Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What would be the 50 objects that represent Singapore to you?

Back in September, a friend pointed me to this NYT article about a project in New York City that asked historians and museum curators to name 50 objects that could "embody the narrative of New York".

A History of New York in 50 Objects - NYTimes.com

Top of the New York list was a Mastodon tusk. The 50th item was something called a "Meng Political Sign, 2012".

The former referred to the first recorded discovery of mastodon remains in 1858, in a borough in New York city.

The latter turned out to be a political campaign poster of a Ms Grace Meng. She won the Democratic Congressional nomination in Queens borough. That tidbit was a segway to how the city's residents of Asian origin exceeded one million for the first time, as recorded in the 2010 Census.

Inspired by the British Museum's 100 Objects
That project in New York was inspired by the British Museum’s BBC radio series and book, “A History of the World in 100 Objects".

Item One on the British Museum's list was the Mummy of Hornedjitef. The 100th item was a Solar Powered Lamp and Charger.

BBC - A History of the World - About - British Museum - 100 Objects

Detractors might say that was rather presumptuous of any institution to claim that their collections definitively represented "The World's" history. Equally arguable would be that the 100th item should have been a MP3 player or Xbox (dare I say, iPhone?) rather than a solar-powered lamp and charger.


I found the concept of a "100 objects" listing -- one that symbolically represent a certain perspective of the world -- a refreshing one. Got to give it to the Brits for such a simple and innovative way to curate and present items from their Museum's collection (notwithstanding the joke about Colonial British plundering and shipping back treasures from all around the globe).

The British Museum has also created an interactive visual browse page (Flash-based), based on time and filtering by other facets.

BBC - A History of the World - Contributor - The British Museum

People's History
The New York example wanted to make their's "a people’s history", to allow for individual perspectives rather than form a definitive list (as implied by the British example):
The “History of the World” was limited to objects in the British Museum’s collection. Like that list, ours “can only be a history” and “not the history.” And because it is a people’s history, we are inviting participation. Tell us what objects represent New York City to you in the comments section.

The New Yorkers invited public comments after an initial list from historians and museum curators. The British Museum didn't solicit public contributions it seemed.

I think to truly make it a "people's list", everyone should be given a chance to create their own right from the start.

A Singapore "100 objects" list?
The article instantly captured my imagination, since the Singapore Memory Project occupied a large part of my work time (and maybe off work too).

I wondered what a "50 objects that represent Singapore's History" would look like. I posted this on Facebook, inviting FB contacts to also name 50 objects they consider to be representative of Singapore's history.

What "A history of Singapore in 50 objects" might look like

Didn't get very far with that. For what it's worth here's the list, thanks to the contributions from some FB friends (objects are not in any order of importance):
  1. Ivan Chew - Rubber seed (I'm thinking of Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley)
  2. Walter Lim - A pair of spectacles since we're the most bespectacled nation in the world.
  3. Chon Hsing Ng - Air conditioner to symbolise how SG has had to artificially creates my things eg beach, jungle, water, etc
  4. Low Hei Chin - Four stones.
  5. Hikaru Teo - the rediffusion tabletop radio
  6. Dex Khor - A rotan.
  7. Bernadette Daly-Swanson - Definitely Pierre Balmain's iconic kebaya and sarong for SIA... Had one made when I was there in 2009. I need to come back for IFLA!
  8. Ivan Chew - Adrian Tan's Teenage Textbook
  9. Adrian Tan - Chicken rice
  10. Dex Khor - The Ultimax 100 SAW. Sold to Bosnia with pride!
  11. Alec Ng - Add the merlion...
  12. (Alec Ng)... newater
  13. (Alec Ng)... and the document on the proclamation of independence for Singapore.
  14. Bernadette Daly-Swanson - National Library Board Singapore
  15. Ivan Chew - Sintercom
  16. Low Hei Chin - ... Stamps and coins from that represent significant events / moments in our history? First day covers? I can only think of dinky toys or toy soldiers (Deetail) that depict WWII.
  17. Hikaru Teo - Well the banana note would be a notable representation of life during the Japanese Occupation.
  18. Ivan Chew - The POSB logo!
  19. Regina De Rozario - I've just gotten into reading excerpts and commentaries on the correspondence between Raffles and Farquhar and I would add the letter written by Farquhar after he was dismissed by Raffles (for not following the latter's town plan and vision to a T).
  20. Low Hei Chin - Our national flower!
  21. Ivan Chew - The Tembusu tree. Cos it appears on our $5 note.
  22. Ivan Chew - Teamy the Productivity Bee.
  23. Ivan Chew - Singa the Courtesy Lion.
  24. Ivan Chew - The SAF Reservist Booklet (now defunct).
  25. Low Hei Chin - Singapore Sling

Ok, 25 items isn't bad. Some items were totally off my consciousness until others mentioned it. Like the Singapore-made Ultimax 100 Section Assault Weapon (SAW).

Some objects -- like the 'rotan' (i.e. cane) -- encapsulates so many things past and present: parental methods in bringing up children, school discipline, criminal code and the penal system, a national event (remember Michael Fay?).

I'm sure each of us can come up with our own list of 50 items. Or at least 20 items easily.

New items would make it to the list, as per recent events. I can think of Amy Cheong. Ok, technically not an "object" (I'm sure you know I didn't mean to say she's an object) but what the heck, it's a 'people's list'. We could flexibly cover Events, People, Places in the same list or separately if we choose.

If there's a representative number of people creating such a list, what I'm really, really interested is to analyse the choice of items on the combined list. The list could reflect the success of certain national brands or campaigns. Missing items might shed light on what else we might need to do (e.g. what if no artwork or artist make it to anyone's list?)

Analysing an aggregation of lists might reveal the psyche of individual citizens. And quite likely our psyche as a nation.

Update - New items to the list:

[18 Oct 2012, items 26-29]
26. Low Hei Chin - Meant to write this earlier but did not get around to doing it. How about those khong Guan biscuits with a colorful icing sugar on top?

27. Adrian Tan - I wanted to say, "Kelong!" I think it is unique to Singapore.

28. Peter Pak - Interesting read- can I add Singapore Chinese girls school as an one. It was the first girl school at a time when more forward looking men wanted to reform the social education of girls beyond being home bound

29. @JustinZhuang - Anti-Littering man!

[19 Oct 2012, items 30-32]
30. Dave Chua - I think it's also important to pick out items that show key moments of Singapore in transition. The last copy of the original New Nation newspaper...

31. ...A citizen pass for the casinos.

32. ... WP 2012 flag.

(Folks, feel free to add to the list by commenting. Even if it exceeds 50)


  1. Musically, it must be 'The Crescendos' first ever recording from an international label which opened doors for other pop bands and artistes in the 1960s.


  2. Singapore being a "Fine" city! Fine on littering, spitting etc.
    Also, not forgetting that we are a gum-less city.
    Having a Botanical Garden within 5km of the city centre should also be another of our milestones!

  3. Mahita6:00 pm

    For me, it's the hawker centre. While it cannot replace the roadside hawkers of pre-70s S'pore, it is nevertheless a quintessentially S'porean experience. Every hawker centre, no matter how sterile or dinghy, makes me happy to be a Singaporean.


Join the conversation. Leave a comment :)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.