Sunday 15 March 2015

Boutique museums in Singapore

Enthusiasts have opened niche museums on subjects such as local music and nostalgic toys
By Gurveen Kaur, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2015

Hardcore fans of local music will geek out over the collection at the Museum of Independent Music, set to open next Saturday. On display are cassette tapes from the 1990s featuring the music of Singapore indie bands The Oddfellows and The Stoned Revivals and a guitar belonging to veteran guitarist Suhaimi Subandie, of the pioneering local hardcore band Stompin' Ground.

These items are admittedly of niche appeal, but specialisation has become the calling card of a growing number of boutique museums here.

They are dedicated to narrow - sometimes quirky - interests. For example, there is a new museum on bicycles called Shimano Cycling World at the Singapore Sports Hub. Over at the Chinese Garden in Jurong, there is a long-standing museum on turtles and tortoises. At Tanjong Pagar, the Gan Heritage Centre focuses on the history of how Chinese people with the surname Gan migrated from China to Singapore. The downtown Mint Museum of Toys showcases the collection of an avid toy collector.

Because of their specialised content, these museums tend to be small spaces, sometimes occupying one to two floors in a shophouse. Their owners, unsurprisingly, tend to be passionate enthusiasts on the topic.

In the case of the Museum of Independent Music, the founders are local music devotees Mr Tarmizee Taksen and Ms Anvea Chieu. Since setting up The Lithe Paralogue Studio in 2009 - a space for artists and musicians to record music, rehearse or jam together, the duo harboured dreams to start a museum that would document the past and present of the local indie music scene.

"We have all these amazing home-grown bands in Singapore since the 1960s, such as hardcore band Stompin' Ground and rock group The Quests, but we don't have a place to showcase these groups and their significance," says Mr Tarmizee, 29.

So last year, they forked out a five figure sum to expand their Kampong Glam studio to incorporate a 70 sq m museum.

The admission fee is $4 and the owners are not too worried about the operating costs.

"It's about reaching out to the youth of today and educating them about Singapore's alternative subculture," says Ms Chieu, 28, adding that the museum aims to archive music history during a time of vinyl and cassette and to document current happenings.

Meanwhile, the Gan Clan Singapore set up a museum to woo young Gans as well as non-Gans to join the association. According to Dr Gan See Khem, the clan's president, there are an estimated 25,000 Gans in Singapore, of which close to 800 are members of the association. "We need to change that and get the younger generation interested," she says.

The clan spent more than $500,000 to set up the museum on the third level of its 80-year-old building at Bukit Pasoh Road in late 2013. It also has a Facebook page and an e-book on the information available in the museum.

It attracted 10 new younger members aged between their 20s and 30s in the past year and has an agreement with the Ministry of Education to be a stop on school excursions this year.

The 230 sq m centre also participated in the Singapore Heritage Fest last year and will do so again this year, with a tour of the space, cultural performances and calligraphy workshops.

Managing a small museum has its challenges, reveals operators.

"Small museums need to work that much harder to stand out and attract interest from visitors," says Ms Sharon Wong, the marketing manager for Images of Singapore Live. The attraction on Sentosa showcases Singapore's history from 1819. "They need to offer something that is a bit different and special."

That is why Images of Singapore Live recently underwent a multimillion dollar rebranding to provide a more engaging visitor experience. Now, actors guide visitors on interactive tours and there are special effects that include talking portraits and heads.

Small museums, unfortunately, see a limited number of visitors. The Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum will have to vacate its premises in Chinese Garden next year when its lease expires. The area will undergo a makeover and be redeveloped into a larger Jurong Lake Gardens.

Owner Connie Tan, 44, says that she does not have the finances to set up a new museum.

The museum, which opened in 2001, is currently home to more than 500 turtles, tortoises and terrapins from 49 species, many of them endangered.

Ms Tan adds: "We have asked the Government for help to find a new space, but there have been no favourable results so far."

Mr Patrick Neo, 58, the owner of Children Little Museum, is all too aware of the realities of the business.

