Future-Proofing the Past: Tech's Role in Preserving Culture
Jervais Choo, Sabila Duhita Drijono, Alina Boyko
Jervais Choo, National Heritage Board, Singapore
transcript s.7 ep.1
Discussion Points
Alina Boyko
Hello, this is For Arts’ Sake - a podcast that gives voice to museum people. Here we discover their untold stories - for art's sake, and for your sake.

In today's episode, we have the pleasure of introducing a new guest, and we're also welcoming Sabila, our host. Sabila has been a key part of our team behind the scenes and will be joining us for this episode and more.

So let's introduce our guest: We're delighted to have Jervais Choo with us. Jervais is the Deputy Director for Organisational Design and Innovation at Singapore's National Heritage Board. What exactly does that mean? In simple terms, Jervais is turning museums into interactive and technology-driven adventures. Think of it like having a conversation with an AI museum guide, or stepping into history with virtual reality. That's the kind of dynamic experience Jervais is creating.

Back in 2017, he initiated DigiMuse: a project that integrates digital technologies into cultural and heritage sectors. But his work is about more than just technology - it's really about making cultural places accessible and relevant. We'll be talking to Jervais about his work, and also how he's using technology to give museums a fresh and exciting spin. And we're particularly eager to learn how he manages this delicate balance between tradition and innovation. Jervais, welcome.
Jervais Choo
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Sabila Duhita Drijono
Thanks for being with us, Jervais. So that was a quick introduction that we always make in the beginning of our podcasts, but obviously, we'd love to hear more about you, in your own words. So tell us, what brought you into the cultural sector?
Jervais Choo
Thanks very much. I think it's really exciting to be here and to be able to share my background experiences in this field. I didn't come into the arts and culture scene naturally. Or rather, I should say, my career didn't start off on this front. From an undergraduate university perspective: I read political science and literature, so there’s always that interest in the arts. It's just that from there, I started my career in the military and in aviation.

I spent probably about 10 years in the military and aviation before coming into arts and culture, and it was really an exciting field for me. The switch in itself is interesting, because people don't necessarily associate the two: military, airports and aviation, they seem quite far removed from arts and culture. But to me, I guess this is where I have found my interests aligning with what we see as the emerging trends now in culture and arts, and the thread that connects it really is technology and digitalisation. I think that's where I've found a lot of synergy and interest in my experience, or my prior experience, and as far as I know, what I'm doing now

Alina Boyko
As you said, you began your career in the military and aviation. Specifically, you worked as a warfare officer in the Singapore Air Force, and then as an airport manager for civil aviation. As you've mentioned, this is all before transitioning into the art sector, and it is quite a unique path. Can you tell us what really prompted this significant career shift? What was the ‘aha’ moment?
Jervais Choo
I think for me, the shift in moving into arts culture and heritage is really prompted by the desire to connect a lot more with people, heritage, tradition, and culture. That was really the motivating factor for me to venture into arts and culture. It sparked from a continuation of my prior experiences, where I started to do a lot more in the area of experiences. If you look at it from airport operations perspective, even though you don't actually make that connection, a lot of the airport experience is really about ensuring that people will come through, know the airport, have a great time, and in their way there, connect with each other, connect with the history of the place that they are transiting through. A lot of that sparked my interest. What else can I do beyond touching people at the airports or in the work that I do? How else can I extend that experience? I think museums seem to be a natural extension. And likewise, I think if you look at it from the work that the Heritage Board does, a lot of it is about protecting traditions, culture, and the human experience.
Alina Boyko
So interestingly enough, I suppose in Singapore, it is pretty much the same as in the Western world, people come with traditional backgrounds in art history, but then there are exceptions, which I personally find quite refreshing. Given your diverse background, are there any skills or lessons from your military or civil service that you found surprisingly valuable or helpful in your work in the cultural sector? And you've just mentioned airport experience. Also, to us, personally, the first thing that comes to mind is discipline, but are there any other skills you are benefiting from right now?
Jervais Choo
I'll touch on it sequentially. I think from my military background, I enjoyed my work in the military, I think it was a great experience for me. What I was able to take away from it is really the notion of looking forward. Because at least in my role then, I was looking at things like strategic master planning, or planning for systems development with a 10 year 15-year horizon. Also, it's not just about dealing with the operational stuff, it's not just about the discipline, but really, it's about having a long term vision for how we wanted to develop, in this case, the military. I found that very useful, because as I bring that kind of experience into the work that I do now, a lot of it is about anticipating trends, anticipating what others need, know what arts and culture institutions might face, and not just from the immediate 1-2 year horizon, but really looking forward into 5 years, 10 years, or 15 years. Where are the opportunities, where are the kinds of interesting innovations that we should tap in? So that, I guess, from the military perspective, was particularly relevant and ideal in the work that I do.

