A Bag of Bones – A National Heritage and a Lesson for Humanity?

An article by guest writer Leo W H Tan. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.


A former colleague was the inspiration for the title  “A Bag of Bones”. We met for dinner and as soon as our greetings were exchanged, she exclaimed” 46 million dollars for a bag of bones? I am impressed you can collect so much for that”! She was referring to the total sum raised in a very tight timeline, that would enable the building of a new home for the 160 year old Raffles Zoological Collection, presently housed in the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) at the Science/Medical Library, National University of Singapore. So what was the big deal in saving (metaphorically speaking), a bag of bones? A little history is called for.

The Raffles Library and Museum

In 1823, the founder of modern Singapore Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, proposed the setting up of a museum and library in Singapore as a repository for specimens deemed relevant to the flora, fauna and peoples of the region. It was not till 1849 that  this institution was established by the committee of the Singapore Institution (Raffles Institution) and only in 1887 (some 64 years after Raffles mooted the idea) did the Raffles Library and Museum finally find a home at Stamford Road.

Premier Zoological Institution for South East Asia

The Raffles Museum was an icon in the heyday of colonial Singapore and Malaya, not only because it housed an excellent collection of South East Asian flora and fauna, particularly animals, but because it earned a reputation for first-rate systematics and taxonomic research. The quality of this collection and the numerous scientific publications arising from the sustained research on the materials made the Museum the premier zoological institution for South East Asia.

Whither Humankind Without Plants and Animals?

Many generations of Singaporeans will remember some of the landmark exhibits in the Raffles Museum viz  the suspended 12.8 metre skeleton of the baleen whale that was beached at Malacca in 1892, the butterfly and bird displays and the imposing skeleton of the elephant that was shot by the Sultan of Johor in 1909. My school was just across the canal and field from the Raffles Museum. My classmates and I made frequent visits to admire the stuffed animals and/or their skeletons. What I did not realise then, was that the animals which I viewed in the museum, would not be around forever in the wild. I took for granted that the living counterparts of the majority of museum specimens could always be found in some forest, stream, field, reservoir or sea. In the short span of one generation, the cream-coloured giant squirrel that could be found in Singapore has probably gone extinct. The last sighting was in 1995. A similar fate befell several of the species represented in the Raffles Museum. I did not think of loss of biodiversity, climate change or global warming then but I did wonder why species like the Bali tiger or dinosaurs disappeared into oblivion. The museum thus was not only for studying natural history but was a most relevant institution to make us ponder about our own fate as a human species. If animal and plant species could go extinct, what about us? Aren’t we dependent on them for our survival?

A National Heritage “Lost and Rescued”

It was through the relentless and conscientious efforts of the Raffles Museum Directors and curators that the museum collections grew in educational, heritage, scientific, social and cultural value for our society. The museum exhibited and researched the natural history of Southeast Asia and I believed it would continue to thrive when Singapore obtained its independence in 1965. Amidst the upheavals of having to struggle for survival as a miniscule island state with no resources other than people, it was unfortunate some endeavours which appeared not to be of economic, social or cultural value were relegated to the lowest priorities. The Raffles Museum was renamed the National Museum in 1969. It was given a new mandate to emphasize national identity and in 1971, the entire natural history collection was almost given away in its entirety as it was considered to be of no cultural or economic benefit and worse, it was probably viewed as a relic of a colonial era. The Science Centre was to have acquired the collection but it could not find any use for the unmounted specimens and the wet materials which numbered some half a million specimens. We lost the familiar whale skeleton which greeted visitors as they came through the Rotunda entrance of the museum and the elephant too, plus a host of other specimens, before the rest of the collection was “rescued” by dedicated Zoologists at the University of Singapore, who did everything they could for the next 15 years to house and guard the collection without a permanent home, facilities and with little support for maintenance.

