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[Herald Interview] With fashion exhibition in Korea, Kennie Ting hopes to expand Singapore museum's reach

Dec. 10, 2023 - 14:32 By Park Ga-young
Kennie Ting, the director of Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum, poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald on Nov. 30 at KF Gallery, an art gallery run by the Korea Foundation in Seoul. (Park Ga-young/The Korea Herald)

Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum, a cultural institution that exhibits a wide range of artifacts and offering a fascinating exploration of the diverse heritage and history of Asian civilizations, is trying to attract younger visitors with its latest fashion exhibition, according to its director Kennie Ting.

“It was very much focused on connoisseurship, and there was an aspect of us that was ethnographic because we have these Southeast Asian collections,” Ting told The Korea Herald during an interview that took place a day before the opening ceremony of the exhibition "Runway Singapore #SGFASHIONNOW." The exhibition, which arrived in Seoul after a show in Busan, offers fashion works by 27 Singaporean designers that testify to the country’s cultural and ethnic diversity.

Since he took the directorship of the 26-year-old museum in 2016, the museum has expanded to include themes that cut across countries and cultures like trade materials, design, faiths and beliefs.

“I thought we really had to make it (the museum) a bit more relevant to today, and so that's how it sort of moved away from more traditional ways of presenting Asia, which was geographically,” said Ting.

Ting also fought hard to have the museum’s timeline coverage to be extended to the contemporary period.

“I managed to succeed in having us also look at decorative arts and design in the contemporary day as a means of showing that actually, there's no endpoint to civilization. It's a continuum -- past to present and future,” he said.

“With this change in mission, we're so much more interested in looking at the connections between cultures and civilizations in Asia,” Ting said, clad in a light purple suit to show his support for the fashion show and his vision.

Works created by Singaporean designers are on display at KF Gallery in Jung-gu, central Seoul on Thursday. (Park Ga-young/The Korea Herald)

Efforts to make this change is also part of efforts to accommodate Singapore’s growing diversity.

In addition to the big ethnic groups that make up the nation’s population -- including Chinese, Malay and Indian -- other ethnicities are also increasing and “this idea of diversity therefore becomes very, very real,” said Ting.

When asked about how the museum deals with the vast scope of Asian civilizations, Ting explained that the institution uses themes that not only make sense in Singapore but also make sense in general.

“We specialize in collecting Asian export art, which is basically luxury goods — works of decorative art such as furniture, textiles, jewelry, porcelain — that were made in Asia for export to the rest of the world for forever,” Ting said. "We're really trying to spotlight this idea of, 'Don't forget that we have had so much excellence in terms of craft and aesthetics and making things the whole world wants.'"

In dealing with diverse cultures that are shared by many countries, the museum also strives to show respect to them. “We rarely do exhibitions that are just one culture and always have exhibitions that are multidimensional, but we try to make it a point to check in with the other countries,” he said.

He asked Korean travelers who visit the museum to have "a quick and exciting overview of the rest of Asia and to learn how Korean culture has also influenced and is in turn influenced by all these cultures."

"Runway Singapore #SGFashionNow" had its world premiere at the Korea Foundation ASEAN Culture House in Busan from Aug. 10 to Oct. 29. Interestingly, the show has not been seen in Singapore as a full exhibition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Ting.

Ting is also the director of Peranakan Museum and Group Director of Museums, National Heritage Board and also an author of "The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in South East Asia,” and “Singapore Chronicles: Heritage and Singapore 1819 – A Living Legacy.” His new book about the history of Asia's port cities including Busan will come out next year.