Telling stories, not science

Telling stories, not science
PHOTO: The Straits Times

They are the marine biologists who made the impossible happen, raising $46 million in just six months in early 2010 to set up the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

When the museum finally opened in April this year with Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin, 55, as head, and his mentor Leo Tan Wee Hin, 70, as a senior member of staff, it was the culmination of a long-held dream for both.

Visitors to the museum spend much of their time gazing raptly at the trio of dinosaur skeletons dominating the first floor, but equally important for the scientists in charge is the historic Raffles collection of plants and animals established in British colonial times. It was the pride of the Raffles Museum in 1878, but it languished in obscurity after Singapore became independent in 1965.

The collection moved from the newly renamed National Museum of Singapore to the then University of Singapore's department of zoology in 1972. Its name and home changed over the years, but the collection remained mainly the purview of scholars.

This was a pet peeve of those such as Prof Ng, an eminent crab researcher who encountered the collection while studying at the university under the mentorship of Professor Tan who, in turn, was the first to get a degree in marine biology from the University of Singapore.

Both believe anyone visiting a natural history museum will develop new appreciation for living things and the need to conserve the environment.

"The reason for doing such a museum is to help people appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature," says Prof Tan. "Trying to convince people of the value of these things is an uphill battle."

Prof Ng adds: "People think a museum is a place for the dead. It's not, it's a place for people to learn at."

From 1998, Prof Ng was put in charge of the renamed Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, an academic museum open only to those affiliated with the university. Prof Tan was director of the National Institute of Education from 1994 until 2008, when he returned to NUS as professor and director of special projects, Dean's Office in the Faculty of Science.

A year after Prof Tan "came home", as Prof Ng puts it, the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research was opened to the public for one day on May 24, 2009, International Museum Day.

To the surprise of both scientists, an estimated 3,000 visitors showed up to see what they had been missing. The Sunday Times ran a column titled Let's Have A Natural History Museum by Tan Dawn Wei and after that Prof Tan was approached by a mystery donor willing to offer $10 million to start such a museum here.

After consulting NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan, they were offered a piece of land at the new University Town area, but learnt that they would require about $30 million to build the museum. They had six months to raise the funds before the university reserved the space for other use.

"During that time, I was asked: 'What if you fail?" recalls Prof Leo Tan, who led the fund-raising efforts. "Failure was not an option. Until the deadline, I would not think of failure."

Amazingly, the scientists raised $46 million within the allotted time - $45 million from major donors including the Lee Foundation and Tote Board. Almost $1 million came from members of the public who responded to Straits Times' articles about the museum, a public endorsement that validated both scientists' push for this project.

"People from every section of society gave what they could," says Prof Tan, eyes moist at the memory. "Secretaries, technicians. It was amazing."

Both scientists also wanted the museum to be a centre of research into the plants and animals that populate and have populated the world. It is a belief that brought them the museum's headline exhibit of full-size dinosaur skeletons: the 24m-tall and 27m-tall adults nicknamed Apollonia and Prince, which come with a baby, Twinky, only 12m from head to tail.

The skeletons were about 80 per cent complete when excavated from Dana Quarry in Wyoming - paleontologists throw celebratory parties over a skeleton just 30 per cent whole - and offered first to the Singapore museum at a bargain price of $12 million because those in charge of the dig heard the centre would be open to scientists coming to study the specimens.

Again, donors stepped in to help the museum acquire the dinosaurs.

On the days that Life visits the museum, gaggles of adults and pupils stand in awe before the dinosaurs, quietly observing them, but many also roam around interactive displays related to the Raffles collection, watching video clips and listening to bird calls.

"What's wrong with museums?" says Prof Ng, gesturing at the enthralled visitors. "It's time to correct the public perception of museums as dusty tombs."

He and Prof Tan often get feedback from visitors young and old thrilled by the museum, many of whom did not expect to be fascinated by the experience.

"You need to tell stories, rather than science," Prof Tan says.

"Some will see the science, but some will never come if you tell them this is about science. You're there to inspire those with an aptitude for science to stand there in awe and think: 'What if? What could I do as well?'"

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