Museums are powerful places. They are places where people learn and understand the value of what's being exhibited. But they're also places where things get defined and framed in a certain way - a way that might not be completely true.
Most of the museums in Singapore were established by the British when my country was a colony. Likewise, a lot of the most prized exhibitions these museums inherited were made by British scientists, biologists and anthropologist. So every time I go to a museum I get a lingering sense of self-effacing irony. There are taxidermic specimens of native flora and fauna collected by early British colonists. In the rooms beside them are relics, notes and videos of what British colonial officials taught about my ancestors. Talk about history on display.
But in the NUS museum there's a different kind of exhibition, there's a different kind of history being presented. Tucked away in a small corner is a small room is an exhibition called The Sufi and the Bearded Man. It's an exhibition dedicated to the remains of the Hajjah Siti Maryam keramat, a shrine that used to reside at Kallang Riverside Park near the river. The exhibition contains what remains of the keramat (Malay for the grave of distinguished person): door posts, curtains, flowerpots with incense sticks and a written doa (prayer). It also contains an oral recording of the shrine's caretaker, who lived there.
(Hajjah Siti Maryam was a Muslim saint who lived in Singapore during the early 1800s. She worked miracles and helped to spread Islam just as Singapore became a booming port. When she passed on, she was buried at the mouth of the Kallang River (which has been now reclaimed), and it seems her shrine became a place of pilgrimage. But the city got more developed, the shrine became part of a park.)
These are small, local histories which I would've never knew if it were not for the students and photographers who documented the shrine and assembled the exhibit before it got demolished in 2010. Apparently, for no reason, the Government went in one day to remove the shrine, the keramat and all, even the tree that the shrine was built around (a stump of the tree is exhibited, and the caretaker believed it was the residing place of guardian spirits). The caretaker passed away after the shrine and the keramat got exhumed. In the oral recording, he mentioned he was told in a vision by the saint herself to look after the shrine.
In many ways, the successful development of Singapore rests upon the erasure of places, memories and histories like those in this exhibit. Even though I have never visited the place and am not a devotee, I cannot but feel a kind of sadness that I live in a nation which is run by people who are very scared of history, who view the future as a never-ending march forward without pause. Visiting this particular exhibition (on Patrick's advice) is ironic: in the end, our own localized histories become museum exhibits and installation art, not curated out of curiosity, but put in a museum because they don't exist in the real world. The people who put the exhibit together were aware of that, which is why the exhibit has more words than pictures. Words - unlike pictures that resemble or portray a kind of knowledge - that tell the last words of the caretaker.
But there was one picture in the exhibit that caught my attention. It's a black and white photograph of a girl (below), sitting with a Quran, her arms raised in prayer. As strange as it sounds, it's not the photo of Hajjah Siti Maryam. In the caretaker's words, he used that photograph to symbolise who the saint was.
In many ways then, a museum becomes like a mind, like a representation: a catalogue of our own dissolved memories. When even second-hand recollections are gone, all that's left are disembodied thoughts, remembrances and images. Yet alone, some of these images, still trouble the imagination.