Total Defence celebrates its 30th anniversary with a experiential exhibition at National Museum Singapore where the stories of unlikely social vigilantes take center stage. Titled “Because You played a Part”, the exhibition draws on personal accounts as well as hot topics to lead visitors on a trail of discovery spanning all 3 levels of the museum.
National Museum was temporarily transformed into a defence base with a military rover (not in photo), marine cruiser and fire-fighting vehicles stationed at the entrance.
Having as much interest in militaristic stuff as Anton Casey has in our “poor people” transport system, I wasn’t expecting much from the Total Defence 30 : An Experiential Showcase exhibition but I was pleasantly surprised.
The defenders (our people) and the defended (our home).
Although the story threading through the entire exhibition was quite hard to follow, I found the narrative idea and highly interactive exhibits to be refreshing and earn top marks for balls and creativity in distilling Total Defence ideologies into palatable bits.
And one of the best things, apart from really friendly and cheery helpers at all stations of the exhibition, was the feat of fusing something as dry as Total Defence with artistic endeavours. While some aspects of the presentation can be improved further provided that budget and museum restrictions permit, the exhibition delivers its promise as a truly experiential showcase that breathed life into the 5 tenets of Total Defence :
1. Military Defence
2. Civil Defence
3. Economic Defence
4. Social Defence
5. Psychological Defence
The journey starts with how you feel and the thoughts of 5 Singaporeans about what Total Defence means to them across the various demographics of Singaporeans (employee, entrepreneur, student, retiree, and homemaker). You can choose which character to follow and uncover more stories (the related characters are colour coded) on all 3 levels of the museum or explore every exhibit at each designated exhibition space.
I chose to follow the path of the entrepreneur (Abdul Hadi) because who doesn’t want to be boss right? LOL!
Immersive staging at the introduction zone lets you walk into the concerns and stories of different Singaporeans on Total Defence.
The lifestyle sets have scenes fashioned to correspond with the characters and it was really fun to just sit at the different chairs and watch talking heads relay thoughts.
Tried as I may to pretend I’ve not seen the retro phone and thus acknowledge my age, I can’t help but shimmy in the “awwww” of nostalgia.
After the lifestyle zone, my trail led to a cool minimalist exhibition chamber that featured a varied collection of information presentation methods. From simple touchscreen modules to reveal positive and negative media messages…
… to a hall of mirrors to reflect upon your community role through expanding social situations, to social media reactions and advocacies. I like it that the exhibition incorporated some of the hot social media topics such as “Chope Food for the Needy” and how the exhibits embraced the conversations of real Singaporeans… with the inclusion of Singlish! My blog got “Lah” so you know how much I love Singlish :)
Big questions that need reflection.
My Total Defence journey brought me to the basement of the museum. I couldn’t find the next personality in my blue trail (Pat Law) but was delighted with this camou version of the Churning of the Sea of Milk from the Mahabharata epic by Cambodian artist, Svay Sareth.
Part of the Singapore Biennale 2013 “If the World Changed” exhibition, this quirky interpretation of the mural found at Angkor Wat into a stuffed toy served as the artist’s mock at the “illusion of cooperation within exploitative hierarchies”. I understand the artist’s angst but I’m more taken with the lovable appeal of this physical moniker to the sculpture found at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
From basement one, I was brought to level 2 of the National Museum on my Total Defence journey where I’d learn by now that we have the power for social change especially in the era of social media. This zone of the exhibition featured classic information panels but instead of using pre-fabricated exhibition frame systems, the panel structures were customized with relevant media features such as a playback of Dick Lee’s culturally-harvested musical tracks.
National security is a collaboration amongst citizens as well as with government agencies. This message of teamwork was creatively transferred to players of this simple game where one party fingered the Braille impressions on one side and described them to a partner on the other. The partner then deciphers the letters to reveal the Braille word. Brilliant!
2-in-1 photo wall where photographic works are projected on…
… and converts into a simple frame for visitors to be Singaporean of the Day. It’s achieved easily by covering the projector with a card.
When kids saw this Lego replica of the 2004 Nicoll Highway collapse, they rushed over and started banging the vehicles and plucking at the ‘debris’ pieces. Alarmed, the parents immediately chided the kids to not break the display (which was already broken).
Then came the clever part of bringing the message across… The student helper assured the parents that it’s ok for the children to dismantle the exhibit because this shows how fragile our society can be. One wrong move and everything can come apart. Then the kids were encouraged to rebuild the bridge instead. Which they did.
At a space outside the permanent gallery that traces the history of Singapore’s food, this partially immersive set was staged to share the story of Ya Kun, one of the pioneer coffee stallholders who is now a household brand in Singapore with countless outlets all over the island.
When Ya Kun started his coffee stall, he only had 2 tables, hence the display, and he slept on top of the tables so that he can wake up at 5am every morning to start his business. A fine example of the early 刻苦耐劳 spirit that has been replaced by the call to work smart instead of hard nowadays.
This Reflection Wall allows visitors to leave messages after they toured the exhibits to family and friends or feedback on the showcase. It’s a low cost solution to engage visitors but I like how the old-school pencils invokes a sense of nostalgia. Well, at least for me coz my primary school days were spent sharpening pencils instead of clicking those mechanical ones.
Riding on hopes for peace in Singapore on Red Scorpion, a fire-fighting bike that is the first response vehicle to all fires in Singapore.
Producing contents, messages and exhibits for events and exhibitions (mostly involving governmental or related agencies) for close to 5 years, I must say that the Total Defence showcase was a daring departure from most stat boards’ preference to cram as much information as possible into every inch of communication real estate.
While this approach has certain pitfalls as most messages are inferred rather than blatant, I enjoyed the ample mental breathing space as a result of knowledge de-cluttering and the focus of a single idea for each tactile interactive. And the exhibits’ design while not jaw-dropping, blended tastefully with the museum environment.
My only grouse was that some of the characters along a story path was hard to track down (I never found the character Pat Law in the Entrepreneur path that I followed) and the Total Defence exhibits had to compete with other exhibitions going on at the museum. I was waylaid many times to check out installations of Biennale 2013 and other themed galleries that joining the dots of the Total Defence narrative became sporadic.
Nonetheless, with some patience and determination to complete the story trail, I got the gist of how entrepreneurship contributes to Economic Defence while discovering other Total Defence concepts along the way.
Then again, I think that’s kinda cool because I learnt more as I was motivated to make sense of the modular personality-based accounts. Not that I’m an expert just because I’m in the events and exhibitions industry, but I feel that the Total Defence 30 : An Experiential Showcase was gutsy in its creative direction and something of a breakthrough to artify national policies.
And it’s free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents to visit!
“Because You Played a Part” Total Defence 30 : An Experiential Showcase is on from 15 – 23 Feb 2014 at National Museum Singapore.