Taylor’s Case Study: Saving Our Culture Through Art

“Culture is who we are and what shapes our identity. Placing culture at the heart of development policies is the only way to ensure a human-centred, inclusive, and equitable development.” ~ Jyoti Hosograhar, Founder of and Director of Sustainable Urbanism International.

Despite the many countries within Southeast Asia (SEA) being so closely located to each other, each country possesses a rich and unique cultural heritage evident in the plentiful monuments, heritage sites, mouth-watering cuisines, and bright festivals. The uniqueness in our different culture, as Hosograhar so aptly puts it, shapes us and sets us apart from each other.

As the inevitable process of modernisation continues and the rise of social media finds its place in many parts of SEA, the uniqueness that sets us apart from others slowly starts to dilute our culture as many start to embrace the Western culture. But, do we even realise the impact it has on us?

Senior Lecturer from the School of Architecture, Building, and Design, Dr. Keith Tan Kay Hin, explores the importance of our identity and heritage represented in architectural monuments in his research. He shares what sparked the idea of the research, his journey getting there, and relevant findings that will make you want to pay more attention to your heritage.

Q: I heard that you just completed your research regarding the link between art, materiality, and tourism among ASEAN countries. First of all, congratulations! Could you share with us what the research is about?

A: Thank you! The research was supported by Taylor’s Flagship Research Grant and looked into the importance of art, craft, and architectural monuments in representing the identity and heritage of communities in Southeast Asia. Its aim was to understand how the development of identity requires a tangible expression in order to prevent cities from becoming ‘sanitised’ and indistinguishable from one to another.

Q: What made you go into this particular area of research?

A: The idea for the research came about from a series of coffee-shop discussions with my friend and colleague, Mr. Choy Chun Wei, who was teaching at the Taylor’s Design School. He was commenting on how the Arts was often overlooked and under-appreciated in the public arena. Then, we thought about how interesting it would be to conduct research in the area to create a counter-argument. With my background in architecture and interest in qualitative research gained during my PhD, I felt it was well-suited for me to do this research about public art, identity, and heritage.

Q: How would the research impact the public?

A: The research highlighted the identity and heritage of people in SEA at risk of being swamped by progress. However, rather than rejecting progress and its benefits, our research wanted to look at how art processes, heritage, and identity can contribute in material and economic ways to communities and cities in hopes that this will allow for their retention as integral parts of the knowledge economy of the 21st century. 

It looked at the contribution of historical knowledge to future knowledge. The present is just today but the past is centuries old and the future is infinite after all. So we need to pay a lot of attention to it.

Q: What were some of your fondest memories while conducting it?

A: Visiting Borobudur temple in Java. The visit to Java opened my eyes to the vast variety of cultures and identities that exist in our own Southeast Asian backyard and how we as citizens of the ASEAN member states have so much to share with the world in terms of culture, architecture, and heritage. We should be proud of our rich and diverse heritage rather than just trying to emulate the West.

"Visiting Borobudur temple in Java was my fondest experience conducting the research," Dr. Keith shares.

Q: Oh! That’s interesting. Being able to visit countries around SEA for your research. Were you also working with other stakeholders for the project?

A: My team from the Taylor’s Flagship Research Project managed to obtain a similar grant from Zayed University in the UAE which will run into late 2021. Though, my involvement is limited to being a team member this time rather than the team leader. Plus, the effect of COVID-19 has also created many challenges that may affect the nature of that grant and its deliverables.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly created a lot of challenges for everyone. Speaking of challenges, what were some that you faced and how did you overcome them?

A: One of the articles that we submitted was rejected by the first journal publisher we approached. This was initially surprising because I considered it to be a very strong article with definite conclusions that were timely and of international importance. At the same time, the reasons for the rejection were well-explained and the comments for improvements were useful. 

After receiving the feedback, we revised the article carefully and re-submitted to a different, but similarly, Q2 ranked SCOPUS-indexed journal, which subsequently accepted it with minor revisions. 

To me, research teaches academics the skills to overcome rejection and more importantly, keeps us humble as we seek to ‘market’ our ideas to a critical international audience. Research is tiring but an interesting constant learning curve.

Q: Seeing that this research is completed, did you manage to reach your end goal?

A: Fortunately, we managed to achieve all the main goals, despite the cut-off in funding caused by the COVID pandemic. We’ve published 6 SCOPUS-indexed journal articles, mostly in Q2-ranked UK or US-based international journals, which points to the international appeal of our research.

Recently, in late 2020, we also published a book via Springer Nature (Singapore) which encapsulates the importance of contemporary artistic expressions to Asian tourism, heritage, and identity. Springer is marketing this book worldwide in e-copy and hardcopy so it’ll be interesting to see its impact and how it’s reviewed and received in the future.

You can check out more about Dr. Keith’s publication here.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I enjoy academic writing very much and am pleased to have been the main author for six SCOPUS-indexed journal articles connected to the Taylor’s Flagship Research Project as well as several other journal articles and book chapters that have been published over the last few years. 

I hope to maintain this research momentum going forward, especially in these uncertain times, where funding is extremely tight. At the moment, I have a book chapter scheduled for publication in early 2021 and two journal articles which are in the process of writing. I hope to increase my H-index via more citations.

Dr. Keith wishes to continue excelling in the area of academic writing.

Q: What do you think are some of the challenges the industry will face in the next 5 years?

A: Tourism as a sector will undoubtedly be greatly impacted by the new normal. We’ll see many pre-COVID-19 behaviours changed. Whether or not these changes are permanent or temporary remains to be unknown. The same stands true with education in general. Even ways of conducting research have clearly been affected by the pandemic because the traditional field research, which typically requires meeting a lot of people, observing trends, and gathering statistics, has been severely affected by the various physical-distancing restrictions. 

But I think Taylor’s has done very well to cope with the various changes and challenges by a careful and targeted adoption of technology in its everyday operations, both in teaching and, to some extent, in research.

Q: Final question, how can students be of aid to your research and benefit from it?

A: Students help in research because they’re willing to answer surveys, especially when it’s a survey based on their own class and module. I feel that almost any activity involving large numbers of students can be converted into research output if the right questions, which seek out answers that are worth describing to an audience, are asked. 

The trick is to find a research gap in a scholarly area that is of interest to indexed academic publishers. Well-designed research projects benefit students because they ensure that the projects are important and are dealing with contemporary, real-life issues that require definite and targeted solutions. Thus, keeping students’ learning real and relevant to not only the present, but more importantly, the future.