Two pioneers of natural history honoured

06 September 2019 | General News
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The newly launched statue commemorates Wallace and Ali’s contributions to the understanding of Southeast Asia’s natural history

The contributions to natural history of renowned naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace and his trusted assistant Ali, were commemorated with the unveiling of a statue of them at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) at NUS on 30 August.

Co-discoverer of the Theory of Evolution, Wallace travelled thousands of miles from his home in the UK to Singapore in 1854, where he set up base for his natural history exploration. Over eight years, often accompanied by Ali, he traversed across large segments of Southeast Asia to collect a significant number of plant and animal specimens, and to document the region’s natural history. These specimens proved instrumental to the development of his ideas on evolution, as well as in the growth of Southeast Asia’s natural history knowledge. Wallace met Ali on one of his early trips to Sarawak, Indonesia, and he played a key role in collecting, handling and processing many of the specimens collected.

It is fitting that we also mark Alfred Russel Wallace and Ali, who made significant contributions in discovering, preserving, documenting and helping us to understand the natural history and biodiversity of our region, which includes Singapore.

“Alfred Wallace is an important character in so many ways; he used Singapore as a base for almost all his explorations in the region and is close to heart of a lot of scientists and a lot of people,” said Professor Peter Ng, Head of LKCNHM. Calling the launch a realisation of a 10-year dream, he recounted how the then Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr George Yeo had approached him and LKCNHM Advisor Professor Leo Tan in 2009,  with the mission to “embrace Wallace and have him part of Singapore’s fabric and history”.

The statue — a collaboration between science and art — was conceptualised, designed and sculpted through the biologists at LKCNHM working together with students and artists from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. It depicts Wallace and Ali pointing at a bird in the distance.

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Prof Ng (far right) describing the exhibit to (from left:) NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye, Mr Yeo and Mr Teo

Guest-of-Honour at the official launch of the statue, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, said, “This year, we commemorate Singapore’s Bicentennial. We are not just marking 200 years of modern Singapore, but going back 700 years, to understand Singapore’s early history and reflect on our own place in the region. It is fitting that we also mark Alfred Russel Wallace and Ali, who made significant contributions in discovering, preserving, documenting and helping us to understand the natural history and biodiversity of our region, which includes Singapore.”

Highlighting their spirit of adventure, collaboration and environmentalism, Mr Teo expressed his hope that Singapore’s community of scientists and biologists continue to be inspired by them.

In conjunction with the launch of the statue, the Museum revealed a special exhibition in honour of the intrepid explorers. Visitors can trace the routes that Wallace and Ali took through the Malay Archipelago, from Singapore to places like Malacca, Sarawak, Lombok and Bangka. The exhibition also documented some of the observations made, including infrastructure, types of birds, plants, insects, vegetation, animals, clothing, people and even tiger pits. LKCNHM is also home to two of Wallace’s specimens — an Asian Brown Flycatcher and Wallace’s Standardwing Bird-of-Paradise.

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A specimen of Wallace’s Standardwing Bird-of-Paradise that is housed in LKCNHM