25 January 2010

Coming soon: Singapore's new natural history museum!

With the recent $10 million gift from an undisclosed donor, we are one major step closer to Singapore's very own natural history museum!Currently, the public can only get a glimpse of less than 1% of the total collection of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, at its tiny but well loved public gallery. So it was great news to hear that we will soon get a new natural history museum. With massive space to showcase our wonderful biodiversity!

Tell me more about the new museum!
Here's some consolidated information based on these articles:

What's so special about our natural history collection?
The collection was started by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1823 and over the next 100 years it became effectively a museum of Malaysian and Singapore zoology. Specimens from Singapore and the region poured in. Including from distinguished personalities like Alfred Russell Wallace, Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay and the Sultan of Singapore.

Today the collection has 500,000 specimens of mammals, birds, amphibians and other invertebrates. It is the oldest natural history collection of animals in Singapore, including some century-old artefacts and extinct animals. It is also one of the largest collections of Southeast Asian animals in the region and is the second oldest natural history collection in Southeast Asia after Indonesia's Bogor Museum.

Why is this collection NOT displayed at the National Musuem?
It is almost a miracle that Singapore's priceless collection made it this far.

30 years ago, the fate of the collection hung by a thread. It had no permanent home, and was shuttled from place to place like a pariah. Indeed, at one point, there were talks of it ending up in the dustbins? Why had things turned out this way?

In 1969, the Singapore Science Centre was set up and it was decided that the Raffles Museum, then renamed the National Museum, should cater for only arts and anthropology. All the animal specimens were moved to the Singapore Science Centre. After a year, they were transferred to the then University of Singapore, and became known as the Zoological Reference Collection in 1972. The only catch was that the university at Bukit Timah could not find enough space for the specimens which were housed in bulky wooden crates. So, over the next 14 years, the crates trundled from five huts at Ayer Rajah, back to the Bukit Timah campus, where they were kept in different departments, and then to Nanyang University's library at Jurong. Mrs Yang Chang Man, chief curator and stoic custodian of the collection since 1972, recalled: "Every move took several months and required at least 40 lorries".

Due to the frequent transfers and bad storage conditions, some specimens were damaged. It was only through the curators' tremendous efforts that not more was lost!

It seemed by sheer luck that the collection held out as long as it did. In 1986, it finally got a permanent home in the new campus of the National University of Singapore at Kent Ridge.

In 2009, the National Heritage Board (NHB) says that there are no plans to move the exhibits to the National Museum. "Apart from being a museum, RMBR also carries out academic research and conservation efforts on plants and animals both locally and in the region. This was one of the reasons why the museum was sited within the grounds of NUS," said an NHB spokesman.

Would people want to visit the new museum?
Although the current public gallery at RMBR is tiny and displays than 1 per cent of the entire collection, it already attracts high visitorship.

The museum has received a groundswell of public support since media reports last year highlighted the vast, little-known collection. That led to about 3,000 people showing up at the museum's gallery on International Museum Day in May. In 2008, the museum had only 400 walk-in visitors the entire year.

The new museum is expected to attract more than 80,000 visitors and researchers from Singapore and abroad annually. Natural history museums in New York and London draw millions of visitors each year.

What will be displayed at the new museum?

The team working on setting up the new museum say it will highlight Singapore's natural history, and also be a museum for Southeast Asia.

Specimens likely to be displayed include the highly endangered massive leathery turtle, which landed on the shores of Siglap beach in 1883, and the near-extinct cream-coloured giant squirrel, which was common here 40 years ago.

It will also showcase environmental research, such as how air and water quality is monitored.

How big will the new museum be?
Built from scratch, the new museum will be at least 7,000 sq m in size, with a minimum 2,000 sq m - or 10 times the current museum's size - devoted to exhibition space.

It is estimated that setting up the museum would cost about $55 million, with a minimum of $35 million to start a smaller scale museum. The team hopes to raise the funds needed by the middle of the year. The building is expected to have green features, such as heat-reflecting glass panels and recycled materials.

Where will the new museum be?
It will be located at the heart of the National University of Singapore's new University Town.

How much will it cost for the public to visit the museum?
The public is expected to have free admission to the museum.

When will it be ready?!
It is expected to be completed in three years' time.

Is a natural history museum important to conservation?
Natural history museums play a critical role in effective conservation.

By allowing ordinary people to view and learn more about our natural heritage, more may be encouraged to care about our biodiversity. As Prof Peter Ng, Director of RMBR said, "[A new museum] helps to put a face to the environmental effort, and animals and plants are this face. If you show people a beautiful flower or crab, they feel for it. And if you save one species, you will hopefully save a host of other creatures as well."

The specimens in a natural history museum are vital in Real Scientific Work of understanding and saving biodiversity. It is only by checking against actual specimens held in museums, that scientists can be sure about the identity of various lifeforms, to describe new species and new records. This basic identification underpins efforts in understanding and conserving ecosystems and the life they sustain. Bio-medical and bio-engineering and other bio-based sciences also rely on identification of lifeforms. Museum specimens are invaluable for DNA work as well.

Here's some related posts about the important role of museum specimens:

Can the public see anything of the collection now?
Yes, RMBR has a small public gallery displaying fascinating specimens from Singapore and beyond. Opened in 2001, here's more about what you can see at the gallery. And here's an account of one visit there: The Raffles Museum: Nature comes alive.

Opening hours: 9am-5pm, Mon to Fri, closed on Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays.
Location: Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, link to campus map.
Contact: 65-6516-5082

Guided and group tours of the Public Gallery is available, pre-registration required. More details on the RMBR website.

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Media reports
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