Yunci Cai

Indigenous Agency, Native Curatorship and Cross-cultural Museum Practices in Southeast Asia

Indigenous Agency, Native Curatorship and Cross-cultural Museum Practices in Southeast Asia

Over the last two centuries, museums and cultural centres of diverse forms and sizes have emerged in Southeast Asia to preserve and present the rich and complex cultural heritage of the region. Many national museums in Southeast Asia today have their roots as colonial museums of the Western imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Greater consciousness in the value of culture over time has also led to a proliferation of museums in Southeast Asia ranging from memorial museums and war museums to house museums and temple museums, as well as to heritage centres and indigenous museums, to preserve the social memories of significant national events and the cultural vestiges of disappearing traditions. Whilst some museums have been established based on the paradigms of the ‘Western’ museum model, others have adopted alternative models of museum development. The emergence of the indigenous museums in Southeast Asia that embrace indigenous models of cultural preservation and curating, established with the purpose of promoting the cultural and social development of their native communities, is one noteworthy trend purporting the alternative model of museum development.

Based on a selection of case studies of indigenous museums in Southeast Asia, this study attempts to address these research questions:

(a) In what ways do indigenous museums in Southeast Asia offer an alternative model of museum development from the traditional ‘Western’ model?

(b) What are the identity politics associated with indigenous museums in the study region, especially between one established and managed by the communities vis-à-vis one spearheaded and funded by the government?

(c) What roles do these indigenous museums play in the context of the development of their local communities?

(d) What implications do these indigenous museums have on museum theory and practice?

The research will draw on critical museology as its epistemological framework to destabilise Euro-centric ways of thinking about museums. Adopting grounded theory as an analytical framework, this study will take on an iterative and interactional approach to fieldwork, marrying data collection and analysis with relevant extant literature and theories to produce data-grounded concepts. It will adopt an ethnographic approach, employing an array of qualitative methods such as in-depth interviews with curators and source communities, participant observation, detailed recording of events and tracking of ideas as well as material culture analysis to uncover the intricacies of the diverse museum practices of these indigenous museums and their native communities. It hopes to offer recommendations for the successful implementation of museum-based community projects for other countries.

Funding organisation

  • UCL Overseas Research Scholarship
  • UCL Graduate Research Scholarship


 Educational background

  • B.Soc.Sci (Hons), Geography, National University of Singapore, 2005
  • MA, Museum Studies, University College London, 2010

Cai, Yunci (2013) “The Art of Museum Diplomacy: The Singapore-France Cultural Collaboration in Perspective” in The International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 127 - 144.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Museums as Temples of Cultures or Palaces of Entertainment: A Study of New Museums in Singapore” in The International Journal of Inclusive Museum, Issue 1, Volume 3, pp 73 – 85.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Law and Singapore’s Built Heritage” in Encounters with Singapore’s Legal History: Essays in Singapore’s Legal History: In Memory of Professor Geoffrey Wilson Bartholomew, Tan, Kevin Y. L (ed.). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp 87 - 125.

Cai, Yunci (2009) “Living Landscapes: Community Heritage Institutions”, in BeMuse, Issue 3, Volume 2, pp. 76 – 79. Singapore: National Heritage Board.

Cai, Yunci (2008) “In the Land of the Ascending Dragon”, in BeMuse, Issue 3, Volume 1, pp. 68 – 75. Singapore: National Heritage Board.

Conference presentations

Cai, Yunci (2011) “Multicultural Museum Programming in Singapore and the Politics of Inclusion” [Paper Presentation], Co-presenter, Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM) Conference, 25 to 27 May, Singapore.

Cai, Yunci (2011) “Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Singapore” [PowerPoint Presentation], Networking on East Asia Cultural Heritage (NEACH) Seminar, 5 to 8 March, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Cai, Yunci (2010) “Protection, Preservation and Promotion of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Singapore” [PowerPoint Presentation], Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museum Field School, from 23 August to 5 September, Lamphun, Thailand.

Cai, Yunci (2008) “Museums as Temples of Cultures or Palaces of Entertainment: A Study of New Museums in Singapore” [Paper Presentation], International Conference on Inclusive Museum, 8 to 11 June, Leiden, Netherlands.

Selected publications and conference presentations are available for download at

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