video creators?

Source: .The Malay Mail Online