SINGAPORE - Once hailed as the finest building of its kind in the Far East, the stately Istana in Orchard Road, built in the late 1860s, is usually open to the public only five times a year.
But from Oct 8, visitors can take a more frequent look at some of its treasures, including its art collection, state artefacts and state gifts from the President's official residence, at a new heritage gallery at the Istana Park, which fronts the main Istana gate. The gallery will be open to the public throughout the week except on Wednesdays.
The gallery, which took about nine months to build, is the size of three four-room Housing Board flats. Renovations cost about $900,000.
The showcase, which is expected to draw 120,000 visitors each year, is a collaboration between the President's Office, National Parks Board, the National Library Board and the National Heritage Board's (NHB's) Preservation of Sites and Monuments division.
The gallery was initiated by President Tony Tan Keng Yam and part of efforts to educate the public on the history and heritage of the Istana, a national monument.
The Istana said the aim is to complement its open houses with an additional platform for the public to learn about its rich history and heritage, and its role in Singapore's development as a nation.
Ms Jean Wee, director of NHB's Preservation of Sites and Monuments division, said most Singaporeans know the Istana as the official residence of the President, but not the many stories it has to offer.
She said the gallery focuses on the history of the Istana - a building that has witnessed and played a key role in Singapore's development.
"The gallery also explores the role and significance of this important national monument, which parallels in many ways the changing dynamics of Singapore's journey from a colony to sovereign state," Ms Wee added.
The gallery, which offers free admission, is divided into six sections.
The first details the neighbouring 1869 Sri Temasek building on the the Istana grounds which, together with the Istana, was preserved as a national monument in 1992. Sri Temasek was originally the house of the colonial secretary.
The second section traces the early years of the Istana, when it was constructed between 1867 and 1869 on a piece of land that used to be a nutmeg plantation.
The third recounts the effects of World War II on the Istana and its occupants.
The fourth chronicles its transformation from the Government House into the Istana and the replacement of the colonial symbols with the state crest, Presidential Standard and Presidential Crest, after Singapore attained full internal self-government status in 1959.
Sir Harry St George Ord, the first governor of the Straits Settlements, had initiated the Istana's construction. He had intended the building to be the governor's residence.
The fifth section details the Istana's flora and fauna, while the last describes the functions of the Istana, which includes hosting visits by foreign dignitaries.
Some of the objects that visitors to the gallery will be able to see include a bust of Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak and a selection of state gifts from countries such as Brunei, China and Malaysia.