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

Reflecting on My work, Big Data and the History Manifesto

My great grandfather wrote this postcard from the western front to my  grandfather who was seven years old. Two weeks after he wrote this my great grandfather became yet another soldier killed in World War I.

My great grandfather wrote this postcard from the front to my grandfather who was seven years old. Two weeks after he wrote this my great grandfather was killed.

Everything about World War I was massive. It was industrial-scale warfare fought along frontlines that stretched for hundreds of kilometres, manned and supplied by millions of people. This too was a war which produced an unprecedented stream of words. It was not just the politicians and officers who sat down to pen their thoughts. Ordinary soldiers near the front and their families from around the world, recorded their experiences and comforted each other through diaries and letters.

In just one month in 1916, the Australian army post headquarters in London successfully sorted nearly three million letters but there were another four hundred thousand letters which could not be delivered as they were inadequately addressed (‘The Soldiers’ Mails’, The Age, 10/2/1917, p. 4). Australia’s five million people were prodigious writers during the war.

Any historian who seeks to understand World War I needs to come to grips with the enormity of it. I am studying just a tiny fraction of the archives produced by that war, yet I am grappling the problems and possibilities of dealing with a huge number of words. The other day I worked out that the collection of soldier diaries I’m working with contains over seven million words. To put it in more comprehensible terms, my corpus is currently the equivalent of over thirteen volumes of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This collection will grow as I add more diaries to my research corpus. I also have to read other primary sources such as court martials and Australian Imperial Force (AIF) unit diaries. Continue reading

The Destruction of Memory

Destroying a shrine in Timbuktu, 2012.

Destroying a shrine in Timbuktu, 2012. Photo via The Telegraph, India.

The rebels had fled, but before they left they had destroyed a precious archive. The world gasped in dismay as the mayor of Timbuktu announced that a library recently built to hold Timbuktu’s historic manuscripts had burnt to the ground.

At the time the Mayor did not know that while some historic manuscripts were now a pile of ashes, most had been saved. Yet these manuscripts were not the only physical reminders of a rich culture that were destroyed.  During their ten months ruling Timbuktu the rebels destroyed most of the city’s Sufi shrines. It was no accident.

The deliberate targeting and destruction of culturally significant items occurs too often. In our life time we have witnessed the detonation of the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001. In 1992 the heart of the cultural heritage of Bosnia was destroyed when the library in Sarajevo was subjected to the artillery fire of Serbian troops who were encircling the city. The deliberate nature of the attack was evident when snipers shot at firemen trying to save the library.

Director of 'The Destruction of Memory', Tim Slade.

Director of ‘The Destruction of Memory’, Tim Slade.

Director, Tim Slade is working on a documentary which he hopes will help people understand the serious nature of this ‘war against culture’.

“The killing of people and the killing of books and buildings are intimately and inextricably related”, states Slade. Referring to Raphael Lemkin, the man who helped to create the UN Convention Against Genocide, Slade observes, “Lemkin saw that it can be difficult to wipe out an entire people, but a group can be annihilated if their identity and culture has been erased.” Continue reading

The History Manifesto and Big Data

Book cover of The History Manifesto

The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

In my last post I reviewed the provocative book, The History Manifesto. Written by history academics Jo Guldi (Brown University) and David Armitage (Harvard), it is a call to historians to turn their work towards investigating long periods of history (the longue-durée) in order to address the big issues affecting humanity such as inequality and climate change. I set aside one chapter in that review for special attention. In this post I consider chapter four, ‘Big questions, big data’.

There are many ways that technology can be used by the historian The ‘Big Data’ chapter in The History Manifesto discusses the use of topic modelling tools to highlight the type of language most often used and the topics most widely discussed in the past. Guldi and Armitage also recognise the potential for digital tools to uncover the ‘invisible archives’ which include records that some person or institution in the past wanted to remain hidden. They give the example of The Declassification Engine, developed by a history professor and a professor in the field of statistics. This website explores the world of classified, redacted and declassified government documents and is a good demonstration of the potential of the use of technology in history.

“Digitally structured reading means giving more time to counterfactuals and suppressed voices, realigning the archive to the intentions of history from below”, they observe (p. 93).  This type of historical research has the potential to reveal serious injustices and even lead to steps being taken to rectify a historic wrong. It is exciting to see the potential of digital research techniques to reveal invisible or hidden archives. However, the authors do not draw attention to the fact that most of the world’s archives are not digitised. Historians always need to be mindful of this.

I’m researching the beliefs of Australian soldiers as expressed in their diaries during World War I. In his book, The Broken Years, Bill Gammage has already noted that Australian soldiers didn’t discuss their beliefs much in their diaries. Information technology has assisted me enormously to find the scant comments and their context. Digital tools are fundamental to my research methods but close reading of the work of other historians and primary sources is an indispensable first step in identifying the research questions and issues that the digital tools can then help me explore. I still have to spend hours reading old handwriting as most of the primary sources are still not in machine readable format. Continue reading

Review: The History Manifesto

Book cover of The History Manifesto

The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Historians, turn to the longue durée and focus your minds on the needs of our age. Your insights are needed to address intractable global issues such as climate change, inequality and governance. Dig deep into long time to assist policy makers to steer humanity into a better place.

This is the siren call of The History Manifesto. Written by historians, Jo Guldi of Brown University and David Armitage of Harvard, The History Manifesto seeks to change the direction of the discipline, to make it not only relevant to the world at large but an active contributor of solutions that speaks to the yearning of today.

In my previous post about the Annales school of historians I explained the term longue durée as it was conceived in the middle of the twentieth century. Guldi and Armitage explain how this approach to history fell out of favour in the latter decades of that century and was replaced by interest in micro-history. Micro-histories shone the light on histories that had been obscured in the old-style nationalist political histories, such as the lives of the working class and the subalterns who were marginalised by colonial powers.

Now historians need to embrace the ‘new longue durée’ in their work, say Guldi and Armitage. The new longue durée draws on its Annales heritage but it focusses on the future and its connection to the past as well as responding to the current intellectual environment and modern research tools.

Using the issues of climate change, inequality and governance, the authors explain the value that historians can give by plumbing long periods of the past to explore alternative ways of thinking about current problems. Guldi and Armitage explain that historians can do this by highlighting the evidence that humanity has free will to decide its future, the importance of ‘counter-factual thinking’ and the exploration of alternative ways of doing things that could bring about a better future. Continue reading