Monday 20 April 2015

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum opens

Museum unveils dino stars
Visitors will get to see giant attractions when museum opens doors to public on April 28

By Audrey Tan, The Sunday Times, 19 Apr 2015

Singapore's newest museum, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, yesterday unveiled its prehistoric stars Prince, Apollonia and Twinky.

The three diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs, among the biggest creatures to walk the earth 150 million years ago, were viewed by more than 250 guests, including President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

The skeletons are displayed under special lighting and with sound effects. Judging from the crowd's reaction to the four-minute "dino show", which is played every half-hour, this will be a star attraction.

The seven-storey museum at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in Kent Ridge opens its doors to the public on April 28 and offers much more than giant bones.

It has 2,000 other specimens, including a prized Asian Brown Flycatcher bird collected by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of evolution alongside Charles Darwin.

Singapore's first natural history museum traces its roots to the original Raffles Museum, the oldest such institution in the region.

Established through philanthropic gifts totalling $56 million, it aims to be a leader in South-east Asian biodiversity and conservation research, education and outreach.

Aside from its public exhibition space, a large area will be set aside for more than a million specimens to be used for research, with classrooms and teaching labs.

Dr Tan said in his speech: "This museum will serve to educate many generations of Singaporeans on the importance of protecting our heritage and contribute to regional and global biodiversity research."

A 200-year-old, 2.7m tusk of the narwhal, a marine mammal known as the "unicorn of the ocean", which once belonged to Singapore pioneer "Whampoa" Hoo Ah Kay, caught the eye of Mr Bernard Toh, 55, director of projects and communications in the NUS Office of the President.

"The narwhal's spire is such an elegant piece," he said. It was donated to the museum by Whampoa's great-granddaughter last year.

Environmentalist Ria Tan gave the thumbs up to the heritage gallery with its "Cabinets of Curiosity".

Visitors can open doors and drawers to learn more about the displays, which include animal specimens used for research.

Said Ms Tan: "To me, this is why we have a museum - it's not just pretty stuffed animals but about science, learning, understanding, and passing it on to the next generation."

One artefact, a leather-bound book called An Introduction To Malayan Birds, was written by British ornithologist Guy Charles Madoc using typewriter and paper taken covertly from the Japanese when he was in Changi Prison during World War II.

The $8 million dinosaur skeletons, of which Prince is the largest at 4m high and 27m long, are the museum's centrepiece. They were acquired in 2011 from an American fossil company that found the remains between 2007 and 2010.

Said 22-year-old NUS student Sean Yap, another of yesterday's guests: "The dinosaurs are going to be a crowd puller."

Singapore's own Natural History Museum opens -RazorTV

The weird and the wonderful
Dinosaurs, animals and fossils among natural history museum's treasures
By Audrey Tan, The Sunday Times, 19 Apr 2015

From bones of the extinct dodo bird to a 1.75m-long specimen of a leatherback sea turtle caught on Siglap Beach in 1883, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum showcases "the weird and the wonderful".

This was how one of the first guests at the museum described her experience yesterday after a two-hour walk through the museum's biodiversity and heritage galleries.

"It was fascinating, and it will be able to open the eyes of young people," said Ms Sharon Tan, 49, the director of the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts.

The seven-storey, 8,500 sq m building was officially launched by President Tony Tan Keng Yam yesterday, bringing to fruition a labour of love by NUS professors Leo Tan and Peter Ng.

They had led efforts to build the facility and helped raise the $46 million to make it happen. The building fund came largely from the Lee Foundation, which gave $25 million.

Said Prof Tan, who is director of special projects at the NUS Faculty of Science: "The museum is a biodiversity museum, not only of Singapore but of South-east Asia.

"It behooves us to demonstrate to future generations the beauty of our natural history and the vital role it plays in ensuring the survival of the human race."

