Jun 12, 2016

Curator's Tour of From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library

Curator's Tour of From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library

This June holiday, I was privileged to receive a Media Invite to a special curator's tour of the ongoing National Library exhibition "From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library" which showcases highlights of its Rare Materials Collection dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries that are normally off limits for public viewing.

It was a family event - yes they invited us and our families - with as many child participants as there are adults, which probably explains why this Media Invite took so long to happen after the exhibition started in January (just kidding, though using June holiday to attract family visitors might have been true). I will not go into details of the exhibition since you can read about them in Vol. 11 / Issue 04 of BiblioAsia, the library's free quarterly publication. This particular issue also serves as the exhibition catalogue with the librarians covering 50 highlights of the exhibition, each of them an individual article. You can find BiblioAsia online.

Author's note: There is a "Panduan Galeri" in the goodie bag for tour participants. This is the Malay version of what might possibly be the actual exhibition catalogue. As I have not seen the English version, BiblioAsia is the closest I have to an exhibition catalogue.

Curator's Tour of From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library
Enthusiastic kids in this educational family event

Biblioasia covering 50 highlights of the Rare Materials Collection that are presented in the exhibition

Curator Chung Sang Hong did a marvelous job shepherding the participants though the maze of exhibits, zoning on the highlights, explaining the backstory of their acquisition, posing questions to stimulate the crowd (with eager kids usually the first to answer), and took questions. When I got down to reading the issue of BiblioAsia later, I realized some of the more interesting things he covered are not in the write-up. Alas, it is at times like this that you regret not paying closer attention to the curator while multi-tasking away snapping at the artifacts!

One example is a manuscript "Address to Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh by the Singapore Chinese Merchants on the Occasion of His Visit to Singapore in 1869" in the form of a double-sided folded sheet with carved wooden front and back covers. On one side, we have a Loyalty Address to the Prince the second son of Queen Victoria, the message written in gold ink in Chinese with an accompanying English translation, signed by more than 80 leading light of the Chinese society; the reverse side features a painting of Singapore viewed from Telok Ayer. The manuscript was donated to the National Library in 2009 by a private collector Geoffrey Edwards. In tracing its provenance, the Curator explained it was found in a marketplace in Germany before making its way to the auction house. With Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert of the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha line, the British royal family would have owned properties in Germany. The Loyalty Address, he speculated, could have slipped out of one such property in Germany due to a household staff who overlooked it during spring-cleaning!

The Loyalty Address with the front and back wooden covers intricately hand-carved with phoenixes (Image courtesy of National Library Board)

The painting on the reverse side inspired by "Singapore from Mount Wallich" by Percy Carpenter (Image courtesy of National Library Board)

"From the Stacks" is also the story of our National Library's effort at collecting, building and preserving documents for more than a century into what is today the Rare Material Collection, a history from its beginnings as the Singapore Library (1844-74), evolving into Raffles Library (1874-1955), a brief interlude as the Syonan Library (1942-1945) and finally the National Library from 1960. The four eras are beautifully captured in the library stamps used over the decades. Visitors especially kids will be thrilled to know they can stamp a record card at the end of the exhibition like a librarian from the old days. When I was younger, I used to enjoy the stamping sound on the borrower sheet, an experience they tried to replicate on the earlier generation of self-checkout machines. Alas, this experience is missing in the latest generation of self-checkout machines. What a pity, perhaps the developer grew up when the stamps are already made obsolete.

Curator's Tour of From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library
The activity that got the kids excited - stamping their record card with the four different chops!

Curator's Tour of From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library
My record card stamped with the different chops representing the four eras

Curator's Tour of From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library
Specimen of the actual Syonan Library stamp

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