The National Museum of Singapore is housed in a beautiful 1887-built building (the former Raffles library and museum) and offers an array of galleries celebrating Singapore’s history and culture. Singapore is home to oodles of museums, but thanks to informative displays, a range of exhibitions and a lovely gift shop and choice of restaurants, this is one to include on your essentials hit-list.
The main Singapore History Gallery begins with a dramatic walk through a large rotunda theatre showing a film on the rounded walls. Singapura: A Day in the Life was shot in 2006 and takes you through, well, a day in the life of the city-state. This is where you’ll also get the hang of your nifty tablet, handed out as you enter (not when you pay for your ticket upon initial entry, though it’s included in the ticket price); follow its directions and you’ll end up downstairs in the theatre, ready to amble through the rest of the museum.
Various rooms and displays will then waltz you through Singapore’s history, from mysterious fragments found where Singapore stands today through to modern day.
While we thought the tablet worked well, there is something to be said for the printed word that you can read quickly; sometimes we just didn’t want to sit for three minutes to listen to an audio explanation that we could have read in 30 seconds. Then again, there’s also something to be said for the atmosphere created by audio — it’s very well done, so long as you allow yourself enough time to take it all in. Of course, you can skip whatever you like.
The history covers Singapore’s opium dens, the rise of Lee Kuan Yew, and plenty of other highlights through beautiful displays well integrated overall with the audio. Children aged seven and above can follow a tour tailored to them.
Several other galleries each highlight an aspect of Singaporean life. On our last August 2014 visit fashion as well as the film and wayang galleries were closed for upgrades. Food was open and we thought very well done, particularly for those fresh to the region, with for instance a beautiful herb and spice display that included some scents to sniff. The photography gallery meanwhile featured some stunning black and white historical news photographs.
The final permanent exhibit showcases ecological drawings from the time of Singapore’s first Resident and Commandant Sir William Farquhar. You might be surprised to see what kinds of flora and fauna Singapore once hosted. 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 this permanent exhibit showcases his well-known collection of natural history drawings.
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.
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.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions, usually at an additional charge. Check the museum’s informative website ahead of a visit to see what’s on. We’d thoroughly recommend setting aside at least a half-day at the museum if you’d like to explore the galleries properly and listen to the audio guide. You could probably whisk through in a couple of hours if you wanted just a quick look.
Several dining options mean you can take a break between galleries if it’s all a bit much. We’d suggest heading to the more casual and socially responsible Food for Thought, but there’s fine dining Flutes and the Cantonese option of Chef Chan’s as well. Do also set aside some time to browse Museum Label for a souvenir beyond the usual.
By Samantha Brown
Last updated on 6th April, 2015.