The Zoological Collection Survived Despite the Odds

Despite its tumultuous history and hostile tropical clime, the collection miraculously survived. It was only in 1987 that the Zoological Collection was given a permanent home by sentient university leaders at the National University of Singapore (NUS). In 1998, arising from the 1996 merger of the Departments of Zoology and Botany to form the Department of Biological Sciences, the Zoological Collection and the Botany Department’s Herbarium were renamed the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR). Until 2000, the RMBR and its treasure trove of irreplaceable and priceless zoological specimens were accessible only to researchers and specialists from across the globe. The public for whom the collection was originally intended, could not visit the museum as there was no exhibition gallery. Being an institute of higher learning, NUS correctly emphasized the research and undergraduate/graduate teaching roles of the RMBR which the Museum embraced wholeheartedly. That enabled it to become a leading natural history/biodiversity research centre in the Asia Pacific region. RMBR also produces the leading scientific journal on animal diversity in South East Asia “The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology”. It is one of the few biological journals in the region that are listed in the Science Citation Index and Current Contents. The missing element is the public exhibition role. NUS recognised this but did not have the funds to build a respectably-sized exhibition gallery. It compromised by offering a 200 sq m permanent exhibition space (the size of two HDB four-room apartments) which became extremely popular with visitors but they fed back the gallery was too small, difficult to locate, had no parking lots, was not open on weekends and there was no access via public transport. In fact the gallery can only display 0.1 % of its collection.

Homecoming Dream

I had a keen interest in following all the above developments as I was a graduate student in the Zoology Department at the time of the impending “demise of” the Zoological Collection in the National Museum. I left NUS as an academic in 1986, before the announcement of the permanent home at the new Science/Medical Library of NUS. I followed the evolution and development of the RMBR and took pride as its research/university teaching reputation and international standing continued to flourish over time but was sad its third role of public education and restoration of the national heritage was not adequately fulfilled. Could this dream be fulfilled? I had thus a very compelling reason to accept an invitation to return to the NUS Faculty of Science towards the end of 2008 and I started to explore the possibility of building a new museum as the RMBR was facing the dilemma of acute space constraint and other major concerns.

Let’s have a Natural History Museum

It was not until International Museum Day (IMD) on 24th May 2009, that I got an insight into the deep public interest in the museum. More than 3000 visitors found their way to the small RMBR that memorable Sunday. The print and TV media covered the event. Letters of support from the public (both Singaporeans and foreigners) followed in the local press. The Sunday Times on 14th June 2009, published an article entitled “Let’s have a Natural History Museum”. A week after, an unnamed benefactor offered to be the catalyst by offering at first one million dollars and subsequently $10m if we went ahead  to build a new museum. This had to be the sign I was waiting for to go all out to champion the museum project together with the Director of RMBR, Professor Peter Ng. It could not have been just coincidence that there was overwhelming support by the public on IMD, the outpouring of letters to the media, the inviting title coined by the Sunday Times and the generous offer from the benevolent benefactor. I could not help feeling there was a mandate from above to go ahead with the first step – fund raising.

The Impossible Challenge

We needed the University leadership’s blessing as the NUS was the custodian of the Zoological Collection. Peter and I got the authorities’ approval to go ahead with the project on one condition. We had to raise a minimum sum of $35 million in six months from end December 2009, to secure a prime plot of land on the very land-scarce campus. The NUS had its hands full in developing the new Dover Campus and so we had to raise the funds entirely from external, non-governmental sources. It was a daunting if not impossible challenge but we felt it was worth doing for the next generations of citizens who have to understand the critical importance of biodiversity to their survival and well-being.

The Arduous Fund-Raising Journey

The arduous journey was embarked upon by the fund raising team comprising just five individuals … Peter Ng, Dr Tan Swee Hee, Sum Foong Yee (all from RMBR), myself and a miracle worker, my personal assistant and administrator Belinda Teo who opened many doors to potential donors and facilitated strong media coverage over the six months we were tasked to raise the minimum sum. I will not bore readers with the sleepless nights and nightmares encountered on the journey to beat the deadline. To cut a long story short, we secured the main funding from charitable foundations and organisations and the unnamed donor. The Lee Foundation alone pledged $25m to restore the natural history museum for Singapore.

