Islamic Museum of Australia

White building with large grey Arabic writing on it

My mother outside the Islamic Museum of Australia in Melbourne.

“I would like to visit the Islamic Museum,” said my mother when I visited her in Melbourne last year. My mother likes visiting art exhibitions, but she doesn’t visit many museums. Her request surprised me. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like many people she has been appalled at the anti-Muslim rhetoric which is too often heard nowadays. She has always been interested in other cultures. Why wouldn’t she as a Christian be interested in learning about Islam?

Things intervened but we finally visited the Islam Museum in time for its third anniversary. The building is a striking design which declares the Australian roots of the Museum and its place in our modern world. It is adorned with an Arabic excerpt from the Quran which translated reads:

So narrate to them the stories so that upon them they may reflect

And we certainly did a lot of reflecting inside. Continue reading

Australians and the Great War at the National Library

A collage of drawings, cartoons and text from wartime publications interspersed with statistics about the war covers one wall at the Exhibition.

A collage of wartime publications displayed at the National Library of Australia’s ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’ exhibition.

With two daughters now living in Canberra and research required for my book, I am frequently visiting our national capital. On the weekend I attended a seminar about writing during World War One at the National Library of Australia. In the lunch break we had the opportunity to join a curator’s tour of the Library’s World War One exhibition, ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’.

Like many cultural institutions in Australia, the National Library of Australia is holding an exhibition to showcase the material held in their collections about World War One. We often think that libraries only hold published material, and archives are the home of manuscripts, ephemera and other items. However, the delineation between libraries and archives is not so straight forward, for example the Public Records Office of Victoria holds a number of school readers from the nineteenth century. Libraries such as the State Library of New South Wales hold significant collections of handwritten World War I diaries.

One of the reasons that government libraries in Australia hold unpublished archival material is that in many cases government archives were established many years after government libraries. The National Library of Australia emerged from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library which was established in the early years of Federation whereas the National Archives of Australia traces its founding back to concerns expressed by Charles Bean in the 1940s about the need to preserve war records.

The Director of Exhibitions, Dr Guy Hansen, explained that the Keepsakes Exhibition was not about developing a particular narrative about the Great War but about highlighting the extent of the primary sources about the War held by the Library. The ‘Mementos of the War’ section shows autograph books, letters, photos and diaries of women and men who served in the War. Here visitors can see a memorial plaque or ‘dead man’s penny’ issued by the government to the next of kin of soldiers who died in the War. Continue reading

Australian Wartime Entertainment in a Century of Wars

Banner of the title of the exhibition on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition.The arts were important to many Australian soldiers during the World War I. This is evident from reading the diaries of Australian soldiers. Soldiers wrote about the books they read, the songs they sang together, quoted extracts from poems and many diaries have sketches and accounts of the beautiful churches they visited. I am planning to do some further research on the singing of Australian soldiers so I was pleased when I accidentally found an exhibition at the Victorian Arts Centre about the entertainment of Australian soldiers.

The exhibition, ‘Theatres of War: Wartime entertainment & the Australian experience‘ tells the stories of the professional entertainers who put on concerts for Australian troops in war zones over the last one hundred years. The exhibition looks at the entertainment provided during wars to boost morale on the home front, military personnel who entertained troops and those entertainers who were not part of the military but who travelled to war zones to entertain the soldiers.  Continue reading

Singapore’s Red Dot Design Museum

Darkened room with illuminated sign saying "red dot design awards"From the moment I entered this small museum I enjoyed the experience. Singapore’s Red Dot Design Museum is one of three museums in the world which features the winners of the Red Dot Design awards.

This museum has an eclectic mix of modern products that feature innovative design. In the entrance we saw two mountain bikes and a carbon-fibre commuter bicycle, together with a large umbrella with innovative lighting mechanism, a table-soccer game made from recycled materials and all sorts of watches.

A commuter bicycle folded up so that the two wheels are placed next to each other.

This commuter bicycle weighs only 7.9kg and features a special folding system that enables it to be opened and closed easily.

This small museum highlights developments in designs of products as diverse as cars, baths, refrigerators, socks, books and pushers (strollers, buggies, push-chairs… or whatever you call them). Any visitor would see items that they may have a deeper knowledge of due to their line of work or style of living, but all visitors will be stimulated to think of products they don’t normally give much thought to. This is the strength of this museum.