From the airport perspective, I think our airport is notably one of the best in the world, if not the best, consistently. That really sets for me, my experience take-away from it is a certain expectation of standards. It's also about that “human touch” - it's not just an airport as a function, meaning just a place for people to come through, but really, the whole entire airport experience was really about touching every single person, and everyone who comes to the airport needs to feel something. I think that expectation of standards, the expectation of the human touch, the connection with everybody that comes through, and making that an emotional and memorable experience stayed with me. As I came into the Heritage Board, we started looking at what our museum experience might be, how we might make the festivals better, and how we can employ technologies to help enhance the human experience. I think these are really relevant things that I have brought over from those fields, which you don't typically think about, as I say, you kind of see it as pretty diverse. So that's a very common question I get every time I share my background. It's like, “hey, you don't come from a traditional background, and how do you actually learn about arts and culture?”

Sabila Duhita Drijono
And on that note, we'd love to hear more about your role at the National Heritage Board. So right now you are the Deputy Director of Organisational Design and Innovation at Singapore's National Heritage Board. For those who might not be familiar with it, could you clarify what your organisation does?
Jervais Choo
The National Heritage Board is essentially a statutory board under the public service, so we are funded by public money. Our mandate is to protect and preserve history, heritage, and our legacies. I would say, functionally, there are a few areas. The most visible to most people, is that we manage the museums. I think the National Heritage Heritage Board directly manages about nine museums in Singapore, including the National Museum of Singapore, the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Peranakan Museum, and a few others. So that's one function. We do look after and directly manage some of the larger museums in Singapore.

We also have other roles, including safeguarding tangible and intangible cultural heritage. We look at education and outreach and working with the schools to ensure that heritage education is embedded as part of the learning experience across different age groups.

We also look at things like preservation of sites and monuments in Singapore, and a whole variety of other promotional or regulatory roles. I think one big area that I was involved in a lot is the festivals and “precinct development”, as we call it, “precinct management”. So in my early years with the Heritage Board, I started off managing the Singapore Heritage Festival, as well as the Singapore Night Festival, and I was also the place manager for the Bras Basah - Bugis precinct. So there's also other functions that we take on with the objective of ensuring that our heritage is accessible to all, is able to be preserved, and people feel proud of their heritage.

Alina Boyko
Thank you for explaining the role of the National Heritage Board, Jervais. To help us understand better, could you compare the National Heritage Board with similar institutions worldwide?
Jervais Choo
I think there are similar setups across every country, probably named differently, but really handling about the same kind of role. So I guess, if you would take the UK context, it would be the National Arts Trust or the Heritage Trust, and those are the entities that are responsible for that. And similarly, I think if you look at every country, there is a ministry or a statutory board that basically looks after cultural heritage. So it's not dissimilar from all other setups. I think what may be a little bit different is that for NHB, or as we call it, the acronym that we use, we are also very directly involved in running the museums. So that may not be a typical setup for a lot of statutory boards, because a lot of them play more of a regulatory role. Try to promote the industry, but may not directly run the museums.
Sabila Duhita Drijono
It’s really interesting to see how it's so similar to many organisations around the world. But at the same time, you have that unique point where you run the museums as well, which is something that we don't really see in many parts of the world. From what we hear from your story, it seems like you've dedicated a large part of your career preserving and promoting cultural heritage, which are, let's face it, a pretty monumental task. Can you share with us why you think this work is so crucial: preserving and promoting cultural heritage?
Jervais Choo
To me, arts and culture, or cultural heritage in general, is an area that is essential to the human experience and to the way we understand and connect with each other. Being a history student, or someone who has read political science literature, I think we do see this as a very basic kind of requirement in a way for all of us to be able to appreciate and to have empathy with each other. Arts and culture is really that thread that connects all of this, in my opinion.

I think what we also find is that there is a lot of perspective and many different aspects of heritage. This is something we struggle with as well. Sometimes we talk about heritage being the larger narrative, like the history of a nation, how people have come together or separated, and so on. But that's really the larger narrative. But at the same time, as we dive deeper into the work that we do, we realise that there are a lot of what I would call “micro histories”. It's really about the kind of heritage of subcultures or different groups who may not necessarily have the platform to share their stories. I think those are the ones that I personally find very important, so that we come in and play a role to ensure that their stories, their histories are preserved and shared, and not lost to time.

