So, the revamped gallery dedicated to documenting the history of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore has opened. As expected, there was controversy. But the controversy was not about the content; it was over the name of the exhibition/gallery.

Previously, it was known as Memories at Old Ford Factory. Quite a mouthful but innocuous. At a glance, we know that the exhibition was about memories at the site of the former Ford factory. But what memories? For those who did not know, it was dedicated to the memories of the many Singaporeans who suffered under the Japanese Occupation (Feb 1942 – Aug 1945). The significance of the building was that it was the site where the British surrendered to the Japanese.

Now, the museum has been renamed Syonan Gallery: War and Its Legacies. On the surface, it seems like a better name than the previous one. It is clear what the exhibition is about.

But that name raised the ire of many, who felt that it was glamourising the war, the Japanese, and that it was disrespectful of the National Archives (who operates the museum) to name the gallery Syonan, which Singapore was known as during the Occupation years. Some say the name Syonan has negative connotations, and that the use of the word “gallery” was sanitising history.

What, then, would be an appropriate name?

There will never be a name that will please everyone. Nor will any exhibition content please everyone. No exhibition is meant to be comprehensive and exhaustive. But many armchair historians will never see that. They will always pick on what is not there, and why what is there should not be presented the way it had been.

War is especially a tricky one. Read the stories of any museums/exhibitions dealing with war, especially World War II, the Holocaust, Japanese invasion of Asia, the atomic bombing of Japan, and you’ll find that the organisers, the curators and the researchers, are all criticised for every decision they make.

Perhaps because it is so recent, or perhaps the scale and impact of the war are so great, or perhaps the war is one of the most recorded and studied one. Anything about Nazis, the Jewish victims, Japanese war crimes will raise ire. It is almost a given. No Japanese prime ministers have been able to visit the Shinto Shrine without being accused of glorifying “criminals”. No mention of war in Asia will go unaccompanied by constant reminders of the victims of Japanese atrocities. But no one seems to raise much noise about the Allied firebombing of Tokyo.

The fighting may have ended in 1945, but the war over its representations still rages on.

In the Workroom: What’s in a name?
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