The 2,000 sq m exhibition space is divided into two sections: the main biodiversity gallery, where the dinosaurs are located, and the heritage gallery where visitors can explore Singapore's natural history and treasures including birds and bears accumulated over 137 years.

In all, the museum is home to more than 560,000 catalogued lots of specimens, from animals to fossils, which were from the vaults of the former Raffles Museum. The collection dates back to 1849.

Tickets to the museum, which will open to the public on April 28 and is closed every Monday, are sold only through Sistic.

For Singaporeans and permanent residents, tickets for a 11/2-hour viewing session cost $15 per adult and $8 per child.

1 1/2-hour tickets: New museum explains why
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2015

A WALK through Singapore's first and only natural history museum is meant to be a serene experience, much like taking a walk in a lush forest.

That is why the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, which opens to the public next Tuesday, is barring selfie sticks and flash photography. It is also selling tickets for 11/2-hour slots and not daily passes allowing guests entry at any time they choose.

"We calculated that the whole gallery experience will be between one and 11/2 hours, so we calibrated the slots on that basis," museum head Peter Ng told The Straits Times. "Because of the initial interest, we did not want this place to be 'free for all' - because then guests would not get the same experience."

There are six such sessions a day, with the first at 10am and the last at 5.30pm. Each slot can take about 200 people, and tickets must be pre-booked through ticketing agent Sistic and will not be available for sale on site.

Tickets cost $20 per adult and $12 per child, but Singaporeans and permanent residents enjoy discounted rates of $15 per adult and $8 for a child. As of 6pm yesterday, 1,818 tickets had been sold for visits from April 28 to May 31.

Professor Ng stressed that guests would not be turned away the minute their time runs out. The time limit is an administrative guideline for selling tickets, to control the crowd in the 2,000 sq m exhibition space, he added.

Visitors to the museum, which is located within the National University of Singapore campus in Kent Ridge, can browse a treasure trove of 2,000 artefacts in its biodiversity and heritage galleries.

They include the genuine fossils of three diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs, which are among the largest creatures to roam the earth 150 million years ago.

The $46 million museum building was funded through philanthropic gifts, with the Lee Foundation donating $25 million.

In response to netizens who ask why the museum is charging an admission fee when most other museums here do not, Prof Ng said it was because it is not an institution under the National Heritage Board. The statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth runs six museums here, including the National Museum of Singapore, to which Singaporeans and permanent residents enjoy free admission.

"The museum needs to be financially independent. The endowments and donations have been able to subsidise a large chunk of operating costs, but not fully. We therefore need ticketing to offset some of those costs," Prof Ng said.

Mr Muhammad Hafiz'zan Shah, 30, a veterinary nurse, noted that there are other museums with a similar policy, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which issues one-hour passes from March to August. He said: "Having a limited timeframe will definitely help with overcrowding and crowd control."

Our volunteers were out in full force and on social media during the official opening of the museum on 18 Apr 2015....
Posted by Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum on Monday, April 20, 2015

Star attractions at new natural history museum
Once like an unwanted orphan, Singapore's natural history collection now has a permanent home in a new museum.
By Tommy Koh, Published The Straits Times, 2 May 2015

ON APRIL 18, a new jewel was added to the cultural crown of Singapore.

The jewel is the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM). It is a gift from the National University of Singapore (NUS) to the nation. The fact that it has taken place this year is doubly meaningful because Singapore is celebrating its 50th anniversary and NUS is celebrating the 110th anniversary of its founding.

One lesson we should learn from Mr Lee Kuan Yew is to love nature and to aspire to live in harmony with nature. Because of his vision and leadership, we have one of the greenest cities in the world. Singapore is also rich in biological diversity.

In recent years, the hornbill bird, the otter and the wild boar, which have been working abroad, have returned to our shores. In 2010, the United Nations named the City Biodiversity Index, the Singapore Index, in recognition of the leadership role that we have played in mobilising cities to act as custodians of the world's biodiversity.

