I've just spent a total of 11 months undergoing two Friends of the Museums (FOM) docent training programmes at the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) and the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC). Just so I could fill a big gap in my life.
I've always been in search of meaningful volunteer work, inspired by my mother who always found time to read to orphaned kids, or seek aid to help single moms pay their bills. But being busy and picky, it was a tough call deciding whether I would want to commit to line-dancing with the elderly or tending to parent-less kids. That was until the call of the museums came.
Qualifying as a docent at Singapore's museums meant having to sit through lectures on Singapore history and Asian cultures, attend field trips to places we don't cherish enough, researching, writing and presenting artefact papers, and above all, learning to tell engaging Singapore stories. That process was daunting at times, but all the hours put in have now proved to be a real investment.
Because as a qualified docent, I find myself rubbing shoulders with the universe really. From local kids to the pioneer generation, to visitors who descend upon our cosmopolitan city. That's way bigger than I expected, and perhaps more satisfying than what other volunteering options could have given me.
Growing up in 1970s Singapore, I was led to believe that our existence began in 1819 with Sir Stamford Raffles, and that before him, but not too clear how long ago, there was a Sang Nila Utama, or maybe he and Parameswara were the same person? Ask anyone from that schooling era and chances are they'd muddle these personalities up.
Then there was the issue of Singapore's merger and separation with Malaysia, an almost taboo subject growing up, leaving that era best explained by urban legends.
All these mysteries, and more, were revisited and clarified during training, giving me a fresh perspective about my country. What a privilege to have the questions I had as a child be answered through guided self-study, and by the university professors and experts who generously spent their hours laying out the facts to us in class.
What I've gained in the docent training course has been quickly translated not just into tours at both the NMS and MHC, but something bigger. The chance to mentor youth who want to brush up on presenting skills using museum artefacts, and the opportunity to engage seniors who remember milestone moments in Singapore, have been most rewarding.
And the pleasure of meeting foreigners and expats who hold Singapore in high regard, and want to learn more about us, has been gratifying.
If you're in search of volunteer work that will keep you satisfied and challenged into your later years, try to find some time to fit the hours in for docent training. Your world as you know it, will grow.
In the meantime, training may be over for me, but the work is never done. I keep up with reading, attending lectures, and learning from the very best docents at FOM. Who knows, maybe we'll meet at the museums at one of my tours, which I hope will delight you!
By Yasmin Abdol Hamid, National Museum of Singapore and Malay Heritage Centre Docent
Friends of the Museum is a volunteer, non-profit society devoted to offering guiding services and financial support to Singapore’s museums and cultural institutions and to delivering programmes to enhance the community’s knowledge of Asia’s history, culture and art.
FOM partners with the National Heritage Board (NHB), the National Arts Council (NAC) and other public and private organizations to provide members and the public with opportunities for service and for life-long learning through our various programmes.
Founded in 1978, the organization has nearly 2,000 members who come from 52 countries and speak over 30 different languages.
FOM currently supports 9 different museums and cultural institutions by training and managing volunteer guides who provide tours at:
- Asian Civilisations Museum
- Gillman Barracks
- Indian Heritage Centre
- Malay Heritage Centre
- National Museum of Singapore
- Peranakan Museum
- Singapore Art Museum
- Singapore Tyler Print Institute
- Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall
FOM offers many ways for members to explore and share their love of culture with others, whether by participating directly or just listening intently. Membership is open to anyone who shares a passion for culture and heritage.