Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Visiting museums/ libraries: Provide more reasons why people should visit, not less

[NOTE: The views expressed here are my own and do not represent those of my employer or any contacts. All information posted here are publicly available. No SAM staff were consulted in writing this post, in case you wondered.]

I've been following the recent open letters to ST Forum about copying artworks at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) with interest.

It all started with a letter by Ms. Jessica Lai Kit Mun on April 27, 2006 ("Allow students to copy artworks at museum"). Ms Lai, an art teacher at a secondary school, explained how she brought 14 of her students to SAM to "expose them to real paintings, not just pictures in art books". She added:
The learning package I designed for my students included a drawing activity using pencils and colour pencils. Copying a piece of artwork by re-drawing it forces a student to observe line, colour and composition more closely. It is a way for students to engage with a piece of artwork, reinterpret it and understand it.

Imagine my surprise and dismay when the officer on duty that day told me that the students were not allowed to copy the artwork in question.
Ms Lai then questioned the rational for the restriction.

Her letter was followed by Miss Tang Ling Nah on 1 May 2006 ("Museum should make it fun for artists. Relax rules to promote love of art"). She agreed with Ms Lai about the need for SAM "to be more open and flexible to allow students to learn more about art". Miss Tang shared her personal experience of how she felt the museum had been less than flexible, and gave suggestions to tackle possible problems that might arise from some loosening of rules:
I remember when I was an art student, I had the opportunity to view the great sculptor Auguste Rodin's exhibition at Singapore Art Museum.

I was so inspired by the pose and form of The Thinker that I whipped out my pencil and sketchbook to make a copy of it. Before I could make an outline of it, I was stopped by an officer in an impolite manner. I was very upset about it.

I appeal to our national art museum to be more visitor-friendly and encourage the appreciation of art through more engaging activities. If the museum is afraid that people would make a mess of things, it could have its officers around to make sure this does not happen. Art teachers and museum officers could inculcate the correct viewing habits and work procedures in the galleries.

In both letters, the issue of copyright was raised, implying that SAM's "no drawing rule" was to protect the copyright of the exhibited works. However, in SAM's official reply to ST Forum on 3 May 2006 ("Copying artworks at museum? Apply for permit") it was clarified that SAM did allow students to draw within their premises:
We do allow students to draw in the galleries using dry medium, such as sketching with pencil, crayon or charcoal.

However, interested parties will need to apply in advance for a permit from the museum due to the very high value of artworks and security concerns. To apply for a permit, send a request via e-mail to Santha_Anthony [at]

Hmm... apply for permit? I'd hazard a guess that the next question on people's lips would be, "Why can't there be a default Drawing-Allowed-Dry-Medium-Only rule rather than permit?" That's what I'd ask.

Perhaps in typical corporate replies, something was left unsaid. I can imagine this conversation happening prior to the official reply going out:
SAM Exec #1: OK, how do we want to respond to these letters?

SAM Exec #2: We should clarify that we have a Dry-Media-Drawing-Allowed policy, but permit is required.

SAM Exec #1: Hey, this is as a classic PR opportunity, where we can turn this PR "problem" into an opportunity. Why don't we publicly announce that we've reviewed our policy and decided to reinvent ourselves. We will hence forth have a Dry-Media-Drawing policy by default!

SAM Exec #2: Mmm. Good idea!

SAM Exec #3: Er, guys... what if we are successful in this and get boatloads of toddlers armed with crayons and then getting creative with our walls and floors, or *gasp* the artworks?


SAM Exec #1: ... ... Let's stick to "However, interested parties will need to apply in advance for a permit..."

It could be true! :)

Seriously though, I wish SAM would one day adopt a Drawing-Allowed rule by default. I believe the risks might not be as severe as we think. Risks can be managed. The positive effects could be far-reaching.

For one, art students would start seeing the Art Museum as a second home, or at least a third (the second being their school).

Two, it would create a perception-shift among people like me, who dabble in art as a hobby. I'd have one more reason to visit the art museum. I'd put my sketch book in my bag, pop-over to the museum on a lazy Sunday and give the ole right brain a crack.

And hey, why not start selling sketch books at the SAM shop? Get something tastefully packaged and reasonably priced. If I see people sketching and drawing (like what's happening in museums in London and Paris), inspiration and motivation might come together but I don't have a sketch book -- no problem. Buy from the SAM shop.

Imagine 20 years down the road, art prodigy from Singapore makes it big as an artist and announces to the world that thanks to the farsightedness of the good folks at SAM, he/ she got their inspiration and motivation from that very first sketch at SAM...

... It could happen! : )

I found this incident relevant to (public) libraries. Both libraries and museums share a few commonalities. For one, both institutions are interested in attracting more locals to visit and use their facilities and services. Second, both institutions need to reinvent themselves to ensure their relevance in society. Reinventing involves innovation, and innovation involves risks.

Some risks might be worth taking.

NOTE: SAM has since reviewed its guidelines on this issue. Statement here (10 May 2006).

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  1. i'm a little more direct: i think SAM's policy is simply ridiculous.

  2. A bit harsh to say it's ridiculous, I would think. It's not an illogical policy, IMHO. Cautious and risk-adverse, but quite rational. Perhaps if we engage in greater dialogue with SAM, they'd change their minds. Or if there are enough people to volunteer to help SAM patrol the really valuable paintings, they might change their minds.

  3. I think the reason is (1) they don't want to risk the walls/floors getting dirty (2) they want to discourage crowding and loitering around the artworks especially in the case of students who can be rowdy especially in a group. I think this is especially so for the case of some fragile installation art pieces. Personally I don't think copyright is an issue.

  4. Anonymous12:12 pm

    Copyright is not an issue. check the law. in museums all over europe you'll find students sketching from the masters. and consider this... if there are enough staff to confront people as soon as they whip out a pencil, there are enough staff to prevent people from "scrawling on the walls." this is just another frustrating example of the local obsession with micro-managing everything.

  5. Hahaha! I like the mass sketching idea. I can just imagine us repressed creative people sitting outside SAM grounds waving our crayons. We'll probably get on CNN.It's sad that people's natural artistic/ creative urges are constantly suppressed by bureaucracy.

  6. Unfortunately,the importance of this subject is been recognized very late but it is never too late.


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