A breath of fresh air at the National Museum of Singapore

(T) The Growing Up gallery at the National Museum of Singapore focuses on the experiences of a kampung childhood, with artefacts ranging from toys to autograph books to school uniforms.(B) Relive the experience of Singapore’s only open-air drive-in cinema, which used to be in Jurong at one of the National Museum of Singapore permanent galleries. Sit in cars to watch a montage of archival clips.(R) Part of the Asian Civilisations Museum collection, this gramophone’s distinctive flower-shaped horn was influenced by the Art Nouveau movement.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Following a $10-million facelift that began last year, the National Museum of Singapore is opening its six new permanent galleries this weekend.

The revamped galleries are what used to be the History Gallery and other galleries themed around fashion, food, film and photography. Having been around for almost 10 years, they were dated, static and in need of an update.

Now these tired galleries have been given a boost in both style and substance.

Style, in that the new galleries present content in more creative and immersive ways. For example, visitors can experience Singapore's only open-air drive-in cinema in Jurong by sitting in cars and watching a montage of archival clips put together by local film- maker Eva Tang.

Substance, because the galleries have dramatic new inclusions in their displays, such as war heroine Elizabeth Choy's clothes - a well-cut beige collared shirt and black skirt - when she was arrested and tortured by the Japanese.

Other important new exhibits are the table on which the British signed the surrender papers; a barrister gown worn by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew; and a 1959 flexi disc of national anthem Majulah Singapura by the late composer Zubir Said.

The revamp coincides with the Republic's 50th anniversary celebrations. More than 1,700 artefacts are displayed in the new galleries.

Museum director Angelita Teo hopes the refreshed exhibits will give visitors a livelier and more comprehensive overview of the country's history.

The idea, she says, is to celebrate multiple voices in the nation's narrative, while making the museum-going experience fun.

The Singapore History Gallery, which is sprawled out over one level, goes through different shifts in tone and atmosphere as it traverses 700 years of Singapore's story. It also draws heavily from personal stories and experiences.

For example, in the area dealing with the Japanese Occupation, crumbling walls evoke the atmosphere of war-time Singapore.

Visitors sit in vintage chairs, positioned next to old-fashioned telephones that play audio recordings of interviews with survivors recounting what key moments during the war were like.

Curator Iskander Mydin, who is also the museum's deputy director of curation and collection, says: "We did not want it to look like a history textbook. We had access to a lot of material and the challenge was to bring in the different voices while covering 700 years in one gallery space."

A seamless narrative takes visitors into the key periods of the nation on level two of the museum. These are presented as Modern Colony (1925-1935); Surviving Syonan (1942-1945); Growing Up (1955-1965); and Voices In Singapore (1975-1985).

Modern Colony is housed in what feels like an old black-and-white bungalow. Using stunning costumes, jewellery and table setting displays, it evokes the drama and romance of those years.

This gallery comes complete with a display of elegant cheongsam and gowns that were worn by middle-class women of the era. A selection of women's footwear, ranging from bound-feet cloth shoes to Western high heels, shows the cultural diversity at that time.

Ms Chung May Khuen, lead curator for this gallery, says: "Singapore was very progressive in the way people dressed, partied and even travelled. We wanted to showcase these stories and find fresh ways of bringing them alive."

From here, Surviving Syonan marks a shift in tone. Things turn grim as the curators drew on experiences of wartime deprivations such as rationing and also resilience.

Particularly poignant is a story of a Chinese couple who got married during the war years. Now in their 90s, Mr and Mrs Lai Kok Wah loaned the museum a wedding basin, traditionally part of a Chinese bride's dowry, their marriage certificate and wedding rings.

Apart from these, the Goh Seng Choo Gallery on Level Two, which hosts the William Farquhar collection of natural history drawings, has also been given a makeover.

Besides the rotating exhibits drawn from the Farquhar collection, this gallery now has specimens borrowed from the Lee Kong Chian Museum of Natural History.

It opens with the Desire And Danger exhibition, which features Farquhar's drawings of flora or fauna that possess aphrodisiac or poisonous properties. The drawings are juxtaposed with actual specimens of their subjects, such as the rabbitfish and the breadflower, to explore the relationship between man and nature.

Outside of the galleries, other museum upgrades include the reinstallation of artist Suzanne Victor's popular swinging chandeliers.

To introduce these changes to the public, there will be an opening carnival this weekend with activities such as playing dress-up in vintage costumes and guided tours.

