The Singapore Philatelic Museum (SPM) and the Peranakan Museum under the National Heritage Board (NHB) will be closed for redevelopment later this year to refresh the museums’ infrastructure and content. The former will be closed to the public from 18 March 2019, and is expected to re-open to the public in end 2020. The latter will be closed from 1 April 2019, and will re-open in mid-2021. These are major redevelopment projects since SPM’s opening in 1995, and the Peranakan Museum’s launch in 2008. Here is a summarised list of some of the most memorable exhibits — both permanent and temporary — of the two museums before they recede into history.
Singapore Philatelic Museum
Almost every primary school student in Singapore gets to go to the Singapore Philatelic Museum at least once. The history of the museum is a significant one, for the building dates back to one century ago where it functioned as a double-storey colonial building. According to the museum’s official website, its building was also formerly part of the Anglo Chinese School. Initially opened on 19 August 1995, the museum was transferred to the NHB in 2000 as a subsidiary. The Singapore Philatelic Museum is also the first philatelic museum in Southeast Asia. Museum collections vary widely from stamps and archival philatelic material of Singapore from the 1830s to the present day, and stamps from member countries of the Universal Postal Union.
Permanent Exhibit: Heritage Room
The Heritage Room on level 2 provides an immersive experience for visitors where the room is designed to look like the interior of an old Singapore shophouse. From the characters on the wall to the images of olden-day workers and their attire, the room traces the story of different migrant races who came to Singapore in the 19th century. Information on early traditional trades, different cultural festivals, traditional costumes and musical instruments can be discovered from the stamp collections and the displays of household items from the long past. This exhibit is significant in offering insights into the everyday facets of our forefathers’ livelihood.
Exhibit: You’ve Got Mail!
From 11 April 2018 to 17 March 2019, You’ve Got Mail! was presented a two-part exhibition that took place on level 2. In Art on Envelope: Send Your Love The Write Way, 200 award-winning handcrafted envelopes from the Washington Calligraphers Guild’s annual Graceful Envelopes Contests (with entries from between 2002 and 2016) were showcased. Visitors delighted in the celebration of craftsmanship in the packaging of letters that is now becoming a dying art.
A part of the exhibition, Seeing Is Believing! Unusual Stamps illustrated how innovative stamp design and printing technology have transformed the simple postage stamp to one that engages all our senses — special stamps from the collection include the world’s first beaded stamp from Singapore, Spain’s unique 3D Star Wars stamps among many others. There was even a section where visitors could smell the stamps that are scented, with flavours such as chocolate, rose, lavender and vanilla. Overall, the two-part exhibition opened up minds about the appearance of stamps and their properties.
The Peranakan Museum is relatively new, having opened in 2008. Its building, however, also possesses a rich history. According to the Peranakan Museum’s official website, the Armenian Street building was formerly the Tao Nan School built in 1912. It was first converted to Asian Civilisation Museum in 1994, which was then redeveloped into the Peranakan Museum in 2008. The redevelopment was initiated due to the overwhelming popularity of the Peranakan display in the old Asian Civilisations Museum.
The introduction gallery on level 1 allowed visitors to start off by understanding what constitutes Peranakans and their communities. We were introduced to the root words of the term “Peranakan” that comes from a Malay word anak (child), loosely translated as “local-born” (born here, but not considered native). The Peranakans are often the result of the marriage of foreign merchants with local women in the Straits Settlement and the Malay Archipelago. The pictures on the walls of the gallery showcase Peranakans from the earliest generation in the late 19th century to the Peranakans of today. The gallery also showcases images of Peranakans from all walks of life — giving recognition to this significant local community in Singapore.
Amek Gambar Gallery
The Amek Gambar gallery, previously covered on Gambar Exhibition: Where Photography is Peranakan presents over a century of photographs through the lens of the Peranakan community. The gallery explores the emergence of photography in Southeast Asia, the multi-faceted identity of Peranakans and their attempts to encapsulate them in old photographs. For instance, the donning of Western attire among the rich Peranakans is a frequent sighting in the photographs, along with the fusion of Chinese attire and Malay apparel. The cultural identity of Peranakans is explored through both curatorial guide and the artefacts themselves, leaving visitors with deepened understanding not only of Peranakan identity, but perhaps of their own. In today’s world where the mixing of cultures is so common that it is uncertain where one culture begins and the other culture ends, the exhibit leaves much food for thought.
Traditional Peranakan weddings are showcased in all their glory on the second floor. The many rituals, such as the coming of age (Chiu Thau) and exchange of gifts (Lap Chai) are also being introduced. Perhaps the art of the Peranakan wedding garments is the most captivating in this gallery, as Peranakans are known for their intricate motifs that contain rich cultural symbolism. For instance, the phoenix and peony are recurrent motifs found on Peranakan wedding garments. More often, there is also a larger variety of motifs, such as the peacock, rabbit, pheasant, qilin, chrysanthemum and lotus, likely to be a result of family commissions that demanded unique motifs. This gallery is important both as a testament to the artistic strengths of the Peranakan communities and an exploration of the cultural meanings behind their designs.
The Singapore Philatelic Museum provides a snippet into not only the postal history of Singapore and the history of its stamps, but perhaps more extensively, the international nature of stamps and how they are a window to the world. The Peranakan Museum delves into the art and culture of Peranakan communities in Southeast Asia through some of the most comprehensive public collections of Peranakan objects. They each offer immense value to the understanding of the region’s past and connections with the present. As the two buildings close down for redevelopment, it is perhaps time to take a step back and rethink the importance of museums and the role in portraying the past and present culture of Singapore.
Photos by Soloman Soh of the DANAMIC team.