Istana Heritage Gallery to open on Orchard Road

Thousands throng the Istana during open house for a look at what lies behind its gates. Soon, people can get a view of its treasures all year round in a heritage gallery across the road at Istana Park.
Thousands throng the Istana during open house for a look at what lies behind its gates. Soon, people can get a view of its treasures all year round in a heritage gallery across the road at Istana Park.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
A shelter and pump room at the Istana Park will be turned into the Istana Heritage Gallery.
A shelter and pump room at the Istana Park will be turned into the Istana Heritage Gallery.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Five times a year, thousands of people throng the Istana during open house for a look at what lies behind its cast-iron gates.

Soon, people can get a view of its treasures all year round.

The Government is building a heritage gallery across the street at Istana Park, which sits opposite the Istana's main gates, to display selected artefacts, state gifts and artworks of the President's official residence. It will also have a gift shop.

The museum is expected to draw 120,000 visitors each year once it opens, possibly later this year.

"The project was initiated by the President," the President's Office said on Saturday. "It is part of the overall efforts to educate the public on the history and heritage of the Istana, which is a national monument."

Heritage experts welcomed the undertaking, saying it can be designed to engage people while explaining the historical significance of the Istana and the Presidency.

Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien said it also presents an opportunity to chronicle the storied Orchard Road area.

Notable landmarks in the area include the pre-WWII Japanese General Consulate bungalow atop Mount Emily, the House of Tan Yeok Nee at the corner of Penang Road - which is the last of four elaborate Chinese-style mansions built here in the 19th century - and founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's house in Oxley Road.

"There are so many gems, not just in architecture but also in our landscape history at the periphery of the Istana," he said. "This is an excellent opportunity to chronicle many different time periods in Singapore's history by connecting the Istana to its immediate neighbourhood."

The museum, the size of three four-room Housing Board flats, will stand on a space that had a water pump room and covered shelter.

Renovations costing $900,000 are expected to be completed in the second half of the year.

The Istana is looking for an operator to run it for three years, sources said. It said in a letter to potential operators that they will not be charged a licence fee for three years.

In return, the operator must have a social and public education element in running the museum. This includes "providing opportunities for volunteerism, or donating a percentage of the profits from the retail outlet to a charity".

The operator can choose to run the museum for another six years, but it may be charged a fee for each three-year extension.

Experts stressed that the museum's contents and how they are organised and presented are key to its success.

Said Singapore Heritage Society executive committee member Yeo Kang Shua: "I believe that after 50 years of diplomatic ties with countries all over the world, there should be a sizeable collection of state gifts.

"The question is how you curate them to tell a compelling story, since you can't fit everything in.''

Some experts, like Dr Kevin Tan, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore, were baffled by the decision to outsource the museum's operations as it involves telling the story of the highest office in the land.

"This model works for businesses like tourist attractions but I fear that to make it commercially sustainable, the operator may do things that compromise the dignity and prestige of the President's office."

If education is the reason for the museum, he suggested it be run as a state-funded national education project.

Photographer Ahmad Iskandar, 29, feels many Singaporeans will be keen to know the story behind the gifts leaders give each other, among others."What will be really interesting is if the items marked important visits that helped shaped our history," he said.