Ms Teo says: "We hope everyone will take time in this shared space to discover more about our history, explore how far we have come and reconnect with the Singapore story."

Regular museumgoer Mary George Rajkumar, 52, says: "I am most excited to finally see a permanent, well-curated, visual history of South-east Asia and Singapore baring its painful but intricate post-colonial journey.

"So many messages and stories are waiting to be reinterpreted by the viewer in that spectacular space."



WHERE: National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road

WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily; open till 7pm this weekend

ADMISSION: Free for Singaporeans and permanent residents; for international visitors, it is $10 (adults); $5 (children above six, students with valid student pass and seniors 60 years and above). There are different charges for selected blockbuster exhibitions

INFO: www.nationalmuseum.sg

Treasured Pieces

Life picks some key artefacts from National Museum of Singapore's new permanent galleries.


The Singapore Surrender Table, 1940s, on loan from the Australian War Memorial, teak

On Feb 15, 1942, the British surrendered unconditionally following the Japanese army's successful invasion of Malaya and Singapore, during which they covered more than 1,000km in slightly over eight weeks.

The General Officer Commanding Malaya, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, signed the Instrument of Surrender document on this table in the boardroom of the Ford Factory in Bukit Timah Road.

During and after the war, this table continued to be used in the boardroom till 1964, when Ford Malaysia donated it to the Australian War Memorial.

The table is now on loan to the National Museum of Singapore by the Australian War Memorial for a year as a gesture of friendship rooted in deep historical ties between the two countries.

Where: Singapore History Gallery, Level 1


Replica Type 95 Ha Go Japanese Tank

The Type 95 Ha Go was the most common Japanese tank used during World War II. In terms of speed and manoeuvrability, it was as capable as a light tank on the Allied side.

The tank was equipped with a Mitsubishi diesel engine and armed with a 37mm gun and two 7.7 machine guns. During the battle for Singapore, these tanks reached Bukit Timah within a few days of the initial Japanese landing on the island.

This replica is one of four that was constructed for director Steven Spielberg's 2010 HBO epic mini- series titled The Pacific.

Where: Singapore History Gallery, Level 1


Elizabeth Choy's clothing, 1940s, gift of Elizabeth Choy

These clothes were worn by wartime heroine Elizabeth Choy during her detention, interrogation and torture after her arrest by the Japanese Kempeitai (military police) in 1943. She and her husband, Mr Choy Khun Heng, were jailed by the Japanese for helping British prisoners of war. She was released from the Kempeitai headquarters at the former YMCA building after about 200 days.

Born Yong Su-moi in Sabah in 1910, she came to Singapore to study in 1929 and started teaching in 1933, first at St Margaret's School and, later, St Andrew's School. After the war, she was nominated to the Legislative Council in 1951 and became Singapore's first woman legislator. She retired from politics in 1955 and returned to teaching. She died in 2006, at the age of 96.

Where: Singapore History Gallery, Level 1


A pair of wine decanters with eight cups, early 20th century, Singapore, glass, brass

Consisting of a pair of decanters and matching miniature cups, decorative glassware sets were popular in Peranakan homes at the turn of the 20th century. Considered a symbol of wealth, this serving set is mounted on a vine-like frame made of twisted brass. The handles and the sides of the frame are decorated with vine leaves and the cups can be hung from the hooks.

A grapevine motif has been applied to the set in glossy enamel paint. Wine, port or similar liquids would have been slowly poured into the decanter to separate the sediment from the rest of the drink.

Where: Modern Colony, Level 2


Ladies' mesh purse, 1910, Singapore, silver

This delicate silver purse was made by skilled craftsmen out of interlocking rings assembled into meshwork.

Hung at waist level or held by the straps, such purses were favoured by Westernised Peranakan Chinese women, who commissioned silversmiths to make them.

The designs were inspired by Victorian-style purses from the early 1900s.

Where: Modern Colony, Level 2



A zoetrope is a pre-film animation device that uses a sequence of images to create an illusion of movement. This one is inspired by hurdler and Singapore's first female Olympian Tang Pui Wah, who made it to the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.It depicts Ms Tang, now 82, passing the torch to two other Singapore Olympians Mary Klass, now 80, and Janet Jesudason, 79, thus highlighting the legacy of pioneer sportswomen in the 1950s.

Where: Growing Up Gallery, Level 2

This article was first published on Sept 15, 2015.
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