Rise in technology, more demanding audiences as National Museum of Singapore turns 130

Rise in technology, more demanding audiences as National Museum of Singapore turns 130

As Singapore’s oldest cultural institution celebrates its 130th anniversary, NMS director Angelita Teo talks to Channel NewsAsia about the big changes that have occurred in the last decade – from growing technological innovations to a more demanding museum-goer.

National Museum of Singapore (130th anniversary art trail)
The National Museum of Singapore celebrates its 130th year with, among other things, an art trail. This includes a concrete mixer truck converted into a huge disco ball, an installation by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore)

SINGAPORE: This weekend, the National Museum of Singapore will be celebrating its 130th anniversary with a slew of activities such as tours, music performances and art installations.

First established as the Raffles Library and Museum on Oct 12, 1887, the country’s oldest cultural institution has undergone many changes through the years at its Stamford Road home. And the past few years have seen some big ones, said current director Angelita Teo.

National Museum of Singapore
Clockwise from top left: The Raffles Library and Museum building along Stamford Road; the museum's zoological collection, including a tiger (foreground) donated by Sultan Ibrahim of Johor; the iconic Indian Fin whale skeleton displayed from 1907 to 1974; the museum separated from the library and was renamed National Museum. (Photos: National Museum of Singapore website)

“The museum is still a physical space to collect and present knowledge. But how that knowledge is being digested, consumed and presented has changed a lot,” she told Channel NewsAsia, ahead of the anniversary celebrations.

At the heart of this change is the growing needs of contemporary audiences, who are demanding more from a museum experience.


“Within the last decade or so, museums have changed drastically,” admitted Teo, who joined the museum 15 years ago before rising through the ranks to become director in 2013.

National Museum of Singapore (Angelita Teo, museum director)
Museums have changed drastically, says National Museum of Singapore director Angelita Teo. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore)

“In 2002, it was still quite relaxed. We did what we wanted and were quite happy as long as we were furthering scholarship and helping to increase the collection. If people came, that was all well and good, but the level and value of the engagement wasn’t that high,” she said.

“Now it’s gone beyond that. The demand of our audience has greatly increased – it’s not just about an exhibition but a package.”

That so-called package now tends to include just about everything, from talks and conferences to special programmes for children and seniors, to even lifestyle considerations like specially-themed menus at the museum’s F&B outlet.

Story of the forest
The Story Of The Forest at the National Museum of Singapore. 

Audiences have also become more vocal about what they want to get out of a trip to the museum.

“In the old days, they were more polite. Now they will tell you if they feel they’ve wasted half their day! We’ve got parents writing in telling us they’re coming with their children and they also must have something to do. It’s not easy,” she said, with a wry chuckle.

But accommodating all of these is necessary to ensure a social history museum like NMS continues to be a space with something for everyone, said Teo, who will incidentally be giving two special museum tours on Oct 13 and 15 as part of the celebrations.

“You want Singaporeans to think of coming to museums as a lifelong thing, and this evolves with their needs, whether as a young child, a grown adult or a senior.”

National Museum of Singapore (130th anniversary art trail)
At the National Museum of Singapore's 130th anniversary, the public can get their groove on in an interactive installation by Singapore group NADA and Brandon Tay. (Photo: National Museum of Singapore)

Even as NMS continues to tweak its strategy inside its premises, its most successful event has taken place outside of it.

The annual Singapore Night Festival, which it spearheads, has been drawing crowds in the thousands; its recent 10th anniversary edition was no different.

And while the festival’s mass-oriented fare has had some detractors, who see it as simply a numbers-oriented event that has little to do with the museum itself, Teo insisted there have been huge benefits for the museum and nearby cultural institutions in holding such events.

Singapore Night Festival 10th anniversary (Theatre Tol)
A sea of handphone screens lit up as Belgium's Theatre Tol performed in 2011. (Photo: Singapore Night Festival)

“This year, on the last night, we had 20,000 people inside our space. Even if they come here for a different reason, to be to able to convert 10 per cent of them to say they’ll come back again would be incredible.”


One of the new frontiers for NMS has been in the field of technological innovations.

Last year, it launched Story Of The Forest, an interactive installation that featured animated renderings of William Farquhar’s natural history drawings. This was followed by the launch of a new digital gallery and the use of augmented reality.

Sarah Choo Jing's Art Of The Rehearsal
The National Museum of Singapore's new digital gallery featuring Sarah Choo Jing's video installation.

In November, the museum will begin its tentative foray into virtual reality (VR), starting with a showcase of VR films.

But Teo pointed out that the museum won’t be adapting to new technologies just for the sake of it.

“I think VR opens up new opportunities, but the question I’m dealing with now is how useful it would be for a social history museum like us to have it? You can sit at home and download the content – you don’t have to come. (But at the end of the day) we want the museum to be a place where people come together.” 

More details on the museum's 130th anniversary events can be found here

Source: CNA/mm