Singapore, for instance - I think we are a very young nation. We only got independence in 1965. But prior to that we do have a much longer history in the overall scheme of things, whether it is as part of Malaya, during the colonial period, or even the pre-colonial period. I think, typically at the National Museum, for instance, we make a huge effort to share that our history started 700 years ago. If you really trace back, even though we are a young nation, it doesn't mean that our history started only when we became independent. That connection, particularly with the region, with ASEAN, for example, with our neighbours, with Indonesia, with Malaysia - I think there's a soft kinship and a kindred spirit that needs to come through. And those stories need to be told as well. Looking at history or heritage in isolation, as well as the connections and the evolution of it that I find really interesting.

And therein then I suppose is the crux of it, right? The storytelling, the way that you connect this and transmit this down to the next generation, so that they are able to transmit it down to the next generation to see the connections, and realise that they don't exist in isolation. I think that's very important. That really is one of the kind of prime motivations for me in the work that I do.
Alina Boyko
Thank you Jervais. Right now at this stage, we've talked quite a bit about the National Heritage Board and digested what heritage means and about your view and in the context of Singapore, but we're also interested to hear about your previous jobs. In your previous role as the Deputy Director for the National Museum of Singapore, we heard that you were involved in the so-called DigiMuse project that we've mentioned, where you were responsible for the digital transformation of nine museums in Singapore. Can you tell us what exactly you did? And please correct me, if you're still doing this project.
Jervais Choo
I think a good way to understand that is when I started off with the Heritage Board, I was in various roles that I mentioned, whether it's in festivals, or industry development and precinct development. Somewhere, I think 2014. I took on the appointment in the National Museum of Singapore, and I think it was in that particular role that I started to have the space to play with, in terms of the spaces within a museum to start, test, and have various ideas come to life with regards to digital innovation. So what happened was, I first started looking around and I realised that there weren't a lot of things happening at that point in time with regards to technology and arts and culture coming together. There was a lot of focus on technology and a lot of focus on what it means to be a “Smart Nation” - Singapore terminology. But a lot of the focus at the point in time is on FinTech (financial tech) or MedTech (medical technologies). That is still the case.
Alina Boyko
I was about to add, still the case!
Jervais Choo
Yes, yes. And as I started looking at it, I was like, hey, there seems to be a missing piece here. I mean, technology on its own is great. I think that it's great that it's relevant in FinTech and MedTech. But what about arts and culture? What about what it means to be able to connect to individuals, to people, across thematics that may be more inspiring to a lot of people as well. So there was a gap that I felt was there. Then I started the DigiMuse initiative and I really appreciate my bosses at that point in time for supporting it because it wasn't really on their radar, but it was something that I felt I wanted to do, and they supported my best intention to do so.

I started DigiMuse with the intention to basically do two things: one, to bring in a lot of whatever I can from the world to Singapore to share. What are the great initiatives in digital innovation that's been practised across museums or arts and culture scenes internationally. So we started off, for example, with an international symposium, where we also brought in a lot of creators in virtual reality, and they were able to showcase their projects in Singapore through the DigiMuse program. That really was the starting point for us to then engage with the local arts and culture community to get them to see, hey, you know, these are things that other people are doing out there, and do you see potential in it? That was really the first phase, really about education, really about bringing in great projects, so that we start to engage with the local communities, local artistic communities.

The second phase of it was then to get our local creators to pair up with technologies. Artists come together and then create projects that are meaningful to the sector. And I think that's where, as part of the digital project, I think we were very proud to have supported quite a number of projects that have come up organically from the local artists to be presented at the National Museum of Singapore.

I'll just give two or three examples. So in the earliest DigiMuse, we did an open call for proposals. It was done in two categories. We had an open call for proposals, one in the area of arts and creatives, for artists and creatives to come in and present new interesting ideas for how technology has actually influenced their practice, or could influence their practice. We see about four or five projects in that field. The other kind of category that we put up was more on museum experience: how can technology change the visitor experience or the museum experience for people? So not necessarily, from an artistic perspective, but more from a functional perspective.

I think it's in that initial call, even today, I find that it has actually influenced how we have looked at technology now. Because even from that initial open call, we had ideas ranging from artificial intelligence to chatbots, to virtual reality to mixed reality to 3D-printed fashion, which is still kind of quite prevalent today, I think. That really set us on trajectories to say, hey, you know, there is a lot more that can be done right in this field, because there's a burgeoning amount of interest.

But more importantly, I think Singapore is well placed, really, to bring it together, because there is a great infrastructure in Singapore from a digital technology perspective, and I think there's also a lot of appetite from the local audiences to experience new technologies. I think it's something that they embrace in the museums as well. I think that was really interesting.

