The Arts Space –  striking a “conversation” with users

These days, with competing distractions and changing perspectives of library users and uses, libraries are finding ways to highlight their special collections and strengths to stay relevant.

At the National Library of Singapore, the arts librarians set out to rethink how to promote its collection in a more engaging manner, rather than keeping them on the static rows of shelved books.

Some questions that the team sought to address:

  • How can we create an arts vibe within the library and help people identify that they are in a space with a rich arts collection? At the National Library, the different subject areas are housed on separate floors and it may not be so apparent to users as the design and layout are somewhat similar across floors.
  • How can we use our collection to inspire people in new ways apart from standard book displays? How can we guide them to explore and maybe even create new works?
  • How do we engage users to take ownership of the space/library?

Rethinking Space

While the public libraries focus mainly on space and collection use for the general library user, the National Library’s target users are mainly professionals and researchers. The objective is to encourage research and promote knowledge of Singapore’s heritage through its collection of materials. However, nobody knows we have these rich resources if we do not actively promote them.

Though armed with limited resources, the team worked to transform and create a space in the arts library where we could highlight our collections while making them relevant to users like artists, poets and students, among others. The idea was to also take a multi-disciplinary approach to cross-pollinate different arts categories so users can see the potential use of the various resources. The gallery idea was partly fueled by “The Couple” painting donated by Tan Swie Hian which is on display, a tribute painting to the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo.

“Gallery walls” were created and a revamp of an area (in front of the painting) was done to create a flexible space that can be used for displays and other activities. Some may want to sit and admire the painting, others may want to browse the curated display. While it is meant to be a cozy yet conducive area for reflection, the National Library hopes that the space created would enable/encourage users to spark a new conversation with both the collections and artworks. The redesign was also a step to create a library within a library, where the arts library will have its own identity.

This new space is called The Arts Space, partly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s quote:

“Space is the breath of art.”

Curating Content

Nothing relates better to people like stories. NLB has in its holdings, artworks by local artists that are steeped in heritage value. Themes were explored on what would speak to Singaporeans that can be represented via the artworks and collections.

As a case reference, the first season’s theme (Jalan-Jalan) is centred around old buildings and street scenes. The idea was to bring people on a “walk” through Singapore using our artworks and collections, like place poems. Research was done on the history of landmarks and streets to create a visual trail of the familiar landmarks and streets that are lesser known, especially to the younger generation. Excerpts of related poems and quotes were placed alongside the paintings and an overview of the sub-themes to provide a background. A resource guide was created to supplement the exhibits so that people could delve deeper into the subject. In addition, photographs from the National Library’s digital archive of photos (PictureSG) were displayed to allow a contrast of past and present, actual versus interpreted (through art).

Soul City – civic district, from Singapore River to National Library
Shop the Past – five-foot-way traders
Ann Siang Revisited – old shophouses on Ann Siang Hill

Aside from viewing the artworks, viewers are invited to take a seat at The Arts Space to browse the related resources for inspiration and insight.

Photowall – pictures and poems based on the theme

Between Soul City and Shop the Past, to enable and guide people to browse our collections along the way, the librarians created fun facts as sign posts along the book wall (Singapore/Southeast Asia arts collection). The fun facts were extracted from books in the collection and to pique interest.

Example of fun fact:

Partnership and Engagement

With the physical space completed, the library sought to reach out and engage communities. The project team has been exploring collaborations with art schools and institutions to curate for the arts space, organise programmes to tie in with the artworks (e.g. inviting poets to conduct workshops in relation to the artworks), host student showcases, initiate participative contributions (e.g. write a haiku), and conduct curator’s tours among other things. Aside from getting people to know more about the resources the library has, National Library hopes that users will gain a sense of ownership for the space. No longer will cold walls and shelves greet them, but memories they can make and live out.

One of the first collaborations was with NAFA students who roved their “Wicker Work” exhibition to The Arts Space from 9 May – 8 July. The National Library worked closely with Ms Jennifer Chor, Head, NAFA library, who helped with the coordination and link-up. The main exhibition was originally held on campus, but with the collaboration at The Arts Space, the works could be shown to a wider audience and also extended the showcase of the students’ efforts. We will be seeing more of such collaborations in upcoming months.

Wicker Work by NAFA

Besides exhibitions, the arts librarians have co-organised talks and programmes with this season focusing on Singapore literature and “places” in Singapore.

Back and Forth: A History of SG Poetry in English by Tse Hao Guang, 9 Jun

The library will be having more programmes coming up in the next few months:

  • A collaborative showcase by artist Aaron Gan (2015 UOB Painting of the Year Gold Award winner) and fashion designer, Ying (Ying The Label). Ying has designed fashionwear inspired by Aaron’s Singapore paintings to tie in with the 2018 National Day celebrations (8 Aug – 9 Sep)
  • Phantom Spaces: Loss and Memory (24 Aug) – a late night performance tour in The Arts Space as part of Night Festival through stories and historical texts, giving insight to the psychology of fear and memory in Eastern and Western literature.
  • Another collaborative showcase with NAFA, Fashion and Finery: A NAFA Fashion Photography Exhibition (25 Sep – 26 Oct)

What’s next?

As the National Library continues to seek new ways to engage old and new users, the arts librarians will continue to explore and fine-tune this initiative to keep it sustainable. Each season is set to run for 8-10 months and a sneak peek into Season 2 will be provided very soon.

(The Arts Space – (Season 1) Jalan-Jalan, is now on at Level 8 of the National Library)

Contributed by:
Kong Leng Foong, Librarian, National Library
Member of LAS Publications Committee


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