At the entrance we were told that it would take about forty-five minutes for us to view the exhibition. We spent considerably longer there. Exhibitions like this spark the imagination and share innovation. I was surprised at the number of books on display. The books about Chinese calligraphy looked interesting. One of the features of this exhibition was that visitors were able to touch many of the exhibits. There were stools so if you had the time you could sit and browse the books properly. Some books made me wonder why they had won a design award, but the difficulty with international design awards is that they reward an aesthetic as well as function. Both are significantly influenced by culture, whether this culture derives from an ethnic, professional or wealth background. Continue reading

Singapore’s Education History on Display

The building housing Singapore's Ministry of Education Heritage Centre

Singapore’s Ministry of Education Heritage Centre

On the second day I was in Singapore I left the bus and became lost. My phone was low on batteries and my GPS was not working properly. I trudged off in the direction I thought I should be going and found myself walking through a large HDB housing complex.

Getting lost on foot in a new place is a good thing. My family is not convinced about this, but that is their loss. Losing one’s way in a new place is a wonderful way to discover things that you may not ordinarily encounter.

Behind the HDB (public housing) complex I discovered Singapore’s education museum – the Ministry of Education Heritage Centre. This museum does not make the lists of museums that tourists are urged to visit so if I hadn’t become lost I may have missed it. Not many people would be excited by this but I have a background in education history so I made a mental note to visit it once I knew a bit more of Singapore’s general history.

Last week I visited the Heritage Centre with a friend of mine, Betty Wee, who is a retired Singaporean primary school teacher. The first section starts with the point where most accounts of Singaporean history start, Sir Stamford Raffles and the early nineteenth century. The first thing that visitors are informed about is Raffles’ vision for a Malayan college in Singapore which he was unable to establish before he left the island in 1824. The college was opened as a primary school in 1837.

However, the exhibition then notes that formal Malay education started well before Europeans arrived in the region. The visitor is told that this was mostly of a religious nature but aside from this there was very little detail. Perhaps the historical records have disappeared? Continue reading

Malay Heritage Centre: A peek behind the colonial veil

The building housing the Malay Heritage Centre and the Centre's sign in the foreground.We want to take advantage of living in Singapore so I have a spreadsheet listing all the things we want to see and do. During the week I prepare the weekend’s itinerary. On Saturday morning we don our walking shoes, grab our public transport cards and set forth.

The Malay Heritage Centre was on last weekend’s itinerary. We have had our serve of British colonial history at other museums. This museum is for those who want to get beyond ‘the founder of Singapore’, Sir Stamford Raffles and his landing in Singapore in 1819. Like any British colony, Singapore has a much longer history, and it wasn’t British.

The building which houses the Malay Heritage Centre was the former istana, or palace, of the Sultan of Johor and Singapore. As the design of the building shows, it was built during colonial times in the nineteenth century.

Visitors are first directed upstairs and enter the map room. As the writing on the wall explains to visitors, maps are not merely pictures conveying facts. They are subjective representations that reveal the attitudes and goals of the creator of the map. A map is a summary and the choices of places to represent and the names to give them reveals much.

At the National Museum of Singapore we had learned how the British and Dutch drew a line through south-east Asia and determined which colonial ruler would govern the two segments. Through this process the British acquired what would become known as Malaya and Singapore.

The map room lifted the colonial veil and gave us a peak into Singapore as experienced by the Malays through history. Through Australian history we know that the history of a place does not start with colonial rule no matter how much traditional histories of the nation may give that impression. I came to the Malay Heritage Centre because I wanted to go beyond the colonial perspective and learn about the greater history.

Through maps visitors learn how Singapore belonged in the region called the Nusantara. The Heritage Centre’s map showed the Nusantara region covered the hundreds of islands in the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos and islands such as Singapore, Timor, Borneo etc. There were significant trading routes throughout this region and hence strong cultural and political connections.

There was both a regional and a local focus in this room. The Malay Heritage centre is located in the area of Kampong Glam which the British, who were assiduous in their racial classification and  ordering of people, designated as a Malay and Muslim quarter. We spent some time viewing a map on a table that had overlays beamed down via a projector demonstrating the changes in urban development in this area over time.

The map room at this Centre is beautifully and effectively presented. The following rooms kept up the standard. I’ll highlight just some of them. Continue reading

History in the Building at the National Museum of Singapore

I find buildings interesting, not the rectangular glass and concrete blocks which plague cities world-wide, but buildings that have a story. The building may demonstrate thought in its design or it may have been a place where people made stories which changed their society at the time or which we are interested in today.

The building housing the National Museum of Singapore is one of those buildings. On the weekend we travelled through the concrete and glass buildings that dominate the roads of Singapore and there it was – a statement of Singapore’s British colonial past.

White building with dome on top.

The National Museum of Singapore.

It was opened in 1887 and has been extended and modified several times since. Most recently it was closed for over three years in the early years of this century for extensive renovation and expansion. Continue reading