Museum has touch of class

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 1995, 12:00am

FEW new museums of contemporary art, even the most committed to minimalism, would open their doors without a painting on the wall. But when the Singapore Art Museum opened on October 20 the walls were bare, because the star attraction was the building itself, the restored St Joseph's Institution, built in 1867 as a Catholic boys school.

While museums in Asia in the 1970s and 80s opted for the 'white box' of internationalism, after lengthy study Singapore chose to preserve and restore an element of its architectural heritage. Post-modernist architects went to creative lengths to include the charming and eclectic details Public Works Department senior architect Wong Hooe Wai inherited and discovered in the 28-month, S$30 million (about HK$162 million) restoration.

Located in the centre of the arts and heritage district, the museum, with its 3,000 square metres of gallery space spread over 13 galleries, is the first museum in the National Heritage Board's museum development plan.

The Asian Civilisations Museum and the Singapore History Museum are scheduled to be ready within the next five years. The research and curatorial thrust of the museum is contemporary and modern art of Singapore and Southeast Asia.

What on paper might seem an incongruous match of mid-19th century ecclesiastic architecture and contemporary Asian art, works well in the restored reality designed by Wong. Intent on retaining 'the historic fabric of the school', Wong has engaged in a successful dialogue of past and present, presentation and preservation.

Wong paid attention to details that, though unrelated to the functional utility of the space, give the building its distinctive historical character.

He retained or replicated 19th century tile designs, kept original doors and even hinges, allowed marble benefactor plaques to keep their yellowed patina, and 'picked up the rhythm' of the old building's arches in the stylised arches of the new wings.

The museum is the beneficiary of both intention and serendipity. When during renovation, Wong discovered an archway and inscription hidden by 20th century cabinets, he turned plans for a large gallery into two small galleries separated by columns and an arched entrance.

Younger or regional artists whose output might not justify a large space can now be exhibited to their advantage in the two smaller galleries. It would be difficult to hang modern Western painting on the curved gallery walls of the former school library and laboratory, but Chinese vertical scroll painting and calligraphy hang comfortably flush against the white walls.

Generations of uniformed boys streamed in and out of classes along the open air corridors on the second floor, and 'conservation purists would argue for natural ventilation', says Wong.

But Wong installed floor to ceiling frameless glass panels that meet climate control requirements for artifacts and keep visitors comfortable while retaining the graceful pattern of the columns.

The glass panels in the corridors and in the Glass Hall, the multi-purpose room between the two ground floor courtyards, became in museum director Kwok Kian Chow's eyes 'the contemporary expression of the building'.

The museum was opened without art to show the community it now possessed a heritage building, and on November 18 a soft-opening exhibition began, Inspired Gifts: Donated Works in the Singapore Art Museum, to thank the community for its support.

The exhibition also hopes to encourage current collectors and artists to be similarly generous. The exhibition encompasses 20 major collections and includes the witty and accomplished Chinese ink and brush paintings of Chen Wen Hsi and a range of works by the doyenne of Singapore art, Georgette Chan.

According to guest curator Eng-Lee Seok Chee, the exhibition intends to give a 'clearer picture of prevailing artistic trends at particular times' in Singapore. But without dates for the artists and the works, viewers can only surmise generational developments. Come the museum's official inaugural exhibition - Modernity and Beyond, opening on January 21 - these curatorial glitches are likely to be overcome. Consisting of two parts, Themes in Southeast Asian Art and A Century of Art in Singapore, this exhibition will define the research and curatorial emphasis of the museum and promises to position the museum as the major public interpreter of Southeast Asian contemporary art in the region.