Alina Boyko
Can you please tell the year when exactly this was done?
Jervais Choo
DigiMuse, I think, started in 2017. The first open call went out in 2018, it was the year after. And I think in 2018, as well as early 2019, we had something called DigiMuse presents, which is where we presented the projects that were developed by local artists and creators.
Alina Boyko
Okay, thank you. It's great to understand the timeline, because as you said, many things are still relevant today.
Jervais Choo
So one of the things that I think I still hold today as being one of the more meaningful projects from a museum or Heritage Board perspective, is that we are very conscious that we did not want technology to be there just for the sake of it. And also, it shouldn't be technology for technology's sake. As we start to look at various technologies and how it can be applied, I think a lot of technology is pitched to us now, like virtual reality or mixed reality. You know, “it's the new thing, so you must have it”. But I guess, we'll question “why?” What can that give us that a physical visit does not? I think if you can find that landing point, I think that's where then technology becomes relevant. And it's not just there for the sake of it.

One of the projects that we were quite happy to support is something called Project Insight. It was proposed by local creators, having understood that there was an element in the museum visits that we're missing. When you visit the National Museum, you look at the artwork, you don't really think about the things that go into it before the artwork goes on display. There's hundreds of hours of conservation work that goes into taking care of the artwork, to restoring it to its condition where it can go on display. There was a particular painting, for instance, at the National Museum, it was a portrait of Song Ong Siang, one of the early pioneers. And I think that particular work of art went through hundreds of hours of conservation treatment, restoration work before it can actually be put on display. So what we did was - we introduced the use of mixed reality lenses, and visitors were able to put on that headset, and actually view the artwork, which is, of course, on display at the museum. Once they put it on, they actually see a layer of content that is superimposed on it. They basically see the artwork, and its unrestored state, some of the structural damages. Visitors were able to overlay a UV view, for instance, to see the structural damages, and likewise, be able to show them an infrared view to show where the painting had the defects. They were also able to actively, or virtually I should say, restore the painting. So they become a conservator in action at a museum.

This gave them a deeper appreciation, knowing that there's a lot of effort that goes into conservation, and we should not take that for granted. That was something that we thought was meaningful, because for most visitors, you would not have that perspective, you will not understand that we all know, or even be aware of the role of a conservator, that is very integral to what museums do, and I think that’s a good example where technology is able to supplement or to be meaningfully employed.

Alina Boyko
You've actually just touched on a topic that we would like to explore further, and this relates to what you've just said, that technology shouldn't be for technology's sake when it comes to museums, and that it's important how you use it to enhance relevance. When you talk about museums, they have this unique charm in their physical form. And some of us like visiting museums in person. So how do you ensure that the essence and charm of a physical museum are not lost in the digital space?
Jervais Choo
That's a great question. I think it’s something we struggled with as well, all the time. And particularly, I think, with COVID, things started to really pivot to it, the whole digital space, and which was essential at that point in time just to make sure that the content of heritage and history are accessible. But I agree with you. I think the fact is, when people come to the museum, we want them to enjoy the physical space, right? Otherwise, there's no point to having a museum. The point is, they need to be there, physically present, and be able to appreciate the effort that's gone into curating the experience, the exhibition that has been put together very painstakingly, by many people - the curators, the designers, the creators, the artists. Where we see digital coming in really is where it can add a layer that is otherwise not present, or it can extend the visit, whether it is pre-visit or post-visit.

What do I mean by that? I think a typical museum visit, for example, lasts about an hour and a half, two hours, perhaps, that's at least in a Singapore context. We think there's a lot more that you can discover, and one of the things that I've always kind of advocated for is that when you visit a museum, or an exhibition for that matter, I want you to leave with more questions than you had before you came in. The idea behind it is that the exhibitions of museums are not there to tell you what is - it is there to provoke thought, provoke a response and provoke that curiosity from you. What do you do after you leave, with all the many questions that hopefully you have, that will prompt you to want to find out more?

That's where I see the digital layer coming in. Because that really helps us kind of contextualise where digital is relevant because take, for example, a school - if you're bringing your students in. When you're at a museum, we know that you have a very short amount of time there. Students have a very short attention span. We want you to focus not on the physical experience, but before you visit the museum or after you visit the museum, I think those are where the digital toolkits come in, where you allow the teachers to make use of these and to have the students be able to experience these in a different way and continue the exploration of heritage. That to me, I think is primarily one of the key drivers for where we are looking at from a digital experience perspective. Just to reiterate, the last thing we want is people to stare at their phones and not look through, because that's not the point, right?

