University of Melbourne Magazine

A delight in the museum

  • Angelita Teo (MArtCur  2012), Director of the National Museum of Singapore.

    Angelita Teo. Picture: Singapore Press Holdings Limited

    Picture: Singapore Press Holdings Limited.

    Angelita Teo has a vivid memory of racing through the Louvre as a child, eager to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa first-hand.

    “I was quite disappointed, to be honest,” she says with a laugh. “It was really, really crowded, I was young and had to tiptoe to see over all the heads, and then I realised how tiny it was.”

    Undeterred by that disappointment, Teo went on to study anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and in her early 20s worked as an assistant curator in Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum before dabbling in the IT industry.

    She found herself drawn back to museums, however, when an ex-colleague asked her to work at the National Museum of Singapore. In 2010, she was awarded a scholarship by Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, and decided to complete a Masters in Art Curatorship in Melbourne, citing the city’s culture and networking opportunities.

    “During my two years in Melbourne I got to meet really important people in the industry, and I continue some of those wonderful relationships today.”

    In 2013, 11 years after f­irst being hired by the National Museum, Teo was appointed its director. “I never expected to be the director of a national museum,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for slightly more than three years now and it’s been extremely invigorating.”

    Over a period of 18 months in 2014‑15, Teo oversaw a complete revamp of the museum’s galleries. In her ­first year as director, more than a million people visited the museum, a record for any museum in the country.

    “During my two years in Melbourne I got to meet really important people in the industry, and I continue some of those wonderful relationships today.”

    Teo credits her success in part to timing – she was appointed director shortly before Singapore celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence, an occasion that resulted in extra funding for the museum – and partly to her experience as festival director for the National Heritage Board.

    “When I came back to the museum I brought those portfolios with me, and because of that we had a lot of opportunities to create exciting events that were either held at the museum or within the museum grounds,” she explains.

    Singaporeans don’t traditionally go to museums, but that’s changing. By installing activity corners and workshops in the museum, Teo has encouraged the young to develop a passion for history and culture.

    “The number of children coming to the museum has increased quite dramatically, and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to have a new children’s wing at some point,” she says.

    “I’ve always felt very strongly that the f­irst experience for kids coming to museums should be with family.”

    By Erin Munro (BA 2006)