Diary note 14: Nature museum

2 IX 2017, Singapore International Festival of Arts

The Nature Museum is installed in the upper rooms of Theatreworks by Robert Zhao Ren Hui and Joel Tan. I mention their names because contrary to the passivity implied by the word ‘museum’ it is their active presence that carries the experience.

One has to think of a stand up comedian acting the role of a natural scientist. These natural scientists are fake but believable and belong to a fictitious Institute of Critical Zoologists. They impersonate fringe explorers of the natural landscape of Singapore in the past, a military man and an amateur with zoological obsessions and so on.

They ask themselves half-absurd questions as which is the oldest tree in Singapore, answering this by studying picture postcards. Or whether the postcard industry was stimulated by sunsets created by the Krakatoa eruption. Or how pest-like pigeons or insects were trapped by diverse surreal inventions.

The parody of the classroom and the human comportment vis à vis animals is never completely without foundation in fact and human experience, but somewhere along the road becomes tongue in cheek and satirical. It is fantasy blending with facts. So it is appropriate that one of the few reliable sources of the natural history of Singapore is written by a colonial servant fascinated with the lore and magic beliefs of the Malay population in the 19th century. These myths linked the Singaporeans to their natural surroundings in a way that science does not.

So on this pseudo-scientific tour of Singapore one begins to rediscover the wondrous, child-like perceptions of the past, the gentle parody opens up an emotional world. The practical joke becomes an elegy for things that could have been.