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On the last day of September, the alumni of the University Scholars Programme (USP) gathered at Loft Café for the second run of ChatterboxPro and for a sharing by Maria Khoo Joseph (History + USP, Class of 2010), assistant curator of the Peranakan Museum. The idea of ChatterboxPro is to bring about spontaneous conversations that always take place in the USP student lounge, fondly called Chatterbox, in new spaces outside campus. The goal, in the organisers’ words, is to cut through the small talk and “rediscover real conversations”.

Maria shared about the process behind the two exhibitions that she curated this year, namely the “Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives” and “Unearthed: Singapore At 25”. Through her sharing, it was easy to see that the process of curating exhibitions revolved around making tough choices about artefact selection and narrative presentation.

Maria pointed out that the curators had spent a lot of time contemplating the ways to represent personalities in diverse aspects such as gender, occupation and social classes.

In contrast, the “Unearthed” exhibition presented a different challenge. As the curators had to work with a limited amount of materials buried 25 years ago, the challenge became “How does one tell a story of the Singaporean society with whatever he/she could find in the time capsule unearthed?”

Maria’s experience in curating the two exhibitions that were closely tied to the SG50 celebration prompted fellow USP alumni attendees to be more cognizant about the process of narrative construction in our national institutions.

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Very often, we express disappointment about the singular official narrative that we were given. Yet Maria’s sharing gave a glimpse into the other side of the story.

Given limited materials, it is at times hard to present a more diverse and critical narrative, even if the curators had the best intentions. Furthermore, these materials were usually passed down from an earlier generation who may have totally different understanding about what constituted artefacts as compared to us today.

Maria’s sharing of her challenges at work also resonated with fellow alumni attendees well. As one of the alumni put it, Maria’s frustrations arising from the limited control over exhibition materials reminded her of her own struggles at work, even though the two were in totally different fields. There was even a sense of reassurance that the alumnus felt, probably because she was new to the working world and needed the affirmation of someone more experienced.

Like any other USP discussions, that evening’s ChatterboxPro left attendees with more questions than answers. What was probably different for some was the newly discovered sense of connection to fellow alumni as USP’s most recent graduates in July, made the transition from student life to the professional world.

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Initiated by the USP Alumni Society, ChatterboxPro held its inaugural session at Loft Café on 28 May, wherein three USP alumni shared about their work in the public sector, private sector and in a social enterprise.

They were Lynnette Kang (English Literature + USP, Class of 2009) of National Library Board, Ervin Lim (Business + USP, Class of 2011) of CapitaLand and Ibnur Rashad (Engineering Science + USP, Class of 2011) of Ground-Up Initiative, respectively.