Singapore lies at the heart of South-east Asia. Our region has the richest biodiversity in the world, both on land and at sea.

The seas of South-east Asia are home to 2,500 species of marine fish and 600 species of hard coral.

On land, we have a rich endowment of plant and animal species.

However, some of our charismatic species, such as the tiger, elephant, rhino, orang utan and sea turtle, are endangered. Some misguided people are eating the pangolin, the scaly ant-eater, to the brink of extinction. We have a duty to protect the biodiversity of our region and to slow down the pace at which it is being lost. The museum can help to disseminate this message to its visitors.

The new museum has a long history. In 1874, the Legislative Council of Singapore decided to establish a library and a museum and named them after Sir Stamford Raffles. In 1878, the Raffles Library and Museum became a legal entity.

A serious attempt to collect natural history specimens began in 1877. In 1887, the Raffles Library and Museum moved into its new home in Stamford Road, where the present National Museum is located.

The collection grew from strength to strength. It was divided into the exhibition collection and the reference collection. The collections survived the war and the Japanese Occupation.

However, in 1972, the Government decided to remove the natural history collections from the National Museum. The exhibition collection was given to the Science Centre. In 1974, the National Museum gave away its most iconic exhibit, a 12.8m-long skeleton of an Indian fin whale, to the National Museum of Malaysia. It is now displayed at the Labuan Maritime Museum.

The reference collection, also known as the Raffles Collection, was given to the zoology department of the then University of Singapore. It was treated like an unwanted orphan and was housed in various temporary premises with no climate control. There was even an attempt to divide it up. It spent seven years at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), before returning to NUS.

The collection was saved by the heroic efforts of a few individuals, notably Mrs Yang Chang Man, Professor Roland Sharma and Professor Lam Toong Jin from NUS and Mr Eric Alfred from the National Museum. President Tony Tan, when he was education minister, opened the Zoological Reference Collection in 1988. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, when he was education minister, opened the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) in 2001.

In 2004, I was the chairman of the National Heritage Board. After visiting RMBR that year, I wrote to the then president of NUS, Professor Shih Choon Fong, and proposed that NUS should build a museum of natural history to display its world-class collections of fauna and flora. Prof Shih and his successor, Prof Tan Chorh Chuan, were interested in the idea but had no money to build such a museum.

It took the combination of Prof Leo Tan and Prof Peter Ng, who raised $56 million, to turn my vision into reality. The remarkable story of Singapore's natural history museum has been told by Dr Kevin Tan, in his book Of Whales And Dinosaurs.

The LKCNHM has inherited the Raffles Collection, which consists of 566,500 lots of plankton, insects, crustaceans, fishes, shells, birds, mammals, amphibians, spiders, worms, reptiles, corals and sea stars. The museum's collection continues to grow because of research activities and now stands at a million specimens. New species are being discovered all the time. Selected specimens are beautifully displayed in the museum.

Leading showpieces

WHAT are the museum's star pieces? Without doubt, the biggest star attraction consists of three original dinosaur fossils. The diplodocid sauropods, which were herbivores, were found together at a quarry in Wyoming in the United States.

Another star piece is a small bird, an Asian brown flycatcher, which belonged to the collection of the great naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace and Charles Darwin had, independently of each other, simultaneously developed the theory of evolution. Unlike Darwin, Wallace spent several years in Singapore.

Also a top attraction is the cream-coloured giant squirrel (Ratufa affinis). Sir Stamford first described this species from Singapore in 1821. It was last sighted in 1995 and is feared to be extinct in Singapore.

The dodo bird has become an icon for extinction. There is a wonderful model at the museum, together with a set of genuine bones on loan from Oxford University. I hope that when visitors see this exhibit, they will pause for a moment to reflect on the unsustainable speed at which we are losing our biodiversity.

The museum will attract many visitors. It will share with its visitors the message to love nature and to conserve nature.