I think the other one is where we say that if you talk about our collections, not everything is accessible. For instance, when we created the teamLab installation, ‘Story of the Forest’ - we'll talk about it a little bit more. The whole kind of notion behind the ‘Story of the Forest’ is basically a digital immersive space that brings out a collection of natural history drawings that resides within the National Museum of Singapore. The physical paintings are not readily accessible all the time. A bit of context - the collection itself is called the William Parker collection of Natural History drawings. That's basically a collection of 477 drawings of flora and fauna of Malaya - not just Singapore, but basically our neighbours Malaya. This was commissioned by William Faulkner, who was the first resident in Singapore during the colonial era. But because they are paintings, and they're very delicate and sensitive. So every year, if we bring out a particular painting, it needs to go back to storage and to the conservation to rest for three years before I can bring it out again. At any one point in time, we can probably present about 30-40 works at most, but what about the rest? I think that's where the digital layer comes in. When we talked about creating this immersive space, I think it's really the intention to say that if we can digitise the experience of all these flora and fauna of the paintings of the collection, and bring it to life, and we can actually allow visitors to experience that collection in its entirety, and to bring it to life. To have it have a soft, more immersive, engaging experience for visitors. That was really the motivation for us, and to say that digital is relevant there, because it allows people to connect with the artworks in a different way and to also bring to life something which otherwise they would not be able to connect with simply because the collection itself is difficult to access. With that in mind, I think those were easier, earlier, not easiest, explorations in digital experiences, and I think where we are moving more towards nowadays.

I think the thing that keeps me busy nowadays is really looking at how we can do more to digitise our heritage, whether it is tangible or intangible heritage. We have been exploring a lot in terms of use of 3D technologies, 3D-scanning of artefacts of our buildings, simply with the intention to say that, okay, if we have really good quality documentation, not just in photographs, but really in 3D, which the technology today allows, we can make this available and accessible to a larger range of parties, or communities, or people who might want to access it. I think there's one major area that I think a lot of museums are going into. We see museums like the British Museum, the Smithsonian Institutions, and many others who are also exploring this field.

The other kind of area that benefits from such technologies, is in the preservation of sites - historic sites, monuments. I think we have seen examples internationally of historic sites being destroyed due to war and conflict, for example, and I think the only way to capture these is, thanks to digital technologies, we were able to restore some of these. I think one of the more recent examples is Notre Dame. I think there was a fire that destroyed a large part of the cathedral. But I think recently in Grand Palais immersive, they presented an exhibition, making use of virtual reality technologies to recreate the Notre Dame Cathedral and to also show the restoration process of how it was able to be restored, thankfully, due to a lot of very good quality digital documentation, and they've turned it into a VR experience in itself. Those are kind of really interesting applications, and we are seeing a lot more of these emerging along the way.

Alina Boyko
I have a question about funding, especially since you've mentioned the restoration of Notre Dame, which was significantly supported by external donations. Most of your projects are government funded, aren't they? Or do external sponsors also help?
Jervais Choo
Yes, because we are fully funded and as a statutory board by the government. That being said, we do have partners along the way, whether it is corporations or technology partners who have also come in to support the efforts. But in principle, you're correct, because we are a statutory board, we are largely funded by the government.
Sabila Duhita Drijono
We’ve talked a lot about the success as well as some tips on making technology work for museums. Reflecting on your work so far, is there anything you’d like to do differently, if you were given another chance?
Jervais Choo
In my framing, I don't look at them as failures. In the innovation process, as you look at it, it's expected that certain things will fail. And the whole point of trying out our experimentation is so that you can have more failures, so that you learn from it, and then you can improve and drive yourself on. I think it really is embedded as part of the innovation journey that we encourage, as I always tell my guys or the partners that we work with, “hey, you know, if you have a wild idea, let's just try it!” Then we'll figure it out all along the way. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but the whole point of it is we will iterate from there.

And I think a lot of things didn't work. Obviously. When we started looking at VR projects, for example, we very quickly realised that VR headsets are just not the most intuitive. They spoil easily, the whole maintenance of it, the whole operations of VR headsets is problematic. For a lot of museums, particularly in light of COVID, as well as how much do we want to really push for some of these? Is the technology ready? Or are people ready for things like that?

Recently I've also been reading something about the ‘death of the metaverse before it even started.’ I think it's also very fatalistic, but I don't look at it as a failure. And the metaverse as a term… I don't really like it, but in principle, I think it is really an evolving space that will take a while to grow and build. More importantly, I think people will need to take some time, though, to see the relevance of it before we can decide or judge whether it is a failure.

