Remembering Singapore's first art museum

11 May 2015 | General News
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Mr Sabapathy was deeply impressed by his former art history lecturer, Prof Sullivan

NUS Museum's Anniversary Lecture "About Michael Sullivan on 30 April marked 60 years since the founding of Singapore's first art museum, the University of Malaya (UM) Art Museum, located at its campus in Bukit Timah. The museum is the predecessor of NUS Museum, which reopened in 2002, after a long hiatus of almost 30 years. 

Singapore's foremost art historian, curator and critic NUS Department of Architecture Adjunct Associate Professor T K Sabapathy, a former student of the late Professor Michael Sullivan, spoke of the legacy left behind by Singapore's first curator.

Prof Sullivan played a dual role of art history lecturer and curator from 1955 to 1960.  Though trained primarily as a historian of Chinese art and with little formal education in museology or curating, he helped develop the UM Art Museum's collection to support teaching and learning. NUS Museum still upholds this mission today.

The study of art history and display of artefacts in a museum were envisaged as widening the scope of learning in a university in Singapore and the then Malaya.  This collection is the seed of NUS Museum's South and Southeast Asian Collection. Today, in addition to its South and Southeast Asian Collection, NUS Museum oversees three other collections'the Lee Kong Chian, Ng Eng Teng and Straits Chinese collections.

According to Mr Sabapathy, Prof Sullivan's aims of setting up an art museum were to provide a centre for the study and enjoyment of art in the university; create a centre of research into the art and archaeology of Southeast Asia; and gather a collection of the art of the civilisations which have chiefly contributed to a Malayan culture.

Mr Sabapathy recounted classes at the museum and classroom located at Oei Tiong Ham Hall at Bukit Timah Campus. "We traversed immense worlds of art history effortlessly week after week…We were impressed deeply and consistently. We did not miss a single lesson, shared Mr Sabapathy, recalling how the novel programme fostered new perspectives for him and his classmates.

The museum was very much a part of their daily lives and awakened a lifelong appreciation for the visual arts. "Sullivan was of the view that students should not only know what was but what is, culturally and historically, said Mr Sabapathy, concluding with how the emergence of Malayan art was intertwined with the search for a national identity.  

In conjunction with "About Michael Sullivan, NUS Museum held a preview of the exhibition "There are too many episodes of people coming here…", which brought together artworks, artefacts and documentations drawn from projects organised by NUS Museum between 2008 and 2014. This exhibition will run till August 2015.

By NUS Centre For the Arts

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Gallery impression of "There are too many episodes of people coming here - exhibition