Sep 18, 2015

National Museum of Singapore's NEW Permanent Galleries: What to See & Do for Families with Kids

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Do you remember the previous permanent galleries at the National Museum of Singapore? I don't, and I think the reason was it got boring and dated after 10 years. All I remember about the galleries was having to walk down a spiral passageway from Level 2 while whisking through tired-looking galleries and exhibits. Certainly not the best way to share the history of our nation.

So it was just for the best that the galleries closed and underwent a year's worth of revamp so that come 19 September 2015, the permanent galleries will re-open once again. And judging from my first-time visit, everything looks more interactive, engaging and most importantly, fun even for the kids!

The permanent galleries comprise the Singapore History Gallery on Level 1, the Life in Singapore: The Past 100 Years galleries and the Goh Seng Choo Gallery on Level 2. These galleries present Singapore’s history and national collection in more immersive and innovative ways, and also showcase artefacts that have never been displayed before. 

Frankly, there was so much stuff to see and do that I was not able to fully view everything in one visit! So while I definitely need to return for another round, here are some of the highlights I managed to pick up:

Level 1: Singapore History Gallery

I am glad that the spiral passageway has now been abandoned, and replaced with a new entrance to the Gallery on the first level. The Singapore History Gallery’s updated narrative charts the development of the island through four time periods, Singapura (1299 to 1818), Crown Colony (1819 to 1941), Syonan-To (1942 to 1945) and Singapore (1946 to present).

Singapura begins the narration of Singapore's history as a thriving port in the 14th century. relics dating back to the 14th century. HIGHLIGHT: Look out for the Singapore Stone, a fragment of a sandstone boulder that has been dated from the 10th to 14th centuries! The stone bears some inscription written in Kawi script and contains some Sanskrit words, but it has never been fully deciphered.

Crown Colony transports visitors to the time when Sir Stamford Raffles and Major William Farquhar arrived in Singapore in 1819.

HIGHLIGHT: A handwritten letter by Sir Stamford Raffles, where he describes Singapore as “a child of my own”, and comments that “it is impossible to conceive of a place combining more advantages”, referring to its location at the heart of the Malay Archipelago and in proximity to China.

Also, pay a visit to the rooms that provide a glimpse of the seedy underworld of secret societies and opium dens in colonial Singapore back then.

Syonan-To marks the fall of Singapore to Japanese troops, and also one of the darkest periods in Singapore's history. HIGHLIGHT: The Type 95 Ha Go Japanese tank was the most common Japanese tank used in World War Two and the gallery is home to a replica which was one of four that were constructed for Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s television mini-series, The Pacific (2010).

Another HIGHLIGHT has got be a normal-looking teak table but with utmost significance. On 15 February 1942, the British surrendered unconditionally to the Imperial Japanese Army and the General Officer Commanding Malaya, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, signed the Instrument of Surrender document on this exact same table in the boardroom of the Ford Factory on Bukit Timah Road. The table is on loan from the Australian War Memorial.

The final section in the Singapore History Gallery is Singapore, with seven sub-sections; Rallies and Riots, Merger and Separation, A Nation in the Making, Building an Economy, Building a Home, Transforming the Landscape and Becoming a Global City.

The early sections narrate the tumultuous years of Singapore, from being free of British rule, to having independence thrust upon us and to a young country embarking on years of nation-building.

HIGHLIGHT: Make a pit-stop at the Object Theatre for the 'I Was There' multimedia show which recounts the events of the 1950s and 1960s in Singapore using object theatre and the Pepper’s Ghost technique - where artefacts from the museum’s collection are used to create a setting for a dramatic retelling of Singapore’s history - from the perspective of a photojournalist.

HIGHLIGHT: Pay a visit to the contextual set-up of an HDB kitchen too, with the HDB kitchen of the 1970s and 1980s recreated, complete with the all-familiar corridor!

Yet another HIGHLIGHT is “Tree” installation in the Transforming the Landscape section which showcases the sounds, smells, images and footage of native flora and fauna that can be found in urban areas such as gardens, parks, housing estates and roadsides. Visitors are invited to step closer to the “tree” and rediscover the wonders of Singapore’s rich natural heritage. 

But personally, one of the top HIGHLIGHTS to visit the newly revamped permanent galleries at the National Museum of Singapore has got to be this.

Yes, that's right. I got a chance to take in a whiff of the actual stench of the old Singapore River! If you prefer something more fragrant, you are in luck because adding a sensory dimension to the visitor’s experience in the galleries are ambient scents like the the “After Rain” scent in the Transforming the Landscape section and scent stations such as that of tembusu flowers and the breadflower.

Level 2: Life in Singapore: The Past 100 Years

Complementing the Singapore History Gallery are the four galleries on Level 2, which present snapshots of everyday life through the different eras in Singapore’s history... all 100 years of them.

