“Body shaped like a pig. Four legs. Short, stumpy tail. Long, curved snout. Front part of the body is black, back part is white. Small eyes.“
For years, these words were the only description of the Malayan tapir. The journey of naturalists to come to an accurate scientific description and depiction of the tapir mirrors the trajectory of Singapore’s natural history. While both certainly predate 1819, the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles and the East India Company to the island accelerated and increased the records.
As Singapore commemorates the Bicentennial, the national discourse on the arrival of the British in 1819 has given new perspectives in how to view our history. The latest exhibition by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) at NUS, ‘200: A Natural History’, and accompanying book, ‘200: Points in Singapore’s Natural History’, add another layer of depth to the conversation: how events, places and people over the past two centuries have affected and shaped Singapore’s natural history.
Officially launching the year-long exhibition, Guest-of-Honour Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth said, “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.”
Tapping on the Museum’s wide historical and modern natural history collections of plants and animals, the exhibition chronologically documents notable events from each year between 1819 and 2019. The exhibition begins with Neptune’s cup, a goblet-shaped sponge that in 1819 became the first known animal from Singapore described according to European scientific convention, Spongia patera.
Other notable events include the arrival of the co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection Alfred Russel Wallace in 1854, the discovery of the world’s only known species of bioluminescent snails on the lawn of the Goodwood Park Hotel in 1943, and the restoration and display of a sperm whale carcass found off the waters of Tuas in 2015.
“It has been once said that in order to understand a man, you must know his memories, otherwise you don’t know who he is. The same is true also for a nation, even if it’s a small nation like Singapore. Its memories include all aspects, from culture, to the animals and plants that we interact with, as well as the interesting people that participated in the history,” said Professor Peter Ng, Head of LKCNHM.
Curated by Senior Conservator Ms Kate Pocklington and Research Associate Mr Martyn Low, the exhibition also features lesser-known plants and animals, anecdotes detailing the ways in which people in Singapore's early years interacted with wildlife, and the stories of the individuals who have helped shape the biodiversity scene in Singapore in one way or another.
Besides the exhibits, visitors can participate in an interactive station inviting them to draw their interpretation of an animal solely off a short description, to simulate the experience of naturalists before the advent of photography. Collectible medallions created for the exhibition are also available for purchase.