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Mythopoeia in the Museum: The Eleven ‘National Treasures’ of the National Museum of Singapore and the Afterlife of Artefacts

Emily W. Stokes-Rees


Every interpretative and object-related curatorial choice made in a museum
setting is inevitably political. In choosing what objects to display and what stories
to tell, curators shape the way visitors understand and experience a particular
nation’s history as well as arouse a sense of familiarity or, possibly, incoherence.
This article demonstrates the ways in which curatorial choices at the National
Museum of Singapore’s Eleven Treasures have both enabled and obstructed the
construction of a national narrative. As well, it points to the creation of a collective
mythology—a mythopoeia in the museum.

Using two key examples, the ‘Singapore Stone’ and a portrait of the last
colonial administrator, Sir Thomas Shenton, I highlight how these objects’
museological ‘afterlives’ are located in their ability to transcend their own histories
to become potential symbols of common values. Simultaneously, I raise questions
about authenticity, cultural citizenship, and the role of Singaporean museums
in public memory. I argue that it is in the precarious space of incommensurability
between the ‘national treasures’ and the everyday lives of Singaporeans that
national identity crystalizes.