Modern Colony examines the 1920s–1930s, and offer an insight to how modern and progressive people were in colonial times.

Set in a 1920s black-and-white bungalow, this gallery explores the cosmopolitan nature of Singapore as a British Crown colony from the 1920s to 1930s, through an examination of the everyday lives of the affluent Straits-born and migrant Chinese.

HIGHLIGHT: As an added sensory dimension, the gallery carries an ambient scent of 'Afternoon Tea', with ingredients being longjing tea, lemon tart, orange, cedar wood, various spices, verbena, and delicate red musk.

This gallery also 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, reflected their evolving identities in Singapore during the early
20th century.

Surviving Syonan shines the spotlight on how the people of Singapore coped with daily life and responded with grit and resourcefulness to the Japanese Occupation, a period of great adversity and abject scarcity.

It celebrates their resilience, tenacity, resourcefulness and self-reliance; values that remain important and relevant today. Snapshots of these past lives are presented in an immersive cityscape of crumbling walls, evocative of the uncertain and shattered world these survivors of the war endured.

HIGHLIGHT: Head to the back of the gallery for a poignant story of how Mr and Mrs Lai Kok Wah met while seeking refuge from an air raid, fell in love and got married during the war years. In fact, it was Mrs Lai who proposed! Now in their 90s, they had generously loaned the museum a wedding basin, their marriage certificate and wedding rings.

See the 1950s to1960s through the eyes of a child growing up alongside the nation in Growing Up, as this gallery captures the dreams and aspirations of a generation.

Set against the larger historical context of Singapore’s early years as a young nation, this gallery offers the parallel societal changes in the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s through the kampong, school and entertainment venues.

Simply put, this gallery was nostalgia overload to the max. Expect to see loads of artefacts of yesteryears, like old school textbooks, toys and including a three-speed bicycle PM Lee Hsien Loong received as an 11th birthday present from his paternal grandmother.

HIGHLIGHT: Be sure to venture to the back of the gallery where three displays ranging from food to retro games take centrestage. Kids will be able to crank up various wheels to bring the displays to life!

Another HIGHLIGHT in the middle of the room: Press a button to activate the Zoetrope which has been inspired by stories of Singapore’s local female Olympians in the 1950s.

The zoetrope features a “passing the torch” animation to highlight the legacy of these local pioneer
sportswomen in the 1950s.


The final Voices of Singapore gallery sees self-expression and creativity take the front seat, which explores how a new, confident, Singaporean identity emerged in the 1970s to 1980s.

Through cultural artefacts including music, performances, television and theatre, this gallery explores how Singaporeans constructed a complex terrain of self-expression back in those days.

Undoubtedly, this was the gallery that I identified with the most since I grew up in the 1970's and 1980's and these retro drama serials certainly brought back lots of memories! How many can you remember?

HIGHLIGHT: But the cool installation of the gallery lies right at the back, in the form of the 'Remembering the Jurong drive-in cinema'. This drive-in cinema installation comes complete with cars and is inspired by the drive-in cinema in Jurong that closed down in 1985.

Relive the nostalgic days by plonking down on one of the car seats and soak in short snippets of old Singapore movies under a blanket of stars.

Level 2: Goh Seng Choo Gallery

The final new permanent gallery on Level 2 opens with the Desire and Danger exhibition which features creatures that arouse appetites and instil fear, and exotic plants sought for their ability to induce pleasure or pain.

Hosting the William Farquhar collection of natural history drawings as well as specimens borrowed from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum’s collection, the exhibits are framed in a way that explores complex and sometimes uneasy relationship between man and natures.

It is like a (very) miniature version of Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum but no complaints since this gallery is free to visit for Singaporeans and PRs! Heh.

HIGHLIGHT: There are 4 scent stations in this gallery too where visitors can take a whiff and know how Agarwood, Kemenyan, Breadflower and Greater Galangal smell like.

With so many exhibits and installations to see, be prepared to spend at least 1.5 to 2.5 hours for both levels. Even then, it may not be enough. I love how the galleries are so much more spacious with bite-sized informations dished out in manageable portions for all exhibits.

The stories and significance behind the artefacts are brought to life in the galleries through contextual displays, ambient sounds and smells, multimedia platforms as well as interactive platforms, providing visitors (and especially kids) with an immersive experience as they rediscover Singapore’s history. And trust me when I say I would rather walk through the galleries than read through Singapore's history from a textbook!

So whether you are a history buff or a casual visitor bringing along kids, the new permanent galleries at National Museum of Singapore will guarantee to have something to catch your fancy... and allow you to share those memories as a family.

Useful Information

National Museum of Singapore Permanent Galleries
Gallery Opening Hours: 10am to 7pm daily
Admission: FREE admission for Singapore Citizens, Permanent Residents and visitors aged 6 years and below.
Others: Adults $10 | Students & Seniors aged 60 $5

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