Cover Photo: Asian Civilisations Museum

The honour is bestowed on recipients who have significantly contributed to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance

It is not every day that we have Singaporeans receiving prestigious awards or accolades from overseas. So when they do, it is certainly a cause for celebration. 

Just recently, Singapore had an occasion to celebrate when the French Government bestowed Kennie Ting, a homegrown writer and the director of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) with the prestigious conferment of the rank of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters for his outstanding contributions to strengthening the cultural ties between both France and Singapore.

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The distinguished award has three tiers, namely, Chevalier, Officier and Commandeur. Ting was honoured with the French Chevalier Award.

The award was established in 1957 by the French Minister for Culture and is meant to recognise significant contributions to the arts and literature. To be awarded, recipients, who can be both French or otherwise, need to have significantly contributed to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance. 

Some notable recipients of this award have been people such as filmmaker Guneet Monga, singers Elton John, Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder as well as poet T.S. Eliot.

For Ting, the honour was bestowed on him for the way he brought French and Singaporean culture closer together with his work at ACM.

“Under his leadership, the museum has expanded its scope to explore important links and connections within and beyond Asia. France is looking forward to further cooperation with Singapore in forefront cultural areas such as digital innovation and creative industries thanks to the agreement inked by our Ministries of Culture,” said Marc Abensour, the Ambassador of France to Singapore in a statement on the Embassy’s website. 

In particular, a 2018 exhibition called Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City which was presented at the 2018 edition of the Voilah France Singapore Festival in partnership with the Guimet Museum of Asian Arts in Paris was highlighted.

The exhibition was one that inspired the second cultural agreement that was signed in November 2019 between France and Singapore’s Ministers of Culture. The agreement focuses on co-creations, co-curations and co-productions between institutions, artists and practitioners between the two countries. 

In honour of one of Singapore’s own receiving this prestigious honour, Tatler sat down with Ting to find out what he feels about winning as well as to talk about his work at the museum and how Covid-19 has reshaped it. 

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How do you feel about receiving the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres? What was your reaction?

Kennie Ting (KT): My first reaction when I received the formal letter from the French Embassy in Singapore was a wide-eyed surprise and a wee bit of confusion. I had been so focused on work, and on adjusting to the new normal these past two years that I wasn’t expecting news like this at all.

I never dreamed that I would receive such an honour. It seems like such a big honour for me.  I feel such immense gratitude to His Excellency, Ambassador Marc Abensour, in particular, and his colleagues at the French Embassy who have been strong supporters of ACM. I’m deeply humbled though I have to admit I’m still getting over the shock.

What does receiving the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres mean to you?

KT: The Chevalier award is awarded on account of the strong relationship ACM has had with France and our French counterparts. It is also awarded for the work put in on the part of the recipient to promote arts and culture. I see this as an indication that I have been doing my work well and that I have been performing my duty as museum director to present the culture and heritage of Asia in a unique and fresh way.

There is so much for us to learn from France. First of all, I’m inspired by the deep and widespread appreciation for the arts and for culture and heritage amongst the French public. This is something I want for Singapore too and I believe that this will come from us shifting the ways we present culture and heritage.

ACM is also moving strongly into the space of fashion and curating fashion and Paris is the leading centre of fashion in the world. There is so much for us to learn from our counterparts there. One of the most meaningful avenues of collaboration ACM has had with the French Embassy is when the latter funded a cultural leaders exchange programme in 2018 for me to travel to Paris and Lyon to meet with the directors of major decorative art and fashion museums there. 

The trip was an extremely fruitful one because what I learned from our counterparts in France helped me and my team shape the curatorial approach and narrative for a Guo Pei exhibition we held.

The link between contemporary couture and art history, which was the central thread of the exhibition’s narrative, was something that we directly applied from what we learnt in Paris and Lyon.

You have done many things and held many different roles in your life. What has been your favourite so far

KT: I would have to say my favourite role is still being a writer. I am deeply introverted so there is nothing I like more than locking myself in my study to write.

I’ve been lucky to have a publisher in Singapore, Talisman Publishing, who publishes my writings on the heritage and history of Asian port cities. I’ve also got a new book that I’m working on now on the Great Port of Cities of Asia and the Indian Ocean which is a great project.

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How has your work and job scope/goals changed with Covid-19? 

KT: The greatest shift with Covid-19 has been the drastic drop in visitors to the museum which has also impacted our revenues greatly.  Footfall is generally regarded as the most important indicator for museums worldwide. In the absence of footfall as a measurement yardstick, I have been concerned about the question of impact and Covid-19 has allowed me to find new ways to measure impact.  

One example is in our ongoing #Sgfashionnow exhibition, which is unprecedented in curatorial approach because it involves a four-way collaboration between the museum, Laselle College of the Arts School of Fashion, the industry and the larger fashion community.

The exhibition, though small has greatly uplifted and profiled Singapore fashion in a manner we did not expect. We became a platform for growth and development for would-be curators and for designers and their practice.

We were so thrilled because working with the community and industry in this brand-new way brought brand-new perspectives to the museum. We learnt so much and we are going to do this again for sure. 

What’s next for you? 

KT: Peranakan Museum. In the year ahead we will be gearing up for Peranakan Museum’s re-opening which will take place in early 2023. In the year ahead, I shall be morphing somewhat into my other persona of director of the Peranakan Museum. You will see me in much more batik for starters.

But also, I will be banging on even more than I already am about our need to celebrate our unique cultural hybridity as Singaporeans, drawing upon the concept of being Peranakan and more. 

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