As a young boy, Mr Samuel Lee remembers his late grandfather taking him to Raffles Place and Collyer Quay and sharing with him stories about the past. These include gruesome atrocities the senior Lee witnessed outside the old Cathay Cinema during the Japanese Occupation and the 1972 fire at Robinsons department store.
“Many of his stories were part eyewitness account, part speculative reconstructions to entertain his grandkids,” says Mr Lee.
“Reflecting on this decades later, I suppose this is what got me curious about the messy and unruly nature of history-making and why heritage work is so interesting and colourful.”
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Mr Lee always knew he wanted to work in a history-related field, either as a curator or museum professional. This ultimately led him to apply for the National Heritage Board (NHB) Scholarship after his A levels.
As an undergraduate, he majored in literature at the National University of Singapore because it provided him the context to study about methods of cultural analysis more broadly.
Mr Lee then did a Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, with a focus in art history, at the University of Chicago. For his thesis, he chose to do archival research and worked with curators and conservators dealing with modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“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,” he says.
Making history relevant to all
Today, the 31-year-old is part of the management and operations team at the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC). His job scope as assistant manager involves strategic planning for HCC, researching Singapore’s National Collection of artefacts and artworks, and finding ways to make them more accessible to everyone.
“I use technology to bring the work that HCC does behind closed doors to the public,” he says.
One way he has done that is through Roots.gov.sg, NHB’s heritage resource portal that is home to a significant portion of the National Collection – some dating back to more than a hundred years ago. This makes it easy for anyone to access this information and learn more about Singapore’s heritage.
Another initiative is Heritage Hunter, a 2021 virtual treasure hunt game that encourages people to learn more about the Singaporean culture while solving fun riddles and winning great prizes such as a smartwatch or a staycation.
“Digitalisation allows NHB to increase our reach beyond the physical limitations of our museums and institutions – people can experience heritage anytime, anywhere,” Mr Lee explains.
“It also enables us to reach the key youth segment. Heritage has to remain relevant in the digital age and we have to tell stories in new and different ways to reach our audiences.”
Presently, Mr Lee and his team are exploring the possibility of providing access to the National Collection when they are not on display in the museums. Using augmented reality and virtual reality, visitors may be able to view HCC artefacts via an on-premise interactive platform in the future.
While his job may not be as public-facing as his colleagues who work in exhibitions and programmes, Mr Lee finds satisfaction in being involved in the overall creative and critical aspects of working in the cultural sector, whether it is developing strategic goals for the HCC or working on resource planning.
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.
“Understanding our heritage helps to cultivate a sense of a national identity that is not couched solely in surface-level commonalities,” he says.
“It is also rooted in a deep respect for the diversity and complexity within which we must live.”