Re-presenting Native Culture

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This academic essay is written for UCV2101V: Language, Culture and Native people. It explores the representation of Native Culture in Asian Civilisations Museum. Please read only if you're really bored. If not, don't bother.

Thanks to Justin for correcting some grammatical errors :] And all the best for those taking their exams soon, blessed be.
“A microcosm of Asian civilisations presented in an exciting way. The multifaceted aspects of Asian cultures. Inspiring the discovery of Selves and Others.” This is how Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum describes its exhibits and aim on its website. As a history museum, ACM is indeed wellpositioned to promote greater crosscultural understanding. It has eleven thematic galleries displaying not only cultural objects but also informative multimedia projections and interactive interfaces. This integration of modern technology with cultural history, according to the museum’s publicly stated mission, aims to “promote awareness and appreciation of the ancestral cultures of Singaporeans”. To this end, knowledge appears to be accurately presented and whatever information exhibited can consequently be accepted as facts. In the museum’s Southeast Asian Galleries, there is a permanent corner exhibition on the Dayak tribes of Borneo. Various cultural objects of the Dayaks are displayed in glass cases, with concise notes detailing pertinent information on the respective objects. At first glance, the given information and displays on the Dayak tribes seem reliable (see Plate 1). A map of Asia on the bottom of the wall display depicts the relative geographical position of the Dayak tribes. The background information that Dayaks speak Austronesian languages and live in close association with the tropical forests cannot be disputed. Such textual information is depicted as scientific and precise. The authority and stated mission of the museum, coupled with the reassuring confidence of the presented text, lends credence to the exhibition and convinces visitors that the displays are believable. The problem, however, arises from the way with which these facts are displayed and with the overall constructed experience for the visitors in the museum. In The museum in transitions – a philosophical perspective, museologist Hilde Hein (2000:5) argues that as a form of recreation, “[museum] objects have been reconstituted as sites of experience, and museums increasingly hold themselves accountable for delivering experiences”. Despite the apparent credence of the museuminstitution and displayed text, the overall experience constructed for the museum visitors are skewed towards the interpretation of the Dayak culture as primitive and exotic. There is a tension between the competing aims of promoting crosscultural understanding and delivering indelible experiences to the visitors.

Like most museums, ACM displays objects behind glass to restrict interaction. Practical benefits of such an approach include the protection of objects from dust, atmospheric corrosion and thievery. However, beyond the considerations of protecting the artifacts, such restriction of interaction between the viewers and objects essentially disengages the former from the latter; this manner in which objects are curated and displayed, while practical, nevertheless distance visitors from the culture. The cultural artifacts are centered in a rectangular frame and displayed behind glass. There can be no physical interaction between the viewers and the displayed artifacts. This physical barrier mirrors a conceptual barrier towards crosscultural understanding; the appreciation of the Native culture is reliant on “the notion of a distanced, disengaged vision which is brought to bear upon” its cultural objects (Hallam 2000, 265). Hallam, an anthropologist with research interest in museumbased representations, further elaborates that the “construction of ‘otherness’ within anthropological discourse […] tends to privilege the visual and the spatial, leading to an objectification of persons”. By presenting cultural artifacts behind glass, the museum tacitly discourages engagement of the museum visitors with the Dayak culture; it objectifies, thus reduces, the Dayaks into the cultural ‘other’ that need only to be understood from afar with detachment. This objectification of cultural artifacts, and the resultant disengagement of the visitors from the cultures on display, is a recurrent motif not just in most history museums, but even within the different galleries of ACM itself.

ACM further widens this self/other divide with the deliberate display of certain objects. According to museologist Elizabeth Hallam (2000:262), “representations of different cultures […] tend to deploy concepts of time and history that reinforce nonWestern ‘otherness’ ”. For the Dayak exhibition in the museum, there are two distinct panels that serve to highlight the culture’s exoticism and primitivism – in other words, their differences from modern societies to which the museum –goers likely belong. In one panel, there is a focus on the ritualistic aspect of Native culture and their connection to Nature (see Plate 2). Ceremonial masks and stone totems of spiritual guardians are displayed, together with a succinct note on the mystical connection of the Dayak tribes to Nature; this display evokes the widely regarded notion of indigenous people as being one with nature. In an adjacent panel, a group of objects related to headhunting – wooden shields, decorated knives and an engraved human skull – are shown (see Plate 3); there is an emphasis on the untamed, savage nature of the Dayaks. Collectively, these displays stereotype the Dayak Natives as a society of primitive people which headhunts and worships Nature. Through the arrangement of, and decision to display, certain objects, the ‘otherness’ of the Dayaks is exaggerated. By hinging the exhibit on the differences in activities of the Dayaks from modern societies, there is a measured attempt to cast the Dayaks as the cultural ‘other’ and, as a corollary, widen the self/other division between the museum visitors and the Dayaks.

To get a first-hand sense of the museum’s constructed experience about the Dayaks, I participated in a museum-guided tour of the galleries. The tour of this exhibit ended with the docent posing a rhetorical question expressing his bemusement with the Dayak tribes – why did they engrave the human skull? This suggestive rhetoric immediately brought the focus of the tour group to the engraved human skull displayed in a spotlight. Besides drawing attention to the object, the docent’s rhetoric highlighted to the visitors the distinction of the Dayaks from mainstream societies and thus, their exoticism. There were some audible gasps as visitors attempted to understand the reasons behind the apparent cruelty of the Dayaks. By playing up the primitivism and ostensible brutality of the Dayaks, the museum docent was attempting to pique the interests of visitors. Instead of promoting “awareness and appreciation” of other cultures, as stated in the museum’s corporate mission, the museum docent paradoxically perpetuated the idea of Dayaks being the exotic ‘other’.

