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Kenson Kwok

Founding director of Asian Civilisations Museum and The Peranakan Museum.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I think in life, if you want to do something well, you've got to put in a lot of effort… You've just got to love it and you can't imagine doing anything else.

Kenson Kwok is the founding director of Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and The Peranakan Museum (TPM), two national museums dedicated to promoting Singaporeans' multicultural ancestry. Under his directorship, both have become highly respected institutions and continue to celebrate regional and Asian heritage through their exhibits and programmes.

Kenson Kwok was born in 1949 in Sydney, Australia. His father being a banker, the family relocated to Penang, Malaysia, the following year and in 1953, moved to Singapore. Kwok attended the Anglo-Chinese School from 1955 to 1962.

Kwok showed interest in art from an early age. He painted and drew, and made plywood models of buildings. He also seemed to have a natural affinity with antiques. He remembers being unusually fascinated as a seven or eight-year-old by an aunt's inherited collection of Chinese antiques while visiting the paternal family home in Hong Kong. He also bought his first antique at that time, from a hole-in-the wall shop along Hollywood Rd.

When he turned 13, his parents sent him back to Sydney where he studied at Cranbrook School from 1963 to 1966. The School had a particularly good art department with teachers who were artists themselves, and who encouraged their students to visit art exhibitions and museums. This fed Kwok's interest.

He began visiting Singapore's old National Museum whenever he returned to Singapore during school holidays. Later, when it was time to decide on tertiary education he felt he needed to be pragmatic and chose to pursue architecture over art.

In 1972, Kwok graduated from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Architecture (Hons). In 1983, he obtained a PhD in Environmental Psychology from the School of Environmental Studies, University College London.

In 1984, he joined the Systems and Research Department of the Housing Development Board, Singapore. He was first an Executive Systems & Research Officer, and eventually a Senior Research and Planning Officer, co-ordinating, co-authoring and authoring many research projects on the impact of architectural design and planning on residents of Singapore's public housing. He also lectured part-time at the National University of Singapore's School of Architecture.

By the ‘90s, Kwok felt he was ready for a mid-career switch. This was also when Singapore embarked on a rapid and ambitious expansion of its arts infrastructure, which was spearheaded by then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo and then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong. Both politicians were great supporters of the arts.

At the same time, he became President of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society. In 1991, the Society organised an exhibition on Han dynasty ceramics at the National Museum Art Gallery. In the course of setting it up with his fellow society members, Kwok became acquainted with the National Museum's senior management team, including the Museum’s senior director of corporate affairs, Shirley Loo-Lim.

Shortly after, Kwok was asked if he would like to work on a new museum project supported by then Minister George Yeo. This was to be the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), an institution that would celebrate Singapore's past and its heritage through the material culture of Singapore's multi-ethnic society,

In 1992, Kwok joined the National Museum as a senior curator for the ACM project. The ACM would be the first pan-Asian museum in Asia and would tell the story of Singapore’s multi-ethnic ancestries from an Asian perspective. The scope was ambitious, but existing collections were pitifully small, limited largely to Southeast Asian ethnographic materials collected during the days of the Raffles Museum. Collections of Chinese, South Asian, and Islamic material culture would have to be formed from scratch, and more Southeast Asian material acquired, to broaden the scope of that collection.

With no prior experience in this line of work, Kwok faced the challenges of a steep learning curve. This included proving his ability to a team of curators, some of whom were more experienced than him, garnering the support of sponsors, donors and lenders, and ensuring that this new museum would overturn the prevailing view of museums in Singapore as being "fusty and dusty" places.

It was off to an encouraging start when, in 1994, Kwok organised the exhibition Alamkara: 5,000 Years of India. With the largest number of exhibits ever lent by India, innovative displays and a string of VIP visitors, the exhibition drew 900 visitors per day and a total of 165,000 visitors, making it Singapore's first major museum blockbuster. Kwok says: "We hoped against hope that some people would come. We were completely astonished by the huge response."

That year, Kenson was officially appointed the Director of ACM, and for the next three years, he was involved in the planning, renovation and setting up of the museum at the old Tao Nan School Building at Armenian Street. His training in architecture and environmental psychology proved unexpectedly useful when it came to considering visitor circulation and the layout of galleries.

On 21 April 1997, the ACM was officially opened, with over $115 million worth of loans from international collectors. The quality of the exhibits took many Singaporeans by surprise. "People just could not believe their eyes," says Kwok. "A well-informed person who should have known better actually commented: 'Your museum is not bad but you shouldn't have so many replicas in it.' She just couldn't imagine that these exquisite rarities were real and being exhibited in a Singapore museum."

ACM continued with its roster of blockbuster exhibitions at its new premises. In 1999, Eternal Egypt, the first exhibition of Egyptian antiquities in Singapore, drew over 900 visitors each day.

As ACM's efforts to secure international loans had been so successful, it was decided even before its official opening that the ACM would eventually move to larger premises. The Empress Place building, the former headquarters of the civil service during colonial days, was chosen to become ACM's flagship site.

The new ACM at Empress Place would house the museum's Southeast Asian, Islamic, Chinese, and South Asian collections while the ACM at Armenian Street would be turned into a boutique museum showcasing the Peranakan culture.

