National Museum of Singapore

With its wide facade and large dome, the National Museum of Singapore has been a prominent landmark on Stamford Road for over a century.1 It is Singapore’s oldest existing museum, currently devoted to the general history of Singapore.2

Raffles Library and Museum
The National Museum of Singapore traces its history to the early years of Singapore’s colonial era. The establishment of a museum was first mooted in 1823, when Stamford Raffles proposed founding a college in Singapore.3 However, no concrete actions were taken to realise the plans over the next two decades. It was only in early 1849 when the temenggong of Johor presented two gold coins to Singapore, which were then given to the Singapore Library, that an attempt was made.4 Later the same year, a small museum was set up within the library, which was then housed in the Singapore Institution (renamed Raffles Institution in 1868) at Bras Basah, one of Singapore’s oldest schools. However, not much attention was paid to developing the museum after this initial enthusiasm.5 In September 1862, Singapore Library, along with the museum, was relocated to the Town Hall (present-day Victoria Theatre).6

More than a decade later, in 1873, discussions for a government-supported, purpose-built museum finally began. A committee was appointed to organise an “exhibition of colonial products” – an initiative launched in different colonies across the British Empire – in connection with the Exhibition Building (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) in South Kensington, London. The committee was also tasked to oversee the establishment of an institution that was eventually named Raffles Library and Museum on 16 July 1874. The early years of its establishment were focused on building up the library’s collections, while not much attention was paid to the museum. Initially located at the Town Hall, the Library and Museum temporarily moved to the premises of Raffles Institution in December 1876.7

In the early 1880s, the municipality discussed the possibility of having a separate building constructed for the Raffles Library and Museum. Land on Stamford Road – the National Museum’s current site – was subsequently allotted for this purpose.8 Work began in 1884 and the building was completed three years later.9 On 12 October 1887, then Governor of the Straits Settlements Frederick Weld officiated the opening ceremony of the institution by unlocking the building’s front door. At the time, the museum was intended to be primarily a repository of zoological specimens, documenting the natural history of Singapore and the region.10

Overcoming problems
Despite the grandeur of the new edifice, the museum’s initial years at its new home were plagued by numerous problems and challenges. Zoological specimens kept in the museum often suffered from mould growth, while termite invasions rendered part of the roof structurally unsound. Moreover, exhibits were found to be covered with dust from the streets outside, as no glazing was installed on the windows of the building.11

Nevertheless, the museum grew steadily. By 1910, the Raffles Library and Museum had gained a good reputation. The museum boasted an immense collection of specimens and artefacts from a wide range of fields – including zoology, botany, geology, ethnology and numismatics – collected from the Malayan region. There were proposals to build a new, larger museum elsewhere to house the ever-increasing collection. However, the central location of the museum’s existing site was thought to be ideal, and the plan to relocate the museum was eventually abandoned.12 Instead, a parallel block was constructed behind the museum and was officially opened in February 1907. The new annexe held the museum’s zoological collection.13 In 1916, a library wing was added at the western section. The architecture of these extensions was consistent with that of the original museum block.14

Subsequently, Karl R. Hanitsch, curator and director of the Raffles Library and Museum, started a Singapore history collection. The German-born entomologist, who served in the institution between 1895 and 1919, was instrumental in starting a collection of portraits, plans and photographs of old Singapore.15

Shift in focus
In 1960, the museum separated from the library, and its name was formally changed from Raffles Museum to National Museum.16 In the decades following Singapore’s independence in 1965, the museum shifted its focus to reflect the nation’s culture and history. In 1972, the museum’s zoological specimens were transferred to the zoology department of the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore), as the museum was to focus solely on the history, culture and art of Singapore.17

Architecture and furnishings
Designed by Colonial Engineer Henry E. McCallum, the original structure (the front block of the present building) is largely neo-Palladian in style.18 This architectural style is characterised by a highly symmetrical facade and the use of pediments above the windows.19 The large triangular pediments capping each end of the front block are adorned with the coat of arms of Queen Victoria.20 Other neoclassical features are also incorporated into the building’s facade, such as Doric columns and pilasters on the ground level and Ionic pilasters on the second level. Neat rows of large windows ensured ample ventilation in tropical Singapore before air-conditioners were installed.21

One of the building’s most outstanding features is its rotunda, which is crowned with a 27-metre-high dome covered with fish-scale tiles. Coloured glass panels and arched windows on the dome ensure that the interiors are naturally illuminated.22

National Museum of Singapore today
The National Museum was gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992,23 and subsequently renamed the Singapore History Museum from 1993 to 2006. When the museum building began redevelopment and renovation in 2003, the museum was temporarily moved to Riverside Point at Clarke Quay.24 In 2006, the museum returned to its home on Stamford Road and became officially known as the National Museum of Singapore.25

Preservation of Sites and Monuments, National Heritage Board

1. Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books and Preservation of Monuments Board, 1996), 39. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
2. Parvathi Nayar, “Grand Comeback,” Business Times, 3 March 2006, 26; Parvathi Nayar, Engaging with History – Now,” Business Times, 5 January 2007, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Gretchen Liu, One Hundred Years of the National Museum: Singapore 1887–1987 (Singapore: The Museum, 1987), 14. (Call no. RSING 708.95957 LIU)
4. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 531–35. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
5. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 39; Liu, One Hundred Years of the National Museum, 17–18.
6. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal history of Old Times in Singapore 1819–1867 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 692. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); “History of the Victorias,” Straits Times, 3 January 2009, 89. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 542–48.
8. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 39; “Municipal Notes,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 29 January 1883, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Liu, One Hundred Years of the National Museum, 23.
10. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 40.
11. Liu, One Hundred Years of the National Museum, 24.
12. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 41.
13. “Raffles Library and Museum,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 7 September 1907, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Lola Lenzi, National Museum of Singapore Guide (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, 2007), 27. (Call no. RSING 708.95957 LEN)
15. Liu, One Hundred Years of the National Museum, 27, 38–39.
16. “Out Goes the Name Raffles,” Straits Times, 21 November 1960, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 41.
18. Lenzi, National Museum of Singapore Guide, 12; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 40.
20. “National Museum of Singapore,” National Heritage Board, updated 20 November 2020.
21. “Museum Renaissance,” Straits Times, 14 November 1990, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Lenzi, National Museum of Singapore Guide, 26–27.
23. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 39.
24. Clara Chow, “One Last Look” Straits Times, 26 April 2003, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Lenzi, National Museum of Singapore Guide, 17; Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Museum of Singapore, 2009), 10. (Call no. RSING 959.57 FRO-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at 31 August 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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