[personal profile] dmaze
Last month's Asia trip included a couple of museums: the Shanghai railway museum, the Mint Museum of Toys in Singapore, and the Singapore World War II museum Reflections at Bukit Chandu.  This leaves me with a much better sense of what I appreciate in museums: they should be able to tell me some consistent story that I can appreciate and put in context.

The Shanghai railway museum had a couple of imported pieces of rail equipment out front, but most of the exhibits were indoors – and exclusively in Chinese.  The guide I had wasn't as useful with the translation as I might have hoped, but picture of train, map, and 1876年7月1号  is actually easy enough to interpret.  Add to this knowledge of Western railroad history, and that the Xinhai Revolution was in 1911 (the end of the Qing Dynasty and the start of the Republic of China, a date I got from my guide), and you start to get a picture of what happened: railroads were built with heavy Western influence (picture: if you didn't know it was China, it looks exactly like a British level crossing box), starting fairly late, and so with fairly established technology.

Reflections at Bukit Chandu was one of the later things I visited in Singapore, but it similarly did a good job of telling a story.  Singapore was a British posession up until 1963, as a port on the shortest naval path from the Suez Canal and India to China.  When the Japanese had already invaded China and were taking an aggressive stance towards the rest of eastern Asia, it was clear they had two options: attack by sea, or land in what is today northeastern Malaysia and hack through miles of inpenetrable jungle to reach Singapore.  The British bet everything on the naval defense; the Japanese attacked over land.  The downstairs part of the museum was displays covering the British strategy and the actual battle; upstairs somewhat gently covered the Japanese occupation.

Many toysThis brings us to the Mint Museum of Toys, also in Singapore. This is packed into a small building across several floors. Most of it is display cases, filled with toys, largely from the 1940s through 1960s. There is no interpretation of any of it. If these were the toys I had grown up with, I could see it triggering nostalgia, but that's my parent's generation and not my own. Some of the brands (Dr. Who, Peanuts, Mickey Mouse) have survived until today. Where there were cards next to individual toys, many of them were estimated values at auction. My main take-away from this museum was "look how many antique toys we're collected!"

And maybe that's okay in some other contexts. Many railroad museums I've been to here have Massive Awe-Inspiring Machines; most people I expect will see a 4-6-2 Pacific steam engine and have at least a little bit of a "wow, that's impressive" reaction to it; you don't need the explanation of a history of railroading to appreciate it. Or if you drive up from Boston to the Seashore Trolley Museum, everything there has a "T" logo on it, and so you can relate to it. But I feel like art museums as often as not expect you to have the degree in art history; I often don't appreciate paintings in their own right, and don't understand why this collection of this one artist is supposed to be interesting, so I tend to wind up leaving unsatisfied unless something can trigger my "wow that's cool" reflex.



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