Exhibitions about war are most powerful when they take the shape of the personal. Dislocations: Memory and Meaning of the Fall of Singapore, 1942, uses the personal to great effect. Located in the basement of the National Museum, the exhibition commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Japanese occupation in World War II.
Instead of focusing on big picture politics, Dislocations tells stories intimately through oral history, documentation by individuals and personal effects. The exhibition is laid out in an appropriately dark and sombre space and visitors walk through moving elements of different aspects of the occupation and participate in augmented reality or touchscreen activities.
The first hall is lit with lights fashioned after kerosene lamps, a reminder of the sparse resources in those times. The rooms flow into one another, displaying artefacts collected from ships sunk in attacks and articles written by journalists recounting firsthand what they saw in many air raids.
One particularly touching display is in a room with a tall series of long shelves: a mass grave was exhumed and each of the objects found labelled and organised by the Japanese. Visitors walk the length of the room and examine tiny watch faces and chain-link straps, pens and even bottles of tiger balm all rimed with rust and soil. To imagine the people who once wore them is to understand the tragedy of such bloodshed more powerfully than from books or lectures.
At the end of the exhibition, visitors can choose the artefacts they find most meaningful for more long term curation – a fitting reminder of how we are all part of the national narrative.
Dislocations: Memory and Meaning of the Fall of Singapore, 1942 has been extended to 31 July. For Singaporeans, admission is free.