Jun 08 2012

Natural history drawings at the National Museum of Singapore

Published by at 8:46 am under Museums

When the British colonised Singapore in the 18th century they sent more than just governors and garrison – they also sent naturalists to document the island’s exotic flora and fauna. One of them was William Farquhar, and a new permanent exhibit at the National Museum Singapore showcases his well-known collection of natural history drawings.

Step right in to this free exhibit

Step right in to this free exhibit.

William Farquhar (1774–1839) was the first colonial Resident and Commandant of Singapore, as well as an eccentric naturalist who kept a private menagerie of hornbill birds, a tapir and a Malayan tiger. To share knowledge of these exotic creatures with his peers back in England, he commissioned Chinese artists to paint them. This work resulted in 447 watercolours of Southeast Asian plants and animals known as the “The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings”.

At the time, the paintings were of important scientific value and in 1826 Farquhar donated them to the library of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain. In 1993 the collection ended up on the auction block at Sotheby’s where it was purchased by Goh Geok Khim, a Singaporean investment tycoon, who then donated it to the National Museum of Singapore. At long last, there is a permanent gallery displaying The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings and admission is completely free.

Gibbons are long extinct in Singapore, but this painting survives.

Gibbons are long extinct in Singapore, but this painting survives.

The blend of colonialism, art history and nature make this a unique exhibit. A changing collection of paintings are displayed and accompanied by write-ups with some humorous anecdotes, like that Farquhar thought Malay tapirs could be domesticated and attempted to hand-raise one. Other animals in the collection include hornbill birds, giant flying squirrels, gibbons and the Asian bearcat. In an ironic twist, most Singaporeans have never seen these species as habitat loss means they have gone extinct (though you can still spot wildlife on Pulau Ubin).

Similarly, there are detailed drawings of Southeast Asian fruit like mangosteen, rambutan and rose-apples. Handwritten comments in the margins of some paintings say things like “A delicious taste enjoyed by both Europeans and Natives”. There is no such comment for durian, suggesting that the ‘hey, try some of this’ has been a practical joke to play on the unknowing for 200 years.

Tapirs are cute when they're little, but wait til it's 300kg.

Tapirs may be cute when they're little, but wait til it's 300kg.

William Farquhar Collection
Goh Seng Choo Gallery
Second level of the National Museum of Singapore
93 Stamford Rd
T: 6332 3659
Open daily 10:00–20:00
Admission is free


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