If museum objects could talk, what would they say?
What do a rice cooker, a night-soil bucket, an orang laut fishing trap and the Singapore Stone have in common? Together with a Government House cheese plate, an Indian National Army (INA) cap, the Mace of the City of Singapore and a Spanish dollar, they are all artefacts on display at the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore. They were also the stars of a series of interactive Zoom plays that took place over two weekends in August.
The aim of the plays, which took the form of Zoom video calls, was to get Singaporeans, including those who haven’t been able to visit the museum, excited about history. The artefacts were voiced by a number of local actors and comedians, including Janice Koh, Tan Kheng Hua, Hossan Leong and Fakkah Fuzz.
Apart from the famed and enigmatic Singapore Stone, voiced by comedian Rishi Budrani, all the other featured objects are less prominent in the Gallery that traces the history of Singapore. The seemingly quotidian items from history, however, have no less fascinating stories behind them. Their fascinating histories were brought to life by the actors’ lively personification of the artefacts during the Zoom sessions, and witty asides that linked the artefacts to current topics.
Some of the artefacts travelled a great distance to get to Singapore, as in the case of the Spanish dollar, voiced by actor Alvaro Quesada, which was minted in South America in the 1700s. Another was the INA cap worn by the young fighter Rasamma Navarednam on her journey to Burma and back during World War II, and touchingly voiced by actress Magalakshmi Sudarsanan.
Other artefacts, like the night-soil bucket, were an intimate part of life for Singaporeans. Up until the late 1980s, when it finally “kicked the bucket”, the night-soil bucket had a significant role to play in local history. It figured prominently, for example, in the struggles of early migrants tasked with its collection, and in the municipality strikes of the 1920s, which resulted in its contents ending up in rivers and drains.
Voiced by comedian Jacky Ng, the night-soil bucket asked the audience if they considered its work essential, making playful reference to a much talked-about survey published earlier in 2020 on essential professions in the time of a pandemic. The National-brand rice cooker, voiced by thespian Koh, on the other hand, was asked by participants how rice should be made in a cooker – cue Mr Roger comments.
What also came to life was the work that the museum does to maintain the precious artefacts behind the scenes. When asked how the Spanish dollar stays shiny after all these years, Quesada said that it cannot be polished, because the “layers of time”, which are important for historical analysis, will be destroyed. Instead, another form of preservation is carried out.
So, the next time you visit the Singapore History Gallery, remember to look out for these artefacts and other less flamboyant or historic pieces. Their rich histories might surprise you. Watch recordings of the Zoom plays at the National Museum of Singapore’s Facebook page.