Is This What the Public Wants?

One nagging question in my mind was, if the main sums were collected from major donors, would the general public also show tangible support for the project? In other words, how do I know if the museum is what the public wants and not what the project team considers as its priority? We started a public donation drive in April 2010 very amateurishly but with much love and belief in the cause via unsolicited slow and e-mails, word of mouth, FUN raising events and personal contacts. Even family members were roped in to help. The outpouring of generosity  from people of all walks, was heart-warming. It wasn’t the quantum but the participation that mattered. They gave whatever they wished from little to much. One donor gave half a month’s salary while another her entire month’s. Another had retired for seven years from the NUS and gave twenty thousand dollars. She told the media “This is not charity. If it’s the last thing I can do, I would like to do something for it (the museum)”. We have only to look at the success of natural history museums in London, Paris, New York, Washington DC, Taichung etc to see their popularity with and value to the public. School groups, tourists and locals alike, visit in droves, often in three-generation family outings. Perhaps our Tourism Board should take note of this world-wide trend. We are convinced the Singapore public want their natural history heritage restored. I have mentioned heritage several times in this piece but have not put its meaning in context. It is ironical that while we all look forward to better tomorrows, we often forget it is only by examining and learning from the past that we can understand our present and enable us to know where we are going i.e. to plan for the future. This is what heritage is about.

The “Bag of Bones” Journey Continues

And that is why a “bag of bones” attracted $46m in donations to date. We may have satisfied the requirement of the minimum sum to guarantee the museum site and the building infrastructure, but to create a world class museum that will educate, enthrall and empower countless generations to come (on the need to protect and conserve their biodiversity), we still need substantial donations to build the relevant exhibitions on themes ranging from the biodiversity of Singapore & South East Asia to Environment & Conservation and History & Heritage. Exhibitions are development or capital costs and do not draw government or university funding. However, the NUS will obtain matching grants from the government for an endowment fund from which the earned interest may go towards the operating costs for the public education role of the museum. I am optimistic that this natural heritage will be a lasting legacy for humankind in Southeast Asia and beyond. The new museum is expected to be completed in 2013/14.

The journey continues…

About the Writer

Leo W H Tan is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and concurrently Director (Special Projects Unit), Faculty of Science, NUS. He is President of the Singapore National Academy of Science. He served as Director & CEO of the Singapore Science Centre (1982 – 1991), Foundation Dean, School of Science, National Institute of Education, NTU (1991 – 2000), the Director of the National Institute of Education (1994 – 2006) and Chairman of the National Parks Board (1998 – 2007). He was a recipient of the President’s Award for the Environment in 2007.

10 thoughts on “A Bag of Bones – A National Heritage and a Lesson for Humanity?

    • Thank you for your most encouraging comments. Yes this museum is a natural heritage of Singapore and South East Asia and therefore it was a duty to try to bring it back for future generations to appreciate the beauty of our natural history and why animals and plants are vital to our survival as a human race.. We shall continue to need the support of the community including the corporate sector to ensure the museum stays on a sustainable footing once opened to the public. I am utterly grateful for the support given thus far.

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  2. Thank you for your most encouraging comments. Indeed this museum is our educational, scientific and cultural heritage and with the help of the general public, we shall leave a lasting legacy for the young and future generations in Singapore and South East Asia. This is a museum of the future as the exibitions, research and teaching will help visitors appreciate how animals and plants hold the key to human well-being and survival.

    Leo W H Tan

  3. Wow..I really had no idea of how much hard work has been put behind creating this museum,I am sure the younger generation and the future generation will appreciate all the hard work,way to go!!

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