The Peranakan Museum: A Thoughtful Reopening

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By Jermaine Lee (24A01A) and Michelle Lee (24A01A)

The Peranakan Museum recently reopened its doors on 17 February, after undergoing extensive renovations since 2019. This charming building along Armenian Street was once home to Tao Nan School, before housing the Asian Civilisations Museum and finally the Peranakan Museum since 2008.

We interviewed its curator, Mr Dominic Low, about the new changes and the inspiration behind his curatorial decisions. 

The new Peranakan Museum is organised into 3 major themes, “Origins”, “Home” and “Style”. Each covers one level of the museum. Before the renovation, it had a focus on the Peranakan family, where  Now, as Mr Low explains, the museum hopes to explore “Peranakan” as a cultural identity rather than a familial one and empower visitors to define “Peranakan” for themselves. 

Picture credits: Mr Patrick Wong

The first floor explores the “Origins” of Peranakan communities across Southeast Asia. With an interactive mosaic display of family pictures and stories submitted by Peranakan families, it is a thoughtful exploration of what “Peranakan” looks like in the context of our region.

“Coming Home” by local contemporary artist Sam Lo. Picture credits: Mr Patrick Wong

On the second floor, “Home” showcases the different living spaces of Peranakans. “It was important for me in terms of curatorial approach to reflect Singapore’s landscape,” says Mr Low. 

Conscious of the importance of representing different Peranakan communities in Singapore, he reached out to many different cultural associations to recruit volunteers for an exhibition by local contemporary photographer Lavender Chang.

“Sheltered Dreams” by Lavender Chang. Picture credits: Shannen Lim En-Qi (24A01A)

“Sheltered Dreams” depicts the living rooms of Peranakan families from different ethnic groups in Singapore, including the Nonya Chinese, the Indian Peranakans, the Arab Peranakans and the Eurasian Peranakans. “I wanted to invite visitors to contemplate what connects the communities. With how complex and idiosyncratic Peranakan culture is, there’s no way to pigeonhole them. Through these photographs, you see for yourself how complex and varied it is.”

“You don’t have to be Peranakan to use any of this furniture,” comments Mr Low, “Peranakan families use all sorts of furniture and participate in larger trends.” Picture credits: Michelle Lee (24A01A)

The third floor, “Style”, provides glimpses into the dress and decoration of the Peranakans. In terms of dress, the gallery explores intricate and colourful batik kebayas typical of Peranakan fashion, as well as more modern or alternative clothing made to follow the trends of the time. Should you visit, you would have ample opportunity to admire the jaw-droppingly intricate beaded embroidery, or the golden wedding heirlooms passed down for generations from mother to daughter. 

Contemporary kebayas and kebaya-inspired clothing. Picture credits: Jermaine Lee (24A01A)

With this curatorial  shift from the pre-renovation focus on more ceremonial aspects — with floors dedicated to weddings and rituals — Curator Mr Low hopes to provide a more nuanced and holistic perspective into the lives of members of the Peranakan community, rather than a caricature of its practices. “We don’t want to present a two-dimensional image of Peranakan culture,” Mr Low clarifies, “It is a living community.”

Did you know: “Peranakan” comes from the Malay word “anak”, which means “child”? Our classmates certainly enjoyed the children’s colouring section. Picture credits: Jermaine Lee (24A01A)

So, what can youth do to preserve Peranakan culture in Singapore? 

“You don’t have to be Peranakan to enjoy Peranakan culture,” Mr Low says. To keep Peranakan culture alive, youths can patronise and participate in Peranakan culture and art forms, such as by watching Wayang Peranakan (Peranakan theatre) and enjoying Peranakan cuisine. 

Peranakan culture in Singapore, as demonstrated by this museum, is far more diverse and complex than commonly perceived. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Peranakan culture, you’ll leave this museum with a new appreciation for it. 

So, what are you waiting for? This gleaming repository of socio-cultural history awaits you. 

If you’re interested in visiting the Peranakan Museum, you can access their website here. You can also access their full collection online here.

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