Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fantasies of the Unconscious - Creatures of the dappled light

There's much to see at the Raffles Museum
There's much to see at the Raffles Museum
It was a pleasant surprise reading the newspapers of late with all the calls for the setting up of a Natural History Museum here in Singapore.

Being a skeptic at heart, I wondered more than once if this was the work of a small vocal lobby group trying to rally public opinion to further an isolated cause or did it really represent a new-found national consciousness to bring back into the spotlight, some long-forgotten gems of our natural history.

For me, visiting the old National Museum in Stamford Road as a kid was such a treat. An animal lover at heart, walking along those corridors, standing in awe in the presence of creatures of the dappled light, certainly fired the imagination of a young mind.

I stood eyeball to eyeball with a tiger and tried to fathom the last thoughts that went through her head when she met her fate probably from the business end of a gun. Were there some cubs waiting for her back in a den somewhere? Was she distressed that her forest home was being invaded by those thoughtless animals that walked on two legs?

It bothered me then and still does today that many of the exhibits that we now seek to remember and cherish as part of our natural history were trapped, shot, euthanised ... slaughtered just so they could be mounted in a museum. I guess I have the same issues with keeping animals in cages at the zoo or in a bird park.

I remember this past week at work - horrible and sadly disappointing though it was - one uplifting moment was watching a hawk (I call her Hillary after the indomitable spirit of her Clinton namesake) soaring with the thermals high over Hill Street. She may have been hunting for her next meal - a struggle to keep body and soul together for another day - but I couldn't help feeling that her aerial display was a celebration of freedom ... of life as it was meant to be - a living example of our national heritage in its full glory.

What was missing from the National Museum of old? It certainly wasn't a lack of things to see. It offered much. No, it was the people. The museum was always empty and I could never understand why. It wasn't that the building was tucked away in some ulu part of Singapore or that it was expensive.

The sad conclusion was that there just wasn't enough of public interest.

As the country moved on and turned its attention on other things, so too did the National Museum. The history of the Singapore people went on show and the animal specimens were packed up and soon to be forgotten. Eventually they found their home at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) - tucked away in the National University of Singapore. It was like moving from a palace into a HDB flat. But for those who took the trouble to visit, the museum - tiny though it was - still held that quaint, honest charm without the bells and whistles of our modern museums with their touch-screens, surround sounds and artistic lighting.

Killing to preserve
Killing to preserve
But at RMBR - the stories were still there - some full of wonder, others incredibly sad.

And so here we are today, waking up with calls from The Sunday Times to create a Museum of Natural History big enough to showcase the many wonders we have kept in storage for far too long and housed in a place easily accessible to everyone.

Personally I hope this does happen ... again. But the skeptic in me is less than confident that it would be as successful and alluring as the pundits make it out to be. When all the chest thumping purists have moved on to champion other causes, will the Museum of Natural History resonate with the common Singaporean? Or is going to go the way of my exercise bike - great to have one - should be used more often - but there it sits gathering dust supporting my chipped coffee mug.

I wonder what Hillary would say to such a debate. It probably wouldn't bother her one way or the other. If you want to celebrate our natural history, take a walk around Bukit Timah Hill and experience the wonders of nature for yourself. Go bring your kids to catch some longkang fish, climb a tree and feel nature or look up to the skies for Hillary and her kind.

For if none of this moves your spirit, having a big ole empty building filled with old remnants of nature extinguished, wouldn't made a damn difference. Those halls would surely remain empty - devoid of people and history would have repeated itself.

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