Alina Boyko
We'd like to hear more about something you mentioned earlier, and that's about your work with contemporary artists. How do you start collaborations? What makes an artist or what an art collective the right choice for your project?
Jervais Choo
I think the artistic space, honestly, when we went in the early years of DigiMuse, I think it was primarily because as I mentioned, in the local context, there weren't that many initiatives in art and technology. And I think, therefore, we saw our role, really, as the National Museum of Singapore to provide deals, opportunities and platforms to bring artists and technologists together to create relevance in terms of how they connect with  the national collection and heritage. It was quite opportunistic. There were a lot of kinds of initiatives that we were working with, from an artistic perspective, to talk to artists and see whether their visions aligned with us.

One of the projects was, as I mentioned earlier, the ‘Story of the Forest’, which was done by teamLab, which is a Japanese art collective. I think the kind of gestation behind that is to say that teamLab, at that point in time, were doing really interesting work in the digital immersive space, and we saw their particular expertise as something that was really relevant to how we see ourselves wanting the collection to really come out and bring that to life. And I think it was us putting forward our kind of ideas and our vision behind what we want, which is basically for the national collection to come to life. And then teamLab, as an art collective, were able to bring in their own blend of aesthetics, of design of art to form that partnership with us. But at the core of it, is really us basically saying that we want the core of the experience to be centred on the national collection, which, as I mentioned earlier, will impact the collection of Natural History drawings. We didn't want a digital experience in isolation, we wanted something that was able to resonate with the mission of the museum. I think that's pretty much the same principle that we take in for every kind of digital engagement or any artistic endeavour, which is the case where we need the artist to be able to work with the context of how the museums are important or relevant to Singaporeans, and how the museum’s core mission is also achieved.

Each Museum is different. Earlier I mentioned the National Museum of Singapore - obviously, I’ve had the most experience there. But when we talk about our other museums and institutions like the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Peranakan Museum, each has its own context, each has its own set of stakeholders or objectives. I think that's where the suitable artists will need to be found to be able to get them to appreciate or to understand that they appreciate the context of the museum. And from there, we evolve to work together.

Alina Boyko
Given your experience with teamLab and their immersive digital art, how do you see augmented reality shaping future museum experiences? What role do you think AR can play in engaging visitors with museum collections?
Jervais Choo
Back in 2014-2015, I think, Google at that point in time launched something called Project Tango. So perhaps listeners can go and Google it, but basically, it was their first attempt at embedding augmented reality technologies into the mobile phone environment, to mobile phone platforms. I think it’s the precursor to what today we take for granted now as the various AR calls that mobile phone developers have embedded, but I think back then it was something quite new.

Part of this Project Tango is basically the notion that certain mobile devices can have access to augmented reality, and you overlay that experience through your mobile device. So back then, we spoke to the Google team, and I think they very kindly supported our initiative. What we did was we actually captured various aspects of the museum, as it used to be in the 1950s, through photographs and all, that we rendered into something that was embedded into the augmented reality experience.

For visitors essentially, when they came to the museum, we introduced what we call an ‘architectural tour’ of the museum. The National Museum of Singapore was basically a building that has been around for more than 130 years. It has been there since 1887, and has always been a museum. It's a really historic venue, but of course, the museum has evolved, right? It started off initially as a more of an ethnographic museum with a large natural history collection and today it’s more of a social history museum. What we wanted to do with the architectural tour was really to say, “hey, today, if you enter the museum, you'll see what it is today, but can we transport you to how it used to be in the 1950s.” For example, back then it was a natural history museum, so you had things like an entire whale skeleton structure, tigers and whatnot all around. So with that, I think the basic notion was that augmented reality can help us bring visitors to visit the museum as it used to be in the 1950s. That was really the initial experience that we brought in, something that we were really excited to try.

I think it had its successes, but it had its failures as well, simply because the platform became obsolete very quickly. Although technology platforms have evolved, the assets are still there, so we still have that experience in the digital assets that were created for that and we have really looked at reusing it as well.

That's one area, where people visit the museum, you could use AR to add on a layer of experience that you otherwise not be able to access. I think that's really important, but the other thing that is important that's interesting about augmented reality is that now everybody can take home a part of the collection in your mobile phone, and you can access it anywhere, not just at the museum. That's where I think AR becomes really interesting because it starts to open up opportunities to gamify how people access the collection. One of the things we've been doing a lot is to identify ways that people can make use of AR when they are not with the museum and to use it in helping the conversations along. For example, recently, we've been prototyping and testing out the use of cards that are designed with certain aspects of augmented reality. You can use it to play a game, but at the same time, if you scan the card, an AR artefact will pop up. And that leads you to be able to explore the artefact on your mobile phone. When you click through on it, it brings you to the Roots website, where you get to find out more information about, let's say that particular traditional dish. From there, you can click through to a YouTube video that shows you how to actually prepare the dish. I think it's that kind of extension that we see it being where we see AR having the potential to really bring it to relevance outside of the museum. I do find that may be something quite interesting as our materiality becomes more ubiquitous now as it's become more mainstream and available, and people are very used to using AR, whether it's for games, or for PokemonGo, however many new experiences that are there. I think we will be remiss to just dismiss AR, I think it does have a lot of potential.

