Extreme Makeover: The National Museum of Singapore

 Extreme Makeover: The National Museum of Singapore

The National Museum of Singapore opened its doors last December after three years of redevelopment, and is surprising people with its cutting-edge architecture and fresh take on local history.

Text by Melanie Lee

People tend to associate museums with compulsory school excursions, faded exhibits, dinosaur bones and incomprehensible captions … in other words, absolute boredom. However, the revamped National Museum of Singapore (NMS) has gone all out to challenge these unflattering myths with its façade, layout and galleries.

It took three years to transform Singapore’s oldest museum into a trendy spot for locals and tourists alike. Established in 1887, NMS was originally the Singapore History Museum before it underwent a $132.6 million redevelopment project in 2003 to give this Grand Old Dame (its unofficial nickname) a young soul. As Michael Koh, CEO of Singapore’s National Heritage Board aptly puts it, “Museums are no longer merely repositories of art and artefacts. History doesn’t have to come in old, dusty photo frames or as manuscripts that are yellow and brittle with age. The stories of time can be told through thematic topics and presented in a contemporary manner that reaches out to all.”

As such, this museum is an interesting juxtaposition of the old and new. As the preserver of Singapore’s memories and a national monument under strict conservation laws, it still exudes a lovely sense of nostalgia with its elegant neo-Palladian structure and 700 years worth of artefacts all displayed here. However, with a glowing new sheen that comes with restoration, a new extension and postmodernist installation art generously scattered throughout the building, there is also a sense of trendy aesthetics at work here.

The most iconic feature of NMS is its rotunda dome which has elegant Palladian motifs and fish-scaled zinc tiles. Its design can be appreciated by visitors at the newly built optic glass passage that links the old part of the museum to its new extension. Interestingly enough, Singapore architect Mok Wei Wei, who designed this glass passage, has also designed a modern interpretation of this dome with a glass rotunda at the museum’s new extension. This rotunda serves as the entry point to visitors at the History Gallery, where 360 degrees of flashing images of Singaporean life are projected around the dome. Other interesting architectural highlights include restored Victorian stained glass, a spiral cast-iron staircase, Queen Victoria’s Coat-of-Arms and whale bones being suspended in the passageway.

However, the most fundamental change in the museum is seen in its content and presentation of the Living Galleries and History Galleries that give Singapore history a refreshingly broad and mosaic-like perspective. The former consists of four lifestyle-themed galleries – fashion, food, film and photography that seek to fill in the gaps of the creative culture of this country over the years. Its fascinating content comes in many forms, from a mock theatre deco in the film gallery, a smelling counter at the food gallery, a psychedelic multimedia experience in the fashion gallery and personal interactive narratives told in the photography gallery.

The History Galleries trace Singapore’s history from the 14th century to present day and feels almost like a historical theme park with multimedia and realistic sets to accompany the artifacts. Every visitor there is also given The Companion, a personal multimedia device with a built-in screen where audio content and captions are triggered according to the visitors’ movements and locations. There is a multi-layered storytelling approach, where visitors can choose either the events path, which follows the main events and prominent characters in this country’s history, or the personal path, where there are personal stories told through the eyes of the man on the street.

As Singapore gradually evolves to become a more dynamic and creative society, it is fitting that this Grand Old Dame has updated herself accordingly. Besides the new architecture and innovative galleries, NMS is also becoming a popular venue for various art events, cultural festivals and film screenings. If anything, this old lady is far from being an outdated relic and is one destination in Singapore that should not be missed.

The National Museum of Singapore
93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897
Opening hours:
Singapore History Gallery, 10am – 6pm daily
Singapore Living Galleries, 10am – 9pm daily

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