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Daringly digital

The Indian Heritage Centre ©Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore

An interactive experience of Singapore’s Indian heritage

by Nalina Gopal, Curator, Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore

The Indian Heritage Centre (IHC) in Singapore is a community heritage museum dedicated to narrating the history of Singapore’s Indian community, alongside intangible experiences of Indian culture in Singapore, through permanent gallery exhibits, changing exhibitions and programming. Launched on 7 May 2015, the IHC is the newest institution under the management of the National Heritage Board of Singapore.

 Housed in a modern, purpose-built space, the IHC is located in the Little India heritage district. This location is a reflection of its aim to be a cultural hub for Singapore’s Indian community as well as a space for introduction to the history and culture of Singapore’s third-largest majority community (after the Chinese and Malay communities) for locals and tourists alike.

Curated based on five themes, beginning with a preface exploring the presence of Indians in southeast Asia and their interactions with the region, the permanent galleries underscore the integral role of Indians in the building of 19th-century Singapore; the rich and diverse culture of the community; their experiences during the time of World War II; and finally, their contribution to the making of Singapore as a modern nation-state. The permanent galleries display over 440 artefacts from Singapore’s National Collection and the local Indian community.

Screening the museum

For the IHC to function as a cultural hub, it quickly became evident during the planning of the permanent gallery experience that its exhibitions and programming would have to be participatory, even interactive. With this in mind, permanent gallery displays were also curated using digital platforms.

First, a media guide application, providing audio tours for adults in English, Tamil and Hindi (with Chinese and Malay to come shortly), a tour for young adults in English and augmented reality experiences featuring virtual docents and 3D artefacts, was integrated into the experience. The media guide is available on devices provided at the IHC, free of charge with admission tickets, and can also be downloaded onto personal mobile devices from various platforms. While the virtual docents act as community voices introducing the visitor to the context of thematic galleries and artefact displays, the 3D interactive artefacts engage visitors by allowing them to “touch” artefacts. Select artefacts can be rotated, enlarged and examined through the application, bringing an element of play and discovery for visitors.

The media guide furthermore holds archival footage, sound recordings and contemporary videos: a goldsmith can be seen fashioning a pendant alongside the display of traditional tools of the trade, while a video of a printing press at work can be accessed to watch the mechanics behind the device on display, for example. The media guide is also a platform for feedback and insight into the visitor experience at the IHC. Lastly, the galleries embrace smartphone culture through selfie/wefie pit stops encouraging social media posts.

Selfie pit-stop ©Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore

Not the same old story

The narrative of Singapore’s Indian community is complex and largely rests in its collective memory. Alongside artefact displays, it was essential to insert oral history, bringing to the fore the stories and experiences of the community. A 10-minute introductory film takes inspiration from published and intangible narratives of this population in all of its diversity, with music by the Indian film composer Shankar Mahadevan, in a nod to the migrant community’s enthusiasm for Indian cinema. Kiosks placed in the thematic galleries offer a self-curated experience of the narratives of select pioneers and veteran members of the community. This format allows visitors to freely view videos and galleries of images and objects associated with the life experiences these individuals. For instance, at a kiosk installed to evoke shipboard experiences of migrants to Singapore, visitors can view footage of the S.S.Rajula, one of the most common ships taken from Madras/Nagapattinam to the Straits Settlements; read postcards written aboard the ship; listen to interviews of those who travelled on it; browse through travel memorabilia such as tickets; and see photographs of those quarantined on St. John’s Island, Singapore.

Large digital installations designed to resonate with groups encourage communal experiences of content at the IHC, such as a six-user interactive map inviting visitors to explore the diverse hometowns of Singapore’s Indian community. Curated with input from community participants, the map presents an opportunity for inter-generational dialogue and educational learning.  

Forms of popular digital culture such as gaming and comic book experiences are also available. A precincts game, set over four different time periods, invites visitors to explore a day in the life of four Indian protagonists set in four distinct precincts where Indians have lived and worked in Singapore. Archival photographs inspire the imaging for the animation while the game itself underscores the widespread settlement pattern of the community. A kiosk housing the narratives of wartime veterans also presents a path for young adults (a common feature in several of the kiosks), featuring a war comic detailing the events associated with the Japanese occupation and the Indian National Army in Singapore.

Having a digital platform for content most importantly allows for an inclusive approach essential for community museums: the content can be periodically updated, with veterans added as more come forward, and the community is encouraged to actively participate in the sharing of knowledge.

Visitors have experienced personal connections through the digital displays: nonagenarians have watched themselves and their contemporaries at the kiosks, reliving their experiences; young and old Singaporean Indians trace their hometowns on the map; and artefacts and digital installations have become topics for social networking conversations and photo moments. The journey ahead is exciting. 

Students at the interactive map ©Indian Heritage Centre, Singapore