The Nature Museum: An Interview with Joel Tan


August 21, 2017

Playwright Joel Tan joins the Institute of Critical Zoologists for The Nature Museum, an eclectic museum-installation-exhibition at 72-13 that uncovers the natural history of Singapore from the 19th century to the present day. We sit down with him to chat about this multi-disciplinary museum and the unusual work of the Institute of Critical Zoologists.

SIFA: You’re a playwright.

Joel Tan: Yes. 

SIFA: But obviously you wouldn’t describe The Nature Museum as a play.

JT: (laughs) No. Well, I mean, it’s pretty murky territory, isn’t it? Even within a more conventional understanding of writing for performance, for the theatre, say, you end up asking a lot of questions about what the hell it is you’re doing. Is the playwright really just an organiser of events, arranging beats, moments, and so on? Is it always a writerly act? I see myself working in that grey spot with the ICZ.

 Excerpt from The Behavioural Ecologies of Egrets at the Japanese Garden (1992)

Excerpt from The Behavioural Ecologies of Egrets at the Japanese Garden (1992)

SIFA: So, a dramaturgy of visual art?

JT: Mm, no. The Nature Museum is quite literally a museum. It’s really a sort of museological dramaturgy?

Museums always try to tell a story of some sort: the development of an ancient civilisation over period x to period y, for example, or the story of the art of a country, the story of an ethnic group, and so on. Here, we’re looking at the natural history of Singapore from the mid 19th century to the present. It’s the story of the natural world on this island, which includes the story of human encounters, interventions, and incursions over the years.

We’re telling this story through a pretty massive collection of artefacts. Or at least whatever we could fit into 72-13! Each artefact, each cluster of artefacts, tells a story. You throw all of them, this heaving collection of archival material, photographs, experiments, models, what have you, into a room and it’s like entering a massive field of stories all clamouring for your attention.

In a way it’s very much like that mass of uncertainty when you first start writing a play: a morass of urgent questions, characters, voices, events, all screaming out to be organised into something that cuts precisely and potently in a single, continuous stroke.

SIFA: So what is the place of a museum of natural history in a Festival of Art? I ask because it’s not immediately clear, though it is a very tantalising concept.

JT: Yeah, this isn’t your average natural history museum. I mean, it’s not the sort of natural history museum that takes the usual scientific approach in its storytelling. It’s a natural history museum that incorporates very diverse points of view and streams of knowledge.

ICZ has always kept an open door to multiple ways of working. It’s worked with historians, anthropologists, ecologists, visual artists, and now dramatists. The aim has always been to tell stories about nature and ecology from a multi-disciplinary point of view, and this includes artistic vantages as well.

SIFA: How does that overlap work: the artistic and the scientific?

JT: Quite comfortably actually. I mean it’s because the story we’re telling, collectively, is so broad. If you think about it, so much of the violent story of Man’s relationship with nature calls for artistic intervention. It operates on an intellectual and emotional plane as much as it does from a scientific, observational remove.

And actually that’s another “art” aspect of the Museum. It’s operating in a very layered critical mode. The idea of “nature” itself, which for most people tends to occur as a series of bucolic objects like trees, parks, forests, and so on, is challenged. Here we’re trying to explore Nature also as something that creeps under the skin of the most banal and “un-natural” experiences. Like life in the city, the domestic sphere.

SIFA: So a “natural history museum” in scare quotes?

JT: Or rather a natural history museum where human activity is on display as much as, or more than, stuffed animals?

You know, after such an intense violent history of exerting control over nature, we tend to think mostly about the scars that we leave on the natural world. But what about the scars, or at least the strange marks, that nature leaves on us?

For example, as part of our documentation for this commission, we produced a series of photographs of a colony of feral chickens, or red jungle fowl. It turned out these birds would shortly after be culled in a very high-profile way. The images now have this strange power, a deep pathos. It really creeps under your skin. 

  Last Jungle Fowl, Nee Soon, days before a cull, 2017

Last Jungle Fowl, Nee Soon, days before a cull, 2017

There is also a very distinct postcolonial strand in the mix. This is because the Museum begins its inquiry with the earliest British-colonial encounters with the island, and it’s really fascinating to observe how that way of seeing, that sort of obsessive cataloguing and disciplining, has been replicated over the years, even through to the present. So yeah, like I’ve said, it’s a natural history museum, but with a very critical point of view.

SIFA: Let’s go back to your involvement with the ICZ and the Museum. You’ve worked with them mostly as a dramaturge?

JT: Yes and no. I was there during the documentation phase as well, collecting artefacts, documenting wildlife and so on. I joined photographer Robert Zhao, whose work is on display, on that trip to document those ill-fated chickens, for example, which has almost permanently put me off eating chicken. I should stop saying chickens: jungle fowl. The difference is crucial. We also met an old trap-maker, and I’ve learned a great deal about domestic bird traps, and now know how to operate a few of them. These are also on display.

The idea was to kind of get an experience of these objects, and figure out how to communicate the stories behind them. All this is on top of a massive pre-existing collection of old photographs and documents that the ICZ has been collecting for years now. Part of my job was to comb through all this archival stuff and find interesting narratives that fit into the story we’re trying to tell about Singapore’s natural history. And then to, I guess, “dramaturge” that material, to organise the strands, pick the most compelling ones, trim off the fat.

And then having helped with the organisation of the display, I worked to create a guided tour which strings together some of the more compelling narratives. It’s about an hour long, and gives the audience a lot of insight into the artefacts on display. It activates the artefacts, gently makes connections between them. The aim is that you’re able to then find your way into the web of stories and organise the material for yourself. I think it’s a very important way to experience the Museum, because there really is so much on display, the tour doesn’t even cover everything.

The Coast Exploration Society, 1970s.

The Coast Exploration Society, 1970s.

SIFA: So you were there as a kind of researcher yourself.

JT: Yes, very much so.

SIFA: What are some of the most interesting things you dug up?

JT: Well sitting there in the archive, for example, was the collection of a man called Francis Leow, most of which had been donated to the ICZ after his death in I think 2005. Leow was a sort of amateur naturalist, but that really puts down a lot of the research work he did in his own time. The guy wrote a lot of unpublished scientific papers, collected a huge amount of photographs of all kinds of wildlife in Singapore, even did nature talks in CCs [community centres] and schools.

It all seemed a little disjointed at first, but then we started seeing subtle threads and connections in his work, and realised that we could dedicate an entire section of the Museum to this collection and use it as a way to tell some very cool stories about Singapore’s urban ecology. I mean that was one of the more thrilling moments in this process, like a real “aha” kind of thing.

We also came across this series of images that has been of great interest to arborists and other tree enthusiasts who’ve been trying to determine which is the oldest tree in Singapore. It’s really fascinating, because it was like stumbling into the club meeting of a bunch of very smart, very passionate tree- otakus. You’ll have to come see the show to find out more (laughs). Good right, my marketing?

SIFA: On that note, anything you want to say about why people should drop by the Museum?

JT: Come see the show because there are all kinds of bizarre, sometimes quite unnerving, stories about the natural environment in Singapore. I didn’t realise just how much weird stuff there is about nature in Singapore before I started work on this. Come for the Museum but stay for the stories!

  • 2017