On 2 March 2003, the new ACM was opened by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Several times bigger than the Armenian Street wing, it housed 11 galleries showcasing Southeast Asian, Islamic, Chinese and South Asian civilisations over 14,000 square metres of floor space. It won awards for architectural design and conservation, and drew rave reviews from the local and international press for its small but choice collections as well as its innovative displays.

ACM at Empress Place continued the ACM tradition of curating blockbusters exhibitions, and drawing record visitor numbers. Journey of Faith: Art and History from the Vatican Collections, an exhibition in 2005, attracted about 1,000 visitors every day, and more than 130,000 visitors in total.

This was only possible thanks to seven years of patient negotiations with the Vatican in Rome. It proved so popular that at the end of its run, Kwok and his team decided to waive admission charges for the exhibition’s final weekend. It was the first time a museum in Singapore was kept open continuously for 48 hours, and there were massive queues even at midnight.

At the end of 2005, ACM's Armenian wing was temporarily closed, and turned into the Peranakan Museum (TPM).This would be the first museum to showcase the material culture of Peranakan communities in the former Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang and their links with other communities in Southeast Asia. TPM was officially opened on 25 April 2008 by PM Lee Hsien Loong with more than 1,200 artefacts from national and private collections on display.

In 2009, Kwok organised his last and most successful blockbuster exhibition with the ACM entitled The Kangxi Emperor: Treasures from the Forbidden City. It saw an average of 1,500 visitors each day and a total of close to 165,000 visitors.

On 31 December that same year, Kwok retired as director of the ACM and TPM after a museum career that spanned 18 years. During his tenure, he opened three museums, mounted over 60 exhibitions, brought in over $100 million worth of loans and $16 million worth of artefact donations.

Today, the ACM is one of the most renowned museums in the region and TPM has the most comprehensive collection of Peranakan artefacts in the world. For his efforts, Kwok received several prestigious honours.

In 2004, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National des Arts & des Lettres by the French government as well as the Public Administration Medal (Silver) by the Singaporean government. In 2006, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, the highest civil decoration in France .

Post retirement, Kwok continues to be active in the arts field. In 2010, he was the adjunct curator for A Passage to Asia at the Bozar in Brussels. That year, he also co-curated - with Tan Huism – the Baba Bling exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. This was the first exhibition to be presented by a Singapore museum at a major museum in Europe.

Among other appointments, in 2013, he became a Board member of the National Gallery Singapore. "Work provides a structure that fills your life so when you stop working, you've got to find other structures," Kwok explains. "I do a little bit of lecturing and consulting, I sit on a few boards. I've gone back to my painting. I've seen much more of my family and friends."

"What has been wonderful about my time with the museums is that I just happened to be here at a very important moment in the development of the arts in Singapore. From the mid 1990s to the middle of the first decade of the 21st century there was a quantum leap, not only for the museums but for the performing art with major institutions opening within that ten-year period", enthuses Kwok. "It has been a huge privilege to be able to contribute to that quantum leap."

Timeline

1949

Born in Sydney, Australia.

1950

Re-located to Penang with his family.

1953

Moved to Singapore with his family.

1955 to 1962

Attended Anglo-Chinese School, Singapore.

1963 to 1966

Attended Cranbrook School, Sydney.

1972

Graduated from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Architecture.
Won the George McRae prize in Architectural Science.

1983

Attained PhD in Environmental Psychology from the School of Environmental Studies, University College London.

1984

Joined the Systems and Research Department of the Housing Development Board, Singapore.

1991

President of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society.

1992

Joined the National Museum and tasked to set up Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM).

1994

Organised Alamkara, Singapore's first big-scale Indian exhibition and first museum blockbuster which achieved a footfall of 900 visitors per day.
Appointed Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

1997

Opened the first Asian Civilisations Museum branch at Armenian Street, Singapore, with over $115 million worth of loans from international collectors.

1999

Brought in Eternal Egypt, Singapore's first exhibition of Egyptian antiquities, with a footfall of over 900 visitors per day.

2002 to 2009

Executive committee member of Asia-Europe Museums Network.

2003

Opened the Asian Civilisations Museum flagship at Empress Place, with Southeast Asian, Islamic, Chinese and South Asian galleries.

2004

Awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National des Arts & des Lettres.
Awarded the Public Administration Medal (Silver).

2005

Organised Vatican exhibition Journey of Faith, which achieved a footfall of 1,000 visitors per day.

2006

Awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur

2007

Brought the Peranakan Legacy exhibition on tour at the Ayala Museum in Manila.

2008

Opened the Peranakan Museum.

2009

Organised The Kangxi Emperor's exhibition, Asia Civilisations Museum's most successful blockbuster exhibition, which saw an average of 1,500 visitors per day.

2009

Retired after 18 years, having opened three museums, mounted over 60 exhibitions, and brought in over $100 million worth of loans and $16 million worth of artefact donations.

2010

Co-curated (with Tan Huism) Baba Bling exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris.

2013 to Present

Board member, National Gallery Singapore.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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