The museum will be used by students and scholars for study and research. It will also become a centre for intellectual exchange and for discourse on natural history. I hope that visitors will be inspired by the museum and its message.

The writer is the chairman of the Advisory Board of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

A Singapore legacy comes full circle
The gripping tale of South-east Asia's first natural history museum and its new lease of life.
By Peter Ng Kee Lin, Published The Straits Times, 30 May 2015

OUROBOROS is the name of a mythological Greek snake - a snake that consumes its own tail. It is one of the oldest mystical concepts known to man, first observed in Egypt 1,600 years before Christ. A powerful symbol of the cyclical nature of time. About coming full circle, and then starting again.

Such are the strange and interesting life and times of Singapore's museum of natural history.

From roots that trace back to 1823, when Stamford Raffles himself mooted the idea of a Singapore Institution for natural history; then 1849, when two coins donated by the Temenggong of Johor were acquired by the colonial government and the idea of a museum was seeded; to the establishment of a legal body, the Raffles Museum, in 1878.

This entity is South-east Asia's first natural history museum. But the world is an unpredictable place - many dramatic events occurred. Between 1942 and 1945, Singapore experienced a war of unprecedented cruelty and violence when the Japanese occupied the territory. Through fortune, the museum survived.

Then in 1965, Singapore was suddenly no longer part of the Federation of Malaysia but an independent country. And in these traumatic times, as a young nation grappled for survival, the Raffles Museum became the National Museum of Singapore.

And the powers to be were confronted with a decision. Two "needs" collided - the need for economic survival and the need for heritage. Both causes were important - just that one was more immediate.

Decisions have consequences. In the ensuing tragedy, there was no place in the "new" museum for the century-old collection of animals. Specimens which once awed a mesmerised public and were the legacies of hundreds of research scientists from around the world were deemed expendable.

Out of sheer necessity and providence, the homeless treasures found an unlikely temporary residence in the then University of Singapore.

It was left to the stubborn and seemingly illogical persistence of a few good men and women left in the museum and nascent university to hold the fort.

Backdropped against the fading light of the Raffles Museum, this generation of scientists ensured the collection survived. Not by design but through fortitude. Failure was never an option. And failure would have been terrible.

A 'pariah' collection

AT THAT juncture in time, giving the country's heritage and treasure away to another land was an option. Even throwing it away in the rubbish heap was an option. The collection did not survive unscathed. In those times of tribulation, we gave Malaysia the whale skeleton that had adorned the original Raffles Museum building since 1907. And in the process, we gave away the memories of three generations of Singaporeans. This is one hair shirt we will have to wear for generations to come.

Nothing ever stays the same. As the world changed, and a young Singapore grew stronger, wealthier and confident, it also became more sentient. Desperation was replaced by a new appreciation of our past.

The "pariah" Raffles collection became the Zoological Reference Collection of the Department of Zoology in the university in 1972. It had no permanent home and only a skeleton crew. It was a nomad, homeless, even when the University of Singapore fused with Nanyang University to form the National University of Singapore.

Only in 1988, after 16 years of wandering, was a purpose-built abode created in the new university campus of Kent Ridge. Opened by the nation's Education Minister at that time, Dr Tony Tan, this landmark event was witnessed by arguably the most famous director the museum ever had, the late Michael Tweedie. He was with the museum for 24 years between 1932 and 1956, and discovered hundreds of new species of reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans and molluscs.

Past and present met to witness what was then widely believed to be the ultimate salvation of the Raffles collection. Not exactly the old museum in its heyday, but at least it had a permanent home - or so we thought then!

In 1998, the powers at the university decided that the collection should become a research facility. It morphed into the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in the Faculty of Science. And a new Education Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, heralded its revival in 2001.

Acts of madness

IN THOSE halcyon times, some "nationalists" questioned why the university should retain the name of "Raffles" for the facility. Was this name but a vestige of a colonial memory that was best excised in the name of national pride? The heart says yes but the head says no. The Raffles name is not merely to honour an Englishman who founded modern Singapore. The name is a link to the museum's history. It is its bloodline. Good or bad, right or wrong - it is part of the museum's bloodline.

The bloodline echoes its own wants. It surpasses human intent. It brings out visionaries and heroes. It compels "acts of madness" - it encourages "impossible dreams". But "madness" and "impossible" are relative terms.

I like the definitions of these two powerful words by acclaimed US journalist Ambrose Bierce, author of the classic lexicon, The Devil's Dictionary: madness - one who is affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; and impossible - something "lacking in patience and money". Like Singapore - "mad" to be a separate island-state and "impossible" for it to survive. Really?

The bloodline ensured that the Raffles Museum was revived as the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Resurrected with the unwavering support of former president S R Nathan, and the financial might and philanthropic largesse of the Lee Foundation. As well as an army of donors and fellow believers.

A "ground-up" exercise that fulfilled the "impossible dream", to the tune of $56 million - enough to build a new museum of substantial substance, and add three dinosaurs to boot. In the words of our second prime minister Goh Chok Tong, NUS has, to all intents and purposes, built a "People's Museum". Or as the museum's own staff quip - it is a "museum of the impossible".

It has taken NUS a long time to achieve the "impossible dream" - 45 years since it left Stamford Road in the then National Museum, and over 10 years since it was tasked by Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh to try nevertheless.

NUS apologises to Singapore for this tardiness in delivery. The difficult, NUS will normally do immediately. The impossible, that takes a little longer. But it has now been done.

As much as money is the lifeblood of a project - however noble - the building of a true natural history museum is not just about concrete and hardware. It needs one element money cannot buy. Heart. People with heart. And the staff of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, some who have been with the institution under one name or another for over 40 years, stepped up to the plate when it mattered.

The money enabled. The people ensured. The passion, energy and work ethos of the old museum staff - over and far above what is expected of normal employees - helped make the "impossible dream" a reality. Dreamers and doers. Heroes and heroines. They believed in the cause - even when it caused them no end of grief. As the French artist Renoir once remarked, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains". And that beauty is a state-of-the-art natural history museum for Singapore that opened in time for its 50th birthday.

Natural history lives on

THE new museum is more than just a guardian of our memories. The nostalgia I see in the older generation of Singaporeans when they glimpse "old friends" in the gallery is palpable. It is an emotional roller coaster for them. The museum is a time capsule for the old. It is a wellspring of memories for the young.

It is also a symbol - a symbol of our need to appreciate fellow life forms we share the earth with. To catalogue, to document our fellow denizens. To know so we can understand, so we can protect. It is a tool of science, an engine for education, and a means to empower the next generation, so they do not repeat the environmental sins of their forefathers.

The museum is a symbol of our humanity and our responsibility as good planetary guardians. To give young people "impossible dreams" so our very real nightmares do not recur.

The year 2015 is Singapore's 50th year of independence, the nation's golden jubilee. It is also NUS' 110th year of founding. Today, the Education Minister of 1988 is the seventh President of Singapore. Today, our Education Minister of 2001 is the nation's Deputy Prime Minister.

Today, we mourn our whale, even as we cheer our three dinosaurs. Today, the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research is the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Today, the original vision of Stamford Raffles for a "Singapore Institution" is revived - as a museum for Singapore and South-east Asia's biodiversity.

Ouroboros is about the cyclical nature of time and endurance.

There is a belief that the origins of the famous mathematical symbol for infinity - the famous "lazy eight" or lemniscate - was derived from an Ouroboros overlapping in the middle. It makes sense. After all, the Ouroboros also represents an entity that persists from the beginning with such force and quality, it cannot be extinguished. That entity is Singapore's original and first natural history museum.

The writer, a systematic biologist who is an expert on crabs, is head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore.

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