Swiss-born Karine Hoffer invited Verne Maree to her lovely home for a chat – not so much about what she has done for Friends of the Museums, as it turned out, but what volunteering for FOM has done for her over the past seven years.
Set well back from the busy Farrer Road entrance to Gallop Gables, the Hoffers’ apartment is a spacious and peaceful haven. A hemispherical balcony shaded with chick blinds looks directly out onto a wall of tall trees – trees that belong to the Botanic Gardens, Karine tells me.
Only the top-floor apartments have this much space, she explains. The expansive living space is ideal for the imposing furniture that the family brought with them from Taiwan, where they lived for three years in the late nineties.
Before Taiwan, husband Marc’s career had taken them to Scotland; after Taiwan, they enjoyed postings to Brazil and then back home to Geneva, Switzerland, before coming to Singapore in 2005. Daughter Paola (nearly 18) is the only child still in the nest; son Alex (23) and daughter Barbara (21) are studying and working abroad.
How did you first encounter FOM?
On a French Association visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), I met a woman who was a FOM guide and was impressed to hear about the wide range of activities it offered – the Monday morning lectures, the study groups, the docent training programme, cultural trips, the book group, the textile group and more – and little by little I became more and more involved. FOM offers so much that you really do have to choose what you want to do.
Tell us about your experience on the docent programme.
I started with the fantastic ACM programme, which takes six months. (For a smaller institution such as the Peranakan Museum, it takes three months.) Around 50 of us were studying together, divided into groups of seven and mentored by qualified FOM volunteers.
Tuesday mornings from 9am to 1pm were devoted to lectures, and every Friday we had a gallery lecture tour. After each gallery, we had to write a paper that would be marked by one of the docents. I’ll always remember the first one, which was on Hinduism, and the big file of notes we had to read in preparation for the lesson. It started with the names of all the gods, which for me seemed completely daunting!
But everyone helps one another, and as time goes on it all starts to fall into place. Apart from the studying history and culture, you also learn how to speak in public. Most importantly, you learn how best to present an artefact, which is not always obvious or easy. For one thing, we never look at the artefact we’re talking about, and neither do we point at it.
At the end of your six-month training, you yourself have to lead an hour-long tour, and once you’ve done that successfully, you’re a qualified docent. In return, you make a commitment to guiding a tour once a month for the following year.
After doing the ACM course, I did the one for the National Museum, and then for the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. Located in an old house at 12 Tai Gin Road, it’s a boutique museum that was opened in 2011 to commemorate the impact of the 1911 Chinese Revolution on the Singapore Chinese community.
Recently, I led a group of Singaporean Chinese on a tour at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, and from the initial looks on their faces I could tell that the last thing they expected was an ang moh guide! Nevertheless, we all enjoyed the tour tremendously.
What challenges face the museum docent?
When a docent leads a tour group, she is not giving a lecture. Instead, our goal is to share our enthusiasm and passion for the subject. I find that it helps to have a story or a theme that links the various artefacts together, using that connection to take the group on a journey that will bring the exhibits alive.
Most people are nervous about public speaking, and some of the notions that we need to present can be quite complex and difficult to express. Also, school groups pose different challenges: you can’t lose anyone! With younger groups, I often get them to sit down with me to keep them focused on the subject.
Tell us about your work as a guide beyond the museums.
As one of the first batch of volunteers in 2010 for the Preservation of Sites and Monuments group, which is linked with the NHB (National Heritage Board), I lead tours to some of Singapore’s 65 monuments. One, called The Indian Pioneers, visits Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown and the Jamae Mosque in Chinatown; another, called Mixed Blessings, takes in three major religious sites, all within 100 metres of one another on Telok Ayer Street: the old Chinese temple Thian Hock Keng, Al Abrar Mosque and the Chinese Methodist Church. We lead tours inside the Istana, too, on public holidays when it’s open to visitors.
You bring so much information and so much pleasure to so many people. What’s in it for you – and the many other dedicated docents like yourself?
For me, especially having come from a legal and financial background, the experience has been amazingly enriching. Learning about Singapore and its history has helped me understand what it means to be Singaporean. It has made me feel more part of this country, and less like an outsider – and the same goes for when I travel to other countries in the region that I have studied at the ACM and other museums.
What are you looking forward to?
So much happens all the time. When I arrived in Singapore in 2005, there were only a few museums here, but all sorts of others have been established since then. The renovated Victoria Memorial Hall is about to re-open, and the new National Gallery will be opening in 2015, to coincide with Singapore’s 50th National Day celebrations.
What is FOM?
Lovers of art or history will find a natural home at Friends of the Museums (FOM). This highly active organisation has more than 2,000 members, including expats from more than 40 countries, some of whom – after undergoing the necessary training – volunteer as docents (guides) at eight of Singapore’s favourite museums.
Since it was first established in 1978 by four American women as a volunteer organisation offering programmes for members of the National Museum, FOM has gone from strength to strength. It works closely with the National Heritage Board and is a leading member of the World Federation of Friends of Museums.