Honor Harger is the executive director of ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Under her aegis, the museum has held large-scale exhibitions by some of the world’s best-known artists. This includes Leonardo da Vinci, Salvador Dalí and M.C. Escher. It has also presented exhibitions that explore aspects of science including big data, particle physics, natural history, marine biology, cosmology and space exploration.
Explaining how her engagement with art and technology began, Harger tells blooloop:
“From a professional curatorial point, the first time I was working actively within a visual arts context with technology was in New Zealand. This was with a contemporary arts organization called Artspace, in the mid-1990s. Artspace was a crucible of experimentation within the visual arts in New Zealand. It did quite a forward-thinking exhibition in the mid-1990s called Electronic Bodyscapes.
“The exhibition explored the way that artists – pioneers – like Stelarc and Orlan were using technology in performance art or visual art contexts. That was when I was introduced to the way that art and technology can come together to create new ideas, new spaces of conversation, and to point the way for where technological innovation might go. That was my starting point into the space of art and technology.”
Defining the museum’s identity
Before joining ArtScience Museum, Harger was the director of Lighthouse, a digital arts venue in Brighton, UK. In 2010, she was guest curator of the Transmediale festival in Berlin. From 2004 to 2008, she was director of the AV Festival. At the time this was the UK’s largest biennial of digital art, film and music. She was the first curator of webcasting for Tate, where she also curated events and concerts at Tate Modern.
Harger is one of the cofounders of the sound art collective, r a d i o q u a l i a. One of their main projects was Radio Astronomy. This is a radio station broadcasting sound from space.
She has been the executive director of ArtScience Museum in Singapore since 2014
One of her key aims has been “to clearly define the museum’s identity as an institution that explores the intersection and unity of art and science”.
“It’s a big task,” she says. “We turned 10 this year. It’s our 10th anniversary year from the point where the museum was being conceived by Marina Bay Sands and the architect, Moshe Safdie. It was always intended to be a place where art and science came together. You can feel it in the architecture of the building, which is structured almost as an echo of a lotus flower. Our gallery spaces look like large lotus petals, embodying the ideas of nature, engineering, and innovation.”
FUTURE WORLD: Where Art Meets Science
“My job is to make sure that our artistic output speaks the same language as our beautiful architecture. We do that in a variety of ways. The first way, which is very visible to the public, is in our permanent exhibition, FUTURE WORLD: Where Art Meets Science. It very much declares our mission in the title of the show.
“This exhibition is a partnership with the Japanese art collective, teamLab. They embody the space where digital technology and artistic creativity meld together, and they are very interested in their artwork being almost a forerunner of the future of art.”
“They are quite outspoken, actually, about their pieces representing a different modality of engagement with art. And that is why we wanted to work with them, to create an art experience for our visitors. One which wasn’t just about the visitors looking at a completed artwork, but was also about visitors collectively helping to create the artistic experience by being in the space, and also about there being no one privileged view of being a spectator; that everyone’s perspective is creatively rewarding.
“We were super-interested in their philosophy, and how we could bring them into our museum. We wanted to have that signal of art, science, technology coming together to highlight how the future might be evolving, as an always-on experience for our visitors.”
Shaping the exhibitions programme at ArtScience Museum
Another way that the museum expresses that union of art and science is through the temporary exhibition programme:
“I’m responsible for both the operational management of the museum, but also the artistic direction. So, I have the fun job of working with our curators and our director of exhibitions to conceive the shape of the exhibition programme each year. I get to think about what stories we want to tell. Whether they’re stories of science, stories of nature, stories of art. These stories propel this notion of art and science being connected, interlocked disciplines. That’s another core part of what we do.”
COVID is, inevitably, part of what is informing that vision at the moment – and the innovations born of the pandemic.
“The pandemic has posed enormous challenges for the museum sector internationally. That is something we all share, from a global perspective. However, some of us have been in the privileged position of being able to remain open and to allow visitors to visit our museums.
“In Singapore, our museums were only required to close for a short period from April to the end of June last year. Since that point, we’ve been open every day. That’s a privilege that we take seriously. We know that many of our colleague museums internationally can’t do that.”
Impacts of the pandemic
“One of the things which the pandemic has in some ways forced, and in other ways, inspired museums to do is to look at their local context,” says Harger. “To try and capture some of the stories and the voices from those communities. And to provide a platform for its unheard voices or unseen members.
“It is pleasing that through a crisis we have been able to see that more human side of curatorial work.”
“We started to reflect it, also, in our on-site programmes,” she adds. “Particularly an exhibition that we did this year and last, called Margins: drawing pictures of home.”
Margins featured the work of 15 contemporary photographers, reflecting on topics important to Singapore today.
“Margins looked at communities and stories that sit on the margins of our home, Singapore.
“But in terms of what is informing a bigger vision as a museum, one thing I could highlight is the very serious responsibility we feel in sharing stories about environmental issues, and how our pressing global systemic problems such as climate change, such as the loss of biodiversity, are going to inform, impact, and shape our future.”
ArtScience Museum and climate change
This is a theme that runs throughout many of the exhibitions and programmes at ArtScience Museum:
“This is a topic to which we return to often. We have explored this in ambitious exhibitions which we have curated like 2219: Futures Imagined, and touring exhibitions such as the Planet or Plastic? that we staged in 2020-21. We have also actively engaged with environmental issues in our education programmes. We recently organized beach clean-ups on Singapore beaches to get our visitors involved in active conservation work. The environment is the heartbeat that runs through a lot of our work.”
There is, after all, a likelihood that phenomena like the pandemic emanate from the same factors that are driving climate change:
“That’s certainly what a lot of scientists believe,” says Harger. “There’s no question that when we, as human civilisation, start encroaching onto natural habitats and displacing the ecosystems and the biosphere of those habitats, you’re going to have greater interaction between nature and people. Sometimes that can have great positive impacts; sometimes, not so much.”
Museums help communities heal
Harger’s TED talk in June 2020 was on how museums help communities heal. She shared how ArtScience Museum engaged with its visitors through streamed talks, performances and workshops. These investigated the COVID-19…
Read More:Singapore’s ArtScience Museum: where art and technology intersect