Sabila Duhita Drijono
So far, you've been exploring many of these frontier technologies, like AR, IoT, immersive environments, and you've also mentioned that there are also many challenges in doing these technologies as well, like how quickly they become obsolete and all that. So can you please share with us, maybe an instance or two where a new technology application didn't go as planned?
Jervais Choo
I guess in the way we plan, every time you launch a project, we would have to anticipate: what is the lifecycle of that project? And that could be on a variety of fronts, because when you talk about technology, for instance, hardware itself, there is probably an obsolescence timeline to say, that probably after three years, five years, the hardware definitely will not be able to support the experience anymore. And when we refresh it, there's probably a new platform, a new software that we need to build up, there are different patches and all that. These are actually real pragmatic issues we have to face when we talk about the use of digital and technologies because all this also translates to cost and effort to maintain these platforms.

Previously I’ve said we’ve done some virtual reality experiences, we have used VR in certain instances. I think beyond the technology obsolescence, part of it, I think, a lot of it is also whether or not people already know how to embrace these platforms. For instance, I think there's still a lot of work that needs to be done to get people to be comfortable in a VR environment, because it's very different. Some people feel disoriented in such an environment, and I think there's probably a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of not just presenting the content, but really making it a space where people feel comfortable being in more than 20 minutes, for it to have relevance. There's a lot of work to be done. It's not just about the visuals, it's also about the overall sensory design of the space. It's about how you make sure that the audio is synchronised with the visuals so that you don't have a very disconnected experience that creates that disorientation and all that. I think there's a lot of these designs that we are still learning and working through.

I think another area that we have tried out and which hasn't necessarily worked is really the use of these technologies to support accessibility initiatives. So for instance, for somebody who is visually impaired, I think we have tried out quite a number of various technologies to allow for people who are visually impaired to navigate the museums, for example. Still not quite there, I think there are still a lot of rough edges. A lot of it is also about, for instance, if you bring somebody who's visually impaired, they're very comfortable using what they're familiar with, which is, let's say, their own walking devices or their own ways of navigating it. The moment you throw them another device, there's a whole new orientation process, there's a whole relearning that needs to be done, and this is not necessarily practicable. So I think, in the area of accessibility, I think there's potential, but there's also a lot more work to be done now to allow for people to be able to benefit from the technology. Those are things which we are still constantly learning for.

Alina Boyko
Moving beyond virtual reality and augmented reality, what do you believe is the next significant development for museums and heritage sites in the future?
Jervais Choo
I think for museums and heritage sites, or just heritage appreciation in general, digital and technology is one of the main benefits that is able to break down barriers in terms of geography of space and time. And these are elements, which are very essential to the thoughts about heritage experiences, to really look at it from a perspective of place or perspective of time. If we were talking about a heritage site, I think we'll want to know where it is physically, but also how it has evolved across time, and how else has the landscape around it evolved. Where digital technology comes in, it's really able to break down these barriers, and to kind of allow people to be transported and transcend these physical constraints.

The other aspect is that technology allows for the proliferation or transmission at scale, communication at scale. I'm able today to create an experience that can be accessible anywhere in the world, and that's groundbreaking. I mean, that's really something that is unimaginable, I think. If you look at the early conceptions of museums, because museums were pretty much a space which focused on the physical, and is they still are, but today, no, I can have a museum located on one end of the earth connect with another museum, and people can actually talk or interact or engage with each other. That really, I think, is something that is obviously not just centred on museums, it's really the way that society has evolved. Globalisation and the way that technology has started to bring together these various aspects. I think museums can benefit from this, because it's really about bridging cultures. It's really about bridging people's understanding with each other.

I guess for me, there are really two areas to look at. One, which we probably don't have a lot of time to go into, but it's really about the whole AI evolution. I mean, OpenAI and all that has given us at this point in time a peek into the possibilities of how people engage with heritage content, with history, with various media, will change. The way people create content will change. And I think museums can look at it now either as a threat, or as an opportunity. But either way, I think, realistically speaking, we cannot ignore that.

