Much has improved at the National Museum of Singapore since my days as a schoolboy. Then, I thought of it as cold, dark and maybe a little forbidding, a place where, if not for the spiral staircase, the sight of which would induce a spike in the heart rate, one would be utterly bored to death. The museum these days isn’t just much less forbidding. It has gone far beyond telling history through the display of dimly lit and poorly labelled specimens and artefacts to a place where the history is an experience; and, it promises to get even better when the doors to its permanent galleries, closed for the better part of a year for a revamp, re-opens this Saturday (19 September 2015).
The revamp, which sees in particular a huge improvement to the layout of the Singapore History Gallery, is summed up by Ms. Angelita Teo, Director of National Museum of Singapore:
With a refreshed layout and updated narrative, visitors can look forward to a more engaging and immersive experience; a bit like stepping back in time to the different periods of our history. Innovative displays, interactive elements and compelling personal stories make history and the artefacts come to life, and through them, we hope that visitors will form a greater emotional connection to the museum and to Singapore’s history.
A large number of artefacts, more than 1,700, include will be on display in the permanent galleries. Many, from the National Collection, would previously have been seen. One that will catch the attention of the visitor is the so-called Singapore Stone, a surviving portion of a sandstone boulder that had been located at the mouth of the Singapore River. The boulder, which was blasted out by the British, bears inscriptions that have not fully been deciphered and is thought to have originated in the days of Temasek or early Singapura. It has been associated with the legend of Badang, a strong man. A tale told in the Malay Annals or Sejarah Melayu has Badang winning a challenge by hurling the boulder to the mouth of the river.
Several artefacts from recent times, some never seen before, also make their appearance. These include personal objects of national significance that were either donated or are on loan such as a 1959 flexidisc recording of “Majulah Singapura” and a complete Temasek Green National Service uniform set, the very first to be used by our NS enlistees. The flexidisc features the only known recording of Zubir Said’s original 1958 version of the song that was later to be modified for use as Singapore’s National Anthem. The version was one composed for the Singapore City Council and the flexidisc, a souvenir produced to commemorate the attainment of full self-government in May 1959. The flexidisc was donated to the museum by Mr. Low Kam Hoong, a friend and former colleague (see also a post related to the flexidisc on the Facebook Group “On a Little Street in Singapore“).
In the new galleries, the artefacts are given greater meaning through the use of contextual displays, ambient sounds, multimedia platforms as well as interactive platforms, giving a much more immersive experience to visitors. Another dimension is given to the experience in some cases, where scents, a powerful trigger for memories, supplement the displays. Produced and sponsored by Givaudan, one of the scents recreates that hard to forget stench of the once polluted Singapore River!
Many of the historical artefacts will be found in the remodelled Singapore History Gallery. With its entrance now located on Level 1, it has been made a lot more accessible. Its now more linear layout also allows a literal walk-through of 700 years of our history as Singapura / Singapore, which begins with a monsoon storm. The winds, responsible for bringing traders and visitors from far and wide to the region, will in the new Singapore History Gallery blow visitors on a journey through the days of Singapura (1299 to 1818), the years of the Crown Colony (1819–1941), the dark days of Syonan-to (1942–1945), and post-war Singapore (1945 to present).
The passing of the storm, a light and sound show over a 1570 map of the East Indies, brings visitors to Singapura at its beginnings, an period of time described in the Sejarah Melayu. The accounts of a Chinese trader Wang Dayuan, also tell us of the links the island may have had to the Middle Kingdom. This is supported by evidence from archaeological excavations in Singapore that visitors will see on display, which also tell us of the links early Singapura may have had to kingdoms in Siam and in India.
In a year in which we also commemorate 70 years of the end of World War II, the exhibits relating to Syonan-to may be of particular interest. One very significant artefact from the period in the Singapore History Gallery, which is on display during a one-year loan period, is the Surrender Table. The six legged teak table was the one on which the surrender of Singapore to Japan was signed in the boardroom of the Ford Factory at Bukit Timah on 15 February 1942. Donated by the Ford Motor Company of Malaysia to the Australian War Memorial in November 1964, the table is on loan to the National Museum.
Several other exhibits may also be of interest in the Syonan-to section. One recalls Mrs. Elizabeth Choy, a war heroine who was held and tortured by the Kempeitai. The display includes the set of clothes that Mrs. Choy wore during her imprisonment, and also a gold necklace. The necklace was donated by Mrs. Choy’s daughter Bridget and was one given to Mrs. Choy by Lady Daisy Thomas, the wife of Governor Shenton Thomas. A family heirloom, the gift was made by Lady Thomas in gratitude for the help Mrs. Choy had provided Lady Thomas with during the latter’s internment during the occupation.
An exhibit that will certainly catch the eye in the Syonan-to section is a replica of a Type 95 Ha Go Japanese tank. The light, fast and highly manoeuvrable tanks were widely deployed during the Second World War and used in the Battle for Singapore. The replica is one of four constructed for Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s television mini-series, The Pacific (2010).
The war years also feature in one of the four Life in Singapore: The Past 100 Years galleries (previously the Living Galleries) located on Level 2, in a gallery dedicated to Surviving Syonan. The four galleries will allow visitors to immerse themselves in four more important periods of Singapore’s recent history, in part, through the experiences of those who lived through them.
The occupation years are ones in which visitors can see how hope and love could overcome despair and uncertainty. A glimpse is also provided in the three other galleries into life in the 1920s–1930s in the Modern Colony, the turbulent 1950s and 1960s in Growing Up, as well as into the years that shaped the new Singapore and Singapore identity in the 1970s and the 1980s in Voices of Singapore.
A rather interesting display in Voices of Singapore, one many in my generation will identify with is an installation that attempts a recreation of Singapore’s first and only ever drive-in cinema, Remembering the Jurong Drive-in cinema. The installation features a video montage by Singaporean filmmaker Eva Tang, who is inspired by the different film genres and themes popular with Singaporean audiences in the 1970s and 1980s.
The last of the permanent galleries will be found at the Goh Choo Seng Gallery on Level 2. Here, we find Desire and Danger, which aims to show how fine a line sometimes exists between the two in the natural environment. The gallery features a selection of drawings from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, which is combined with scents and specimens that tell us of the complex and often uneasy relationship between man and nature.
If the immersion into history starts to get too heavy this re-opening weekend, there will be distractions on offer at the Opening Weekend Carnival that the museum is also holding. The carnival, from 10 am to 6 pm on 19 and 20 September, will provide some excitement to both the young and the old, including a chance to relive the good old days through once familiar childhood favourites such as kacang puteh, ting ting candy, sng bao and tikam-tikam. Also to look out for are special guided tours of the Singapore History Gallery this weekend. Information on this, the re-opening and more on the carnival can be found at the National Museum of Singapore’s Opening Weekend Page.
Opening and Admission Information:
The permanent galleries will be opened from 10am to 7pm (last admission 6.30pm) daily.
Admission is free for Citizens, Permanent Residents (unless otherwise stated) and visitors aged 6 years and below.
Otherwise, these admission fees apply: Adults $10, Students & Seniors aged 60 above with valid ID $5.
Tickets includes admission to all permanent galleries and exhibitions and are available from the National Museum Visitor Services counter and SISTIC.
Beyond opening weekend, guided tours will commence from 3 October 2015 for which visitors can enquire at the Visitor Services counter for guided tours.