Revamped Peranakan Museum balances tradition with contemporary ideas

With nine new galleries, museum seeks to preserve culture's identity, as well as look future with contemporary ideas

Entrance of Peranakan Museum (Photo: Peranakan Museum)
Entrance of Peranakan Museum (Photo: Peranakan Museum)

SINGAPORE — Those fascinated with the Peranakan culture will have a place to further explore its traditions and lore, at the revamped Peranakan Museum at Armenian Street, which reopens on Friday (17 February) after three years.

From the beaded slipper worn by actress Jeanette Aw in the hit drama serial "The Little Nyonya", to Singaporean visual artist Sticker Lady's first mixed-media installation "Coming Home", visitors can learn much of this unique regional culture across nine new galleries and three floors of profiles and artefacts.

To kickstart the opening, the museum will be offering free entry to all visitors from Friday to Sunday. On top of that, a street party along Armenian Street will be hosted this weekend with a lineup of outdoor performances, workshops & food and beverages.

Yahoo Southeast Asia spoke with Peranakan Museum director, Kennie Ting, on what can visitors expect at the newly-reopened Peranakan Museum, the Peranakan identity and engaging contemporary culture through history and art.

Overview of nine new galleries

Spread across three general themes - Origins, Home and Style, the nine museum galleries will display over 800 newly-acquired or donated artefacts, recorded interviews and photographs of real Peranakan profiles, as well as two commissioned artworks by local artists Lavendar Chang and Sam Lo.

'Coming Home' installation by visual artist Sam Lo 'SKL0' (Photo: Peranakan Museum)
'Coming Home' installation by visual artist Sam Lo 'SKL0' (Photo: Peranakan Museum)

Breaking down 'What is Peranakan?'

We have to find ways to have the idea of 'Peranakan' be relevant right now. I think is important, that as we embrace more kinds of immigrants in Singapore, to re-conceive what 'Peranakan' might mean.

Ting believes a key misconception is the idea that "Peranakan" refers to "Baba-Nyonya", otherwise known as Chinese Peranakan. He elaborates that if you go back to the root of the word in Malay, it means "born here".

According to Ting, the Malay community in the 1960s and 1970s used the term "Peranakan" as a welcoming term to refer to non-Malay communities in Singapore.

Engaging culture and managing community expectations

Ting believes that Peranakan culture still remains relevant and "pervasive" as a lifestyle today, with the support of the media and popular culture, as well as food as an entry point.

He referenced China's 2020 remake of "The Little Nyonya" as well as his observation that more Peranakan restaurants popping up in the F&B scene in Singapore.

Ting adds that the role the Peranakan Museum plays is to remind visitors that Peranakan does not equate to one specific culture. As a merger of various cultural elements, the museum encourages people to reflect on the idea that Peranakan is an exploration and journey.

In documenting and presenting the historical accounts of the Peranakan community, the museum team had to constantly engage with local and regional communities, to ensure they are not shocked at the content and presentation when the museum finally opens.

It's a very different way of creating a museum. In the old days, the museum is like a monolithic space. You just did your own thing, and you didn't talk to anyone. I felt it's quite important that we continually engage with people and that just takes a longer time.

No dichotomy between contemporary and tradition

To encourage conversations and interest in Peranakan culture, Ting said it was a conscious choice for the museum to tell the stories of the people who owned and made the cultural objects on display.

Contemporary artefacts are also vital to tell the Peranakan story. For example, the museum displays the Sarong Kebaya worn by local actor and theatre director Ivan Heng from theatre company Wild Rice's 2019 production of Stella Kon's Emily of Emerald Hill.

Pink Sarong Kebaya worn by Singaporean actor/theatre director Ivan Heng
Pink Sarong Kebaya worn by Ivan Heng (Photo: Peranakan Museum)

"I like the idea that in each of the gallery, we've actually put something that's contemporary for the visitors to find. That's also important, because we want to point out that Peranakan culture is relevant today. I feel very strongly about engaging contemporary makers and artisans," Ting added.

Ting, who published a book titled "Singapore 1819: A Living Legacy" in 2019, referenced how current-day antiques were made through a process of innovation and seen as modern for their time. As such, he believes there is no dichotomy between contemporary and tradition.

"What's most important is a balance of everything, not just the contemporary and the traditional, but also the art historical, the community, the people and the socio-graphical aspect within each and every gallery," remarked Ting on his process of design and curation.

The heritage expert revealed that his favourite gallery is the "Ceramics and Food Culture" gallery located on the second floor of the museum.

Why? "It's got the most shockingly different contemporary design and encapsulates my vision," he said.

The revamped Peranakan Museum opens daily from 10am to 7pm, and from 10am to 9pm on Fridays.

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