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Mon, May 24, 2010
The Straits Times
More sign up to volunteer at museums

By Jessica Lim

THE training is rigorous, it costs money, takes time and after all that you're not paid for the work.

So who would want to become a docent?

Plenty of people, it seems.

Mr Russell Bresland, 56, for example, said it came naturally to him to become a museum volunteer leading tours of exhibits and shows.

The permanent resident married to a Singaporean took an interest in the island's history during long chats with his father-in-law over Chinese tea.

They started with stories about World War II and Shantou, his father-in-law's home town in South-east China, said the retiree. The former consultant, who now helps his friends out with their businesses and spends time travelling, soon found himself dabbling in Taiji and Chinese calligraphy.

Becoming a docent seemed to be a logical step to widen his knowledge about Singapore, said Mr Bresland, who started training to become one in September last year.

'Now, when I see the Merlion at One Fullerton, I think, this used to be a jungle. When I go to Telok Ayer Street, I think this used to be the waterfront,' said the Australian, chuckling. 'I am now also able to defend the country against critics of Singapore.'

President of Friends of the Museums Carla Forbes-Kelly currently oversees 365 docents, up from 255 two years ago. When the docent programme was set up in 1978, there were only 10 guides. Now these docents volunteer at five museums: the Asian Civilisations Museum, National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Tyler Print Institute and the Peranakan Museum.

On top of these, the bigger museums have their own guides for the weekend. The National Museum of Singapore has 194. There are also 65 guides at the Peranakan Museum, more than double the number two years ago.

Typically, docents sign up for training that lasts from three to six months depending on the museum, fork out about $500 and commit to guiding tours once a week for a year without pay.

Most docents are either retirees, part-time workers, students or housewives, said Mrs Forbes-Kelly, herself a housewife before she joined Friends of the Museum and became its president. About 20 per cent of the docents are Singaporean, and that number is growing.

The attraction is that it is meaningful work to be able to learn and share knowledge with the public.

'It is about seeing students' faces light up with something they have discovered,' said Mrs Forbes-Kelly, who is a docent herself. She used to manage an Off-Broadway theatre company in New York.

Non-Singaporeans are usually keen, she said, because it helps them learn and assimilate into a new culture.

Though voluntary, it requires the same drive and determination as that of a paid vocation, said Singaporean Rosalind Tan, who became a docent at the Peranakan Museum last year.

The Chinese Peranakan, who now heads the training of docents at the museum, decided to become a guide after a museum visit.

'I went on a tour and an expat guide was telling me about my own culture,' said Ms Tan, 56, who used to be a real estate agent. 'I was thoroughly embarrassed.'

The National Heritage Board's latest figures show that a record 2.82 million people visited Singapore's seven leading museums and heritage centres last year, up from 2.62 million in 2008 and 1.72 million in 2007.

'Docents play an important role. They bring museums to the masses and are the human face,' said Nominated MP Audrey Wong, who is also associate director of The Substation. 'They are an asset to the art community and their services will be much needed as bigger and larger shows come to Singapore.'

The docents, she said, are integral in the development of Singapore as an entertainment and arts hub. Earlier this year, the Economic Strategies Committee outlined ideas on how to make Singapore one of the world's most liveable cities.

One idea was to develop the cultural scene, by attracting top South-east Asian artists to come to Singapore and make their most creative works here.

limjess@sph.com.sg

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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