The National Museum of Singapore’s new exhibition tells stories of a historic moment that is still unfolding. Picturing The Pandemic: A Visual Record Of Covid-19 In Singapore brings together 272 photographs, a short film and 16 donated artefacts to record the impact of the virus on Singapore over the past year.

The exhibition, which opens on Saturday (Feb 27), is organised into five themes – A Day In The Life, Essential Workers, New Ways Of Living, Making Visible and The Spaces Between Us.

The first four sections by photographers Bob Lee, Edwin Koo, How Hwee Young, Brian Teo and Zakaria Zainal are snapshots of people adapting to a new normal, while the final component is a 21-minute observational documentary by film-makers Dave Lim and Adar Ng.

Assembled in a hectic three months, this show is also the first of the museum’s Collecting Contemporary Singapore series.

Senior curator Daniel Tham, 40, says this is an important shift in the museum’s focus, prompted by a reexamination of the museum’s role and function thanks to last year’s forced closure. “That was a new experience for us. We never close. It made us think about how we wanted to collect the contemporary.”

While museums are mostly known for preserving and documenting the past, collecting artefacts of contemporary events has been a growing trend worldwide.

In May last year, the museum sent out an open call for objects from members of the public and received some 200 objects.

Some of the donated items are included in this show, such as two sketchbooks by members of Urban Sketchers Singapore, which record circuit breaker experiences, and an embroidery work by Alyssa Lim depicting six figures involved in the fight against Covid-19.

The first dose of Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which was administered to senior staff nurse Sarah Lim on Dec 30. Credit: Ong Wee Jin/ST

Also included in the small display is a tiny vial in a ziplocked biohazard bag. It contained the first dose of Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which was administered to senior staff nurse Sarah Lim on Dec 30.

Mr Tham says while not all the donated items, which included many digital images, are on display, they are “valuable from a research standpoint”.

He characterises this first collection and display effort as a work in progress. “Which are the objects that best represent the experience of people? We are open to people’s opinions: What do you think we should be collecting?”

He adds that the contemporary topic of the new show also offered an opportunity for the curators to experiment. “It was a licence to try different presentation techniques.”

Collecting artefacts of contemporary events has been a growing trend worldwide.
Credit: Ong Wee Jin/ST

While photographs are the predominant medium, they are presented in various ways: as oversized lightboxes, in traditional wall-mounted montages and in the form of video montages.

Accompanying the photographs are audio and video recordings which literally give voice to the photographs’ subjects, including an 11-year-old girl.

The diversity of voices was intentional, says Mr Tham. One section, Making Visible, includes marginalised communities such as migrant workers and the homeless, whose plights came to the fore in a pandemic which also exposed social inequalities.

This show is also the first of the museum’s Collecting Contemporary Singapore series.
Credit: Ong Wee Jin/ST

He adds: “We want our visitors to identify with the things they will see. There will be a lot of things you will recognise as part of your experience of the pandemic. But we hope you will see other things as well, that the show will open your minds to other experiences of the pandemic.”

View It / Picturing The Pandemic: A Visual Record Of Covid-19 In Singapore

  • Where: National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road
  • When: Now till Aug 29, daily, 10am to 7pm
  • Admission: Free for Singaporeans and permanent residents
  • Info: go.gov.sg/picturingthepandemic

Text: Ong Sor Fern/The Straits Times