It’s Paw-Sible: How Cats Brought A Japanese Artist And The Malay Heritage Centre Together

As the COVID-19 pandemic impacts tourism everywhere, attractions like the Malay Heritage Centre have been trying to find ways to generate more footfall. Challenge finds out how its latest installation, Paw-verbs on the Lawn, was put together, and what the organisers learned along the way.

The Malay Heritage Centre lures visitors with an installation centred around felines.

They could not be more far removed. Yet, Japanese artist, Juno, and Malay literary culture have a common thread: cats.

These two unlikely entities take centre stage at the Malay Heritage Centre’s (MHC) latest installation, called Paw-verbs on the Lawn. It features cat standees of illustrations by Juno, who is known for cat drawings that depict her love for the felines. This is the first time her artworks are showing in Singapore, and possibly a first for Southeast Asia as well.

Thirty cat standees dot the MHC’s lawn. They are interspersed with 10 educational standees showcasing common Malay proverbs that use cats to metaphorically convey different aspects of human behaviour ­– paralleling Juno’s works that portray cats doing very human things.

Take a photo with cats that reflect our daily lives in a relatable manner.
Mr Alvin Tan poses with a standee of a cat wearing a school cap and backpack.

The Germ of an Idea

It all started with the National Heritage Board (NHB) trying to find ways to bring visitors back to the MHC amid the COVID-19 pandemic while adhering to social distancing measures to stem the spread of the disease.

Add to the mix the centre’s resident cats that greet visitors in the compound, and an idea was born: to feature cat illustrations on the lawn while educating the public on Malay proverbs featuring cats.

“We wanted to have an installation that is visually appealing so as to attract more visitors and more importantly, we wanted the installation to be educational and provide insights into Malay literary culture,” said Mr Alvin Tan, deputy chief executive of policy and community at NHB.

The installation uses visual displays to educate and engage the audience.
Oreo, a resident cat at the Malay Heritage Centre, lies in the shade of a standee featuring a cat on Segway. PHOTOS: Keval Singh

Supporting Local Tourism

The project also fits nicely into the national drive to promote domestic tourism.

“We also linked it back to the SingapoRediscovers campaign, so we overlaid a broader national strategic viewpoint onto what is essentially a museum-specific programme,” Alvin said.

The challenge was to pick just 30 illustrations for the installation, given Juno’s more than 1,000 works. Then there was the research into which Malay proverbs to showcase.

Ms Asmah Alias, General Manager at the MHC, said while there are more than 20 cat proverbs in the Malay language, they picked only 10 because some were harder to translate to English.

“We chose to feature 10 to highlight those more commonly heard and used in Singapore. And even then, not all 10 are commonly heard, so we wanted to introduce new ones that parents can teach to their children,” said Asmah.

The installations feature 10 of the most commonly heard and used cat proverbs in the Malay language.
Ms Carolyn Pang used her fluency in Japanese to help the MHC team communicate with artist Juno.

But how did the NHB/MHC team get Juno on board in the first place? Enter Ms Carolyn Pang, Senior Manager at the NHB’s International and Museum Relations division. She speaks fluent Japanese and was responsible for communications between the MHC and Juno.

This was the first time the MHC and Juno worked together. To gain her confidence, Carolyn shared with Juno the MHC’s past works and plans on how they intended to uniquely showcase her works.

“MHC didn’t just take the image, they took it and localised it in a way, which excited Juno because she didn’t think her images could go in that direction,” said Carolyn.

Adapting to COVID-19

Paw-verbs on the Lawn took only three months to put together. And it was not even part of the MHC’s work plan for the year.

“COVID-19 impacted our visitor figures, and a lot of our planned large-scale events couldn’t be executed, so we had to do something different and adapt to the situation, which the MHC team did very well,” said Alvin.

And it paid off. Since the launch of the installation on March 10, MHC’s visitor numbers have doubled for two consecutive weeks compared to the first week of the month. It was also widely shared on several media outlets.

Even Juno promoted it on her Instagram page (@mofu_sand), where she has a following of more than 300,000.

“I feel very honoured to be working with the Malay Heritage Centre, and I hope that many people will visit the lawn installation, and enjoy Japan’s cat illustrations,” the artist said in a statement.

In fact, a specific section of Juno’s followers were surprised her illustrations made it all the way to Singapore.

Asmah noted: “Some of the comments on Juno’s Instagram post were from Singaporeans who already follow her, and they were very excited her works were being shown here.”

The team attributes the success of this project to their seamless teamwork.
Ms Asmah Alias helped to shortlist 10 commonly used Malay proverbs related to cats and 30 of Juno’s illustrations (from more than 1,000 choices) to be featured on the MHC lawn.

Building On Each Other’s Efforts

A key takeaway for the team: success comes from working together across divisions.

“Divisions in NHB are not protective of their own projects. The way we see it: a project can be enhanced even further if we share information and get input from and collaborate with other teams,” said Carolyn.

Indeed, the idea for Paw-verbs started with Alvin talking about a cat installation before Asmah’s team added to it the idea of linking them to Malay proverbs about cats.

“We all share a common goal and always keep in mind the overall visitorship target across our museums and institutions. In that way, we are all aligned and everyone is motivated to contribute to meet that target,” said Alvin.

Paw-verbs on the Lawn runs from March 10 until May 30, with several programmes planned to go with the installation.

  • Weekly activity: Find Paw-verbs!
  • Performative storytelling, May 22-23 (more details on MHC’s website closer to the date)

After that, the MHC plans to move the standees to the Geylang Serai Heritage Gallery.

The Takeaway

  1. Being able to adapt to fluid situations is important
  2. A project can be enhanced when ideas and input are shared
  3. Don’t lose sight of the organisation’s broader goals

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