Major historical milestones have always been significant for the museum, whether that’s SG50 or the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore during World War II. The museum’s permanent galleries cover Singapore’s earliest history 700 years ago to post-1819, but our Bicentennial show, starting in September, looks at the 200 years before 1819, offering a critical perspective of the period leading up to the founding of the Singapore settlement.
At the same time, modern Singapore is a young nation. Many things have been “upgraded” in the past two to three decades because you had to have infrastructure that enabled the city to grow. Moving forward, we are trying to figure out what it means for the city to have a character and soul while being able to compete with bigger countries.
I’m a strong believer that history provides us with important lessons we can use to make decisions about today. But we’re very careful with the word nostalgia – it cannot be nostalgia for the sake of it.
For example, our current exhibition “Packaging Matters” is all about old packaging, of which the museum has a collection. In the past, we used leaves and easily available and recyclable things to hold items. Through the exhibition, we show how that changed over the years. It’s tailored for a young audience, so families can talk about the pressing issue of recycling today, but we are using history as the entry point to facilitate such conversations.
Enabling this sort of dialogue means being a part of the community we’re surrounded by. Many encyclopedic museums around the world are still popular, but they have legacy issues – controversies around how their collections were acquired and where their financial support comes from. But what has really gotten me excited is the rising prominence of city museums globally, like the Museum of London. They are as much about the community as they are about their collection.
“We are trying to figure out what it means for the city to have a character and soul while being able to compete with bigger countries”
As Singapore is a city-state, the National Museum of Singapore has to be both a national museum and a people’s museum. Singaporeans need to have a sense of ownership and feel like it makes a difference to their lives.
The museum is working with hospitals to bring dementia patients here to interact with the collection and start conversations, and we also work with various special-needs schools. We have Quiet Mornings, so that people with additional needs or wheelchairs can come in a bit earlier, when it’s not so crowded. We are a civic space now as well as a museum – that’s what I mean by making a difference.
Illustrations by Stuart Patience
This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine