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A glimpse into our past through our natural history

Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at Launch of “200: A Natural History” Exhibition

NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye,

Head of Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Prof Peter Ng,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

  1. Good afternoon!

    A turning point in our natural history

  2. This year, we are commemorating the 200th anniversary of Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar’s landing in Singapore. This set in motion a series of events and policies that have undoubtedly shaped present-day Singapore. It also marked a turning point in our natural history. Raffles, like many of his contemporaries who were manning outposts of the Great Britain Empire, was an avid collector of plants and animal specimens. He mooted the idea of establishing an educational institution in Singapore that would include a library and a museum of natural history. This was the genesis of what is now known as the “Raffles Collection”, a treasure trove of Southeast Asian biodiversity. Farquhar was instrumental in documenting the fauna and flora of this island through the skilled hands of Chinese artisans, in the form of 477 paintings that is known as the prized “Farquhar Collection” of the National Museum of Singapore. It is treasured for both its contribution to the understanding of the biodiversity of Singapore two centuries ago, and its aesthetic beauty.
  3. Over the years, the Raffles Collection has grown in size, diversity and scientific value. Since the early 20th Century, it has been one of the best of its kind in Asia. It showcases both well-known and lesser-known parts of the Singapore story, by telling us how our natural environment has evolved over time. For instance, the collection includes a leatherback turtle specimen that was caught in 1883, the only known record of this species in Singapore. Since then, we have studied how sea turtles, such as the endangered hawksbill turtle and green turtle, interact with Singapore’s ecology. The collection also records how flora and fauna that had been introduced to Singapore have been or become part of our landscape, such as the growth of rubber plantations in the 1900s, which at one point in time covered almost 40% of all land in Singapore. This catalysed the rubber industry in Southeast Asia which fuelled the industrialisation of the modern economy of the 20th Century, and featured prominently in World War II history.
  4. Today, the Raffles Collection is the pride of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (the “Natural History Museum”), which has more than 560,000 catalogued lots in its collection and over a million specimens from throughout the region. About 2,000 of these are exhibited in the museum's galleries. The story behind this collection and Singapore’s role in the development of natural history are important chapters in our history, and, as I have alluded to earlier, in the history of the region. Like the National Collection displayed in our museums, these treasures remind us of our past, help us appreciate our present, and guide us in charting our future.

    Laying the foundations

  5. In the National Heritage Board’s (NHB’s) Our SG Heritage Plan launched last year, museums play an important part in fostering a sense of nationhood and identity. NHB formed the Museum Roundtable to champion the role that museums play in society, which is to safeguard and promote our shared heritage to a wider audience. As a member of the Museum Roundtable, the Natural History Museum is an important partner of NHB particularly in the area of natural history, where science meets heritage. You help us understand and appreciate our natural environment better and inform us of the impact on our biodiversity as we embark on infrastructural development.
  6. Through creative and educational programmes, museums lay the foundations for a lifelong interest in heritage and culture. As technology changes the way we learn and live, museums are similarly learning to make their exhibitions and programmes relevant to learning today. The Roundtable as a community is a platform for sharing of experiences, collaboration and learning. The special exhibition being launched today, for example, includes elements that are interactive and designed to spark curiosity. Through these activities, visitors are also brought back in time to uncover the island’s rich natural history and gain a greater understanding of our past.
  7. I encourage the Natural History Museum to actively share these innovative ideas and experiences at the Museum Roundtable. Through collaborations with other museums and stakeholders, the Natural History Museum and its partners can broaden and deepen their engagement of visitors, and showcase multiple aspects.

    Inspiring future generations

  8. Besides museology, a vibrant research culture is another important outcome of our Heritage Plan. We encourage our museums to conduct research into their collections. It will help us understand our heritage better, and enrich the learning outcomes of our visitors. MCCY is working closely with MOE to bring our students to our museums, as both ministries share the common belief that there is much to learn outside the classrooms, and museums are a great place to learn. For our museums to serve this important educational function, it must have strong research and curatorial capabilities.
  9. The Natural History Museum’s strong focus on research has enabled it to make significant contributions to science and heritage. Along with many notable researchers, you have inspired generations of natural historians in Singapore’s history. These pioneers include Professor Chuang Shou-Hwa, the Singaporean author on local natural history; Mrs Yang Chang Man, an expert in aquatic insects, who administered the zoological collections at the University of Singapore. Pioneers like them are being featured and recognised in your exhibition to inspire the visitors.
  10. I am glad to know that the spirit of advancing knowledge continues in the Museum in the present days. The Museum worked with scientists from the National University of Singapore to determine the origins of “Jubi Lee” – the female sperm whale found off the shores of Jurong Island in 2015. The findings, which have contributed to the knowledge of the movements of sperm whales, were published in April this year. I have no doubt that these findings will inspire a new generation of natural scientists and historians.


  11. I would like to end by congratulating the team in the Natural History Museum on the launch of “200: a natural history”, a special exhibition held in conjunction with our Bicentennial. About two hundred years ago, Raffles hired a ship to transport “live animals specially trained to tolerate travel, including a tapir” back to his employer in Britain. Unfortunately, this animal, which some believed to have been depicted in cave paintings dated thousands of year ago, did not survive the journey as the ship sank barely tens of kilometres into its journey. The tapir never made it to Britain. Today in the Natural History Museum, the “tapir” reappears in one of the interactive exhibits, fulfilling its mission to invoke our curiosity in the world of nature. Here we are challenged, like our forefathers had been, to observe, understand, describe and depict the characteristics of the distinctive and handsome animals co-existing with us. By teaching us about our past, the Museum is informing us about what we need to do, now and into the future, towards respecting our environment and developing Singapore in a sustainable way, keeping our heritage and environment very much alive.
  12. Congratulations on the launch of your exhibition, “200: A Natural History”.

Last updated on 10 June 2019