When the pandemic caused museums around the world to shut their doors, it also forced a wave of innovation once thought to be antithetical to the traditional museum-going experience.
Galleries launched video tours to let art lovers enjoy virtual visits from the comfort of their living rooms while 3D replicas of exhibits meant that online visitors could explore each face and facet in deeper detail. Through virtual sessions facilitating art discourse, museum buffs were also able to get their dose of culture.
These new experiences – made possible by technological advances such as augmented reality – present an exciting opportunity for the arts and heritage sector in Singapore, says Mr Samuel Lee who works as an assistant manager in the Management and Operations Group at the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC), a part of the National Heritage Board (NHB).
“NHB has always been embracing technology even before the pandemic, but the crisis opened up possibilities that could be taken up creatively and critically by the industry,” he says.
His colleagues at the NHB IT division, for example, have been involved in designing and implementing “Visitor360”, a suite of Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbots, digital interactives and navigation tools, among others, to augment the physical museum-going experience in NHB’s museums.
As part of his work at HCC, the 29-year-old is involved in a cross-divisional project on digitalization strategy, which explores areas for the heritage sector to go digital as well as to communicate art history and art conservation in an engaging way for a broader audience.
“While the virtual medium will never be the perfect substitute for in-person interaction of an object at a gallery, these can expand and elaborate on the stories contained within it,” he says.
On a basic level, Mr Lee says the virtual medium can function as an appendix to the main exhibition, presenting information that cannot be included on an object label, such as video interviews with artists and makers, or graphics such as maps and diagrams to add contextual information.
“They can be used to present minor or parallel narratives, or give visitors a look behind-the scenes such as conservation techniques used to prepare a specific artefact for a show,” he explains.
FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Prior to joining HCC, Mr Lee was enrolled in the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities with a focus on art history at the University of Chicago.
His coursework was supported by the NHB Scholarship, which sponsors those interested in pursuing full-time undergraduate or postgraduate studies (up to Masters) in various disciplines that would prepare them for a career in the field of culture and heritage.
It was his studies, he believes, that afforded him the ability to not view traditional art and technology as a dichotomy.
“Every human-made object that enters the museum is the result of a technological activity, such as technologies of movement, visuality and or representation, which produce particular worldviews in the same way that digital interfaces shape our sense of the world today,” he says.
“My studies have taught me to be more alert to the different ways in which art has been displayed and conserved, and the digital turn today is but another chapter in the history of exhibitionary culture.”
Even as the pandemic plunges the world into a digital-first way of life, Mr Lee believes it is important for the sector to remain inclusive. After all, he says, “not everyone has access to smartphones that can run hardware-intensive augmented reality applications or are able-bodied and comfortable with operating digital technology”.
Nevertheless, he takes pride in being able to play an indelible role in the preservation of Singapore’s history and culture while bringing the nation’s heritage to a wider audience.
“Heritage is the practice of preserving the past and engaging with it is a source of pride, but it is also something that we are responsible for safekeeping for the future,” he says.
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