I conducted a few informal interviews to better understand the responses of other museum-goers to this display constructed about the Dayaks. The visitors, despite being interviewed separately and having no tangible relations to one another, collectively agreed on the representation of the Dayak culture as “real”, “factual” and “authentic”. When prompted for descriptions of this museum exhibit, words related to entertainment and visceral experiences – “impressive”, “amazing” and “interesting” – were used. There is a conflation of the entertainment value of the exhibit with its educational value by the museum –goers; the exhibit, despite exoticising the Dayak culture and exaggerating their differences from mainstream societies, is taken to be an accurate depiction of Dayak culture. Julie Marcus, in her essay Towards an erotics of the museum, contends that:
Successful museum displays and exhibitions conjure into existence particular visions of the nature of the world. In doing so, they […] offer a glimpse of the truth. That truth is not, of course, necessarily ‘true’. But in those flashes of understanding which bring into light an unseen order which bears upon the worlds of daily life, there lies a moment which offers truth and a way towards the truth. […] The approach of ‘truth’ is collapsed within a poiesis which is so seductive, and so pleasurable.
(Marcus 2000: 229)
Marcus accounts for the observed conflation of exoticism with authenticity and the consequential tendency to buy into this illusion of ‘truth’; she argues that museum –goers accept the constructed museum displays on Native cultures for they want to believe – and thus, believe – this portrayal to be the ‘truth’. ACM, through the overall construction of the Dayaks exhibition, portrays the culture as the exotic ‘other’; the museum –goers, due to a tendency to believe the displays as factual, buy into this representation of Dayaks. By accepting Dayaks as the exotic cultural ‘other’, there is an inherent obfuscation of cross-cultural understanding.

In particular, the conversation I had with a Hong Kong lady stood out. She holds a degree from Imperial College London and had visited museums in both Hong Kong and Europe. To her, this exhibit came across as “vibrant” and “interesting”. The displayed artifacts of the Dayak tribes are not often seen on the “telly”; as the cultural objects are seldom seen in mass media, they would naturally appear as novelties. In particular, the skull obtained from headhunting came across as “quite a shock” – “it hits you when you see things make of human parts right in front of you […] it hits you”. The decorated human skull, a product of Dayaks’ headhunting, is a blatant reminder of the culture’s differences from modern societies. Due to the visceral nature of the displayed objects and the emotional confrontation they pose, together with the tendency to accept museological displays as “truth”, there is a resistance towards understanding and respecting the Dayak culture. This resistance is aggravated by ACM curator’s decision to display the carved human skull prominently and compounded by the docent’s rhetoric on the human skull.

The aggregate representation of the Dayaks in ACM is a museological construct that favours the interpretation of Dayak culture as exotic and primitive. Recalling the museum’s mission to “promote awareness and appreciation” of cultures, it is ironic to note the paradoxical portrayal of Dayaks as the cultural ‘other’. However, the rest of the cultures on display in ACM are not framed in the same exoticised perspectives. In an exhibition about Chinese culture, there are intricate carvings of religious figures, Chinese calligraphy and pottery; the display on Muslim culture has a serene atmosphere with information detailing the Q’uran and a cosy corner for visitors to rest while perusing wall displays; the Singapore River Gallery contains a diorama depicting the squalid living conditions of coolies in the founding years of Singapore, as a reminder of how far Singapore has progressed economically; except for the Dayak exhibition, none of the other galleries feature an engraved human skull or even a body part. In contradistinction to these other displays of religious scriptures, cultural artifacts, farming equipments and paraphernalia from Singapore’s history, the Dayaks exhibition of weaponry and spiritual totems is more visceral and the culture appears more primitive and exotic.

ACM displays the objects belonging to Dayaks such that the culture appears exotic and primitive, the cultural ‘other’ as opposed to the modern cultures that visitors most likely belong to. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, according to Hein (2000:5), museums are sites of recreation and must compete in order to attract visitors; by playing up on the divergences of Dayaks from modern societies, ACM represents the culture such that it seems exotic and novel. This museological construct, done so as to entertain the visitors and deliver engaging “experiences”, is counterproductive to the museum’s publicly–stated mission to promote cross–cultural awareness. Furthermore, the Dayaks are made to serve not only as recreational exhibitions for visitors but also as a foil for the more ‘civilised’ societies exhibited around it; it is a ‘primitive’ culture which used to headhunt. In comparison, other cultures displayed in adjacent galleries appear more sophisticated and ‘civilised’. ACM, being a public-funded institution, depicts the ancestral cultures of Singaporeans in a favourable light; this is in line with its mission to promote appreciation for “the ancestral cultures of Singaporeans and their links to Southeast Asia and the world”. By widening the self/other divide and casting the Dayaks as the more primitive cultural ‘other’, the museum elevates the dominant ancestral cultures of Singaporeans – namely the Chinese and Muslim cultures – to a relative standard of greater civilisation. As discussed, ACM is juggling many roles; as a history museum, it aims to promote cross–cultural understanding; as a corporate entity, it must attract visitors to its exhibitions; as a government–funded museum, it must not portray the dominant races and religions of Singapore in a negative light. In attempting to fulfill the three distinct roles, with regards to the Dayak exhibition, ACM invariably contradicts its stated mission.