One of the things we are trying to position ourselves to look at is: okay, if AI is going to be part of our lives in terms of how people use that, to create content, or to search for content, or to kind of have a conversation with history, so to speak, how can we enable that in a way that is protected and safe? That is something that will not run away from us, right? A lot of the work we are doing in AI is moving forward, and what we think a lot of museums would be looking at as well is, what is the whole range of digital content that we have now? Is it text based content, audio content, videos, images, or 3D models? And how can we bring that together within an ecosystem that allows for all of this to be accessible, searchable, and more importantly, for it to be a very kind of robust ecosystem of content that really gets people to be able to engage with the museums at a much deeper level? I feel that is definitely one area that we need to look at.

Alina Boyko
Well, AI is a big topic right now, especially with the rise of technologies like chatbots and ChatGPT. Can you tell us when you first started exploring the use of AI?
Jervais Choo
We first started in 2017, I think, where we started DigiMuse. At that point in time we were looking at conversational AI. It's really how we use AI in chatbots that allows people to query artworks, query aspects, and to get them to better engage with our collection in a deeper way. But of course, at that point in time, the technology was still quite preliminary. I think it was there, there were straightforward applications, but definitely not as fantastic as they are now.

There are challenges as well, obviously, with AI, and I think it goes down with the bread and butter issues as well. I did quite see its impact on artists, creators, designers. I think those are definitely things that we cannot run away from.

But I guess, purely from a museum perspective, in terms of content and outreach, obviously, we are responsible for safeguarding heritage in general. I think it does present a really interesting opportunity. It's not just from the point of view of how people access heritage content, but also, how we inspire the next generation to create new content based on digital assets that we might have within the collection. The whole idea is that we can democratise the use of heritage assets through digital. Because today, if it's all physical, I think that people don't have access to it as much. But if, let's say, we have an entire digital collection, and it's not just about 3D assets, it's about how that comes together with media, images and all that. Imagine the amount of things that students can do with it, right? How can they make it relevant to themselves, and how can they bring it forward? How can they transmit it? How can they adapt it now, for something that's relevant for their generation, and to be passed on for future generations? I think those are really important kinds of perspectives that we need to take when we talk about technologies like AI.

Sabila Duhita Drijono
So Jervais, one final question that we asked everyone on this podcast: if money was no object, what kind of museum or cultural space would you create?
Jervais Choo
It's one of those questions that gives us the opportunity to really think, imagine out of the usual constraints. And for me, I think I would draw back to having been in arts and culture for about 12 years. I think, for me, the connections I make with it is really about the lived experience. It's not just how we have documented it, but it's really how people connect with it, how people are able to see the relevance or see themselves in all of these experiences.

So, for me, I think I would love to bring together this idea of what might be, for instance, a museum of lived experiences, meaning that it's not just about the digital content or the digital heritage. It's not just about the physical heritage, but it's really how people connect with it, and how their stories are able to come out in depth. I would say it's something that's a little bit different. It’s not just solely focused on, let's say, a national collection, but it's really, for instance, a museum that allows for people to really connect with each other and to share their stories, and for those stories to come to life, whether it's in digital form or physical form. The whole aspect of having lived experiences and being able to touch on how personal heritage comes to light, I think that's really important for me. So I started off this whole podcast talking also about subcultures and micro histories. And I think that really resonates with me. How can we allow a space where all these stories can come out? And along the way, I see it as a museum that is evolving, right along the way.

Alina Boyko
It would be great to see your ‘museum of lived experiences’ come alive. As we're finishing up, is there one last thing you'd like to share with our listeners, any message or a piece of advice?
Jervais Choo
My advice, or my thoughts really on this, is that we shouldn't be afraid to try new things. I think that's probably something a lot of people say, but I think it's also something that is very real, because you never know where the journey will take you.

I started DigiMuse really back then as an idea. I didn't have a very long term vision of it. It's just something I wanted to try out. It has since evolved into my full time job, which I enjoy and which I have been fortunate to be able to continue doing and enjoy. But the thing is, as you start to chase different ideas down different paths, you'll hit your roadblocks along the way. I think more importantly, don't look at them as failures or roadblocks. Each experience is something that gives you that opportunity to learn something new and to build upon. And I think that's really essential for any museum professional, any arts and cultural heritage professional because there will be many roadblocks along the way. Some maybe policy-driven, or some maybe regulatory, or some maybe just technology, or so on. But the whole idea is that you hold true right to what you believe and just keep going.

Alina Boyko
Absolutely, we couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much, Jervais.
Sabila Duhita Drijono
Thank you Jervais, it was great to have you.
Jervais Choo
Thank you.
Alina Boyko
Thanks so much for listening to For Arts’ Sake. If you liked this episode, make sure to subscribe and catch up on our previous seasons. You can also connect with us on Instagram at forartsake.uk and on Twitter at sake_arts. Thanks again, and we can't wait to have you back for more.