Opened in 2010, the 600 sq ft museum at Kampong Glam showcases vintage toys and paraphernalia from the 1950s to 1970s. Artefacts include plastic soldiers, a drink cart with soft drinks in glass bottles and kampung games such as chapteh and marbles.

Mr Neo says that these items primarily appeal to older people who are nostalgic about the past.

"As the baby boomers become elderly, it's only a matter of time before I might have to close the museum," he says.

Rents are also rising. His rent has more than doubled since he first opened a retail store selling vintage items on the first floor of the shophouse 10 years ago.

Hopefully, enough visitors will continue to see the charm of such small museums to keep these places going.

Teacher and avid museumgoer Aashajeet Kaur, 27, says small museums offer a more intimate and cosy environment compared with the bigger ones.

Besides frequenting the more well-known museums such as the National Museum of Singapore, she has also visited Children Little Museum and Singapore Sports Museum in Kallang.

"It's a different experience where the focus is mainly on one subject versus a whole barrage of information being showcased," she says.

Children Little Museum

What: Tucked away on the second level of a shophouse in Kampong Glam, this museum is devoted to nostalgic childhood items from the 1950s to 1970s – and you can touch some of them.

In a corner is a sight familiar to older folks – a drink cart that sold icy treats such as glass-bottled soft drinks and ice balls doused in colourful syrup.

There is a retail section downstairs.

Where: 42 Bussorah Street

Open: Noon to 8pm daily

Admission: $2 a person

Info: Call 6298-2713

Museum of Independent Music

What: Sharing a space with music venue

The Lithe Paralogue Studio, the museum pays homage to the music scene in Singapore from its 1960s heyday to the present. It has more than 2,000 items, including art work by musicians, posters, CDs, display memorabilia and magazines.

Where: 1B Aliwal Street

Open: For two weeks from the official opening next Saturday, it will open from 11am to 8pm daily. From April 4, opening hours are 11am to 7pm daily

Admission: $4 a person

Info: Call 9270-8017 or go to

Images of Singapore Live

What: Two hundred years of the nation’s history from 1819 are brought to life as visitors are led by actors into 15 zones that range from a Malay fishing village to Chinatown in the early 1900s. Visitors might even find themselves face-to-face with people from Singapore’s past, including a Samsui woman, a coolie and an orang laut (sea nomad) fisherman.

Where: 40 Imbiah Road, Imbiah Lookout, Sentosa

When: 10am to 7.30pm (last admission at 6pm) on weekdays, 10am to 9pm (last admission at 7.30pm) on weekends and public holidays

Admission: $28 a child (aged three to 12), $30 a senior citizen (aged above 60) and $38 an adult. Tickets include entry to Madame Tussauds Singapore

Info: Call 6715-4000 or go to

Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre

What: The Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre is located on the site of the 180-year-old Nagore Dargah shrine, which used to serve as a place of worship for Indian Muslims who had arrived in Singapore. The space became a heritage centre in 2011, showcasing the history of the Indian Muslim community here. It recently expanded its galleries. Among its exhibits are a wedding sari and a centuries-old religious text that tells the history of Indian Muslims in Singapore and the origins of the name Nagore Dargah.

Where: 140 Telok Ayer Street

Open: 9.30am to 5.30pm on weekdays. Closed on weekends and public holidays.

Admission: Free

Info: Call 8591-5724 or go to

Gan Heritage Centre

What: This museum, run by Gan Clan Singapore, is devoted to the history and contributions of the Chinese community in Singapore bearing the surname Gan.Visitors can learn about the origins of the clan, the migration of its people and its Singapore pioneers, including 19th-century philanthropist Gan Eng Seng, who founded the school named after him.

Where: Level 3, 18 Bukit Pasoh Road

Open: 2 to 6pm on weekdays

Admission: Entry is free but visitors have to call to book an appointment. For a guided tour, please call at least one week in advance

Info: Call 6223-0739 to book an appointment or go to

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