Heritage Gems

Asian Civilisations Museum a living symbol of Singapore’s history

A skylight in the ceiling draws in sunlight, creating a play of shadows. The museum had more than 500,000 visitors last year after the most recent extension in 2015. The building, with grand arches and open spaces, is one of the last remaining vestig
The Asian Civilisations Museum, which occupies the former Empress Place Building, features neoclassical architecture such as Doric columns and high ceilings, and has large French windows to keep the place cool.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
A skylight in the ceiling draws in sunlight, creating a play of shadows. The museum had more than 500,000 visitors last year after the most recent extension in 2015. The building, with grand arches and open spaces, is one of the last remaining vestig
The Khoo Teck Puat Gallery of the Asian Civilisations Museum is the new permanent home for the famous 9th-century Tang Shipwreck collection. Treasures such as ceramics and gold and silver objects were recovered in 1998 from the Java Sea, south-east of Singapore.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
(Left) A skylight in the ceiling draws in sunlight, creating a play of shadows. The museum had more than 500,000 visitors <NO1>in 2016<NO>last year after the most recent extension in 2015. (Right) The building, with grand arches and open spaces, is o
(Left) A skylight in the ceiling draws in sunlight, creating a play of shadows. The museum had more than 500,000 visitors in 2016last year after the most recent extension in 2015. (Right) The building, with grand arches and open spaces, is one of the last remaining vestiges of colonial architecture amid the modern offices in the Central Business District.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings here have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the 34th part in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

That adage to not miss the forest for the trees hit home as visitors to the Asian Civilisations Museum busied themselves with photographs of the museum's collection.

While they were distracted by the artefacts that trace Asia's history, Ms Rejane Schultz pointed out that they had all missed one artefact that dated back to 1867.

Ms Schultz, an architect by profession and a volunteer museum guide since 2012, said: "The biggest artefact in the museum is the building itself."

The Asian Civilisations Museum is housed in the former Empress Place Building, which opened in 1867. Construction plans were approved much earlier, in 1855, said Ms Schultz during a tour on March 14.

However, as Singapore's resources were diverted to the colonial government's military needs, construction began only in 1864.

Originally designed to be a court- house, the building was instead occupied by colonial government offices - such as the Government Secretariat as well as Treasury and Stamp Office - from 1867. It was initially named Government House.

It took on the Empress Place Building moniker only in 1907, after the pedestrian space adjacent to it was renamed Empress Place in memory of the British monarch Queen Victoria, who died in 1901.

Government offices continued to occupy the building even after Singapore was granted self-government in 1959.

According to the Preservation of Sites and Monuments division under the National Heritage Board (NHB), one of the high-ceilinged rooms on the upper floor served as the Legislative Chamber for the government offices.

"It was one of the new generation of colonial buildings constructed to house key administrative departments after Singapore replaced Penang as the administrative seat of the Straits Settlements in 1832," said the museum's director, Mr Kennie Ting.

"A generation of Singaporeans would remember this building as the Immigration Department. They would have come here to obtain their passports and ICs," he added.

The building was converted into a museum only in 1989 and initially housed artefacts from the Qing dynasty, until the NHB took over and made it the Asian Civilisations Museum in 2003.

Since then, it has undergone numerous renovations that brought its total built-up area to 16,000 sq m.

After the most recent extension in 2015, when two new wings and two galleries were added to the museum, the building saw more than 500,000 visitors last year.

However, despite changing hands numerous times, parts of the original architecture, such as the plaster mouldings and cornices, have been preserved.

The building's features were the brainchild of colonial engineer John Frederick Adolphus McNair, who also included Doric columns and high ceilings in his original design.

"It is designed in neoclassical style, but with modifications such as large French windows and open spaces to mitigate the tropical weather in Singapore," said Ms Schultz.

This design has made the former Empress Place Building - gazetted as a national monument on Feb 14, 1992 - one of the last remaining vestiges of colonial architecture amid the modern office towers in the Central Business District.

But for all its grandeur, the former Empress Place Building was constructed using convict labour.

This was an economical way of finishing projects that were delayed by the manpower shortage that Singapore experienced in the 1830s, as it became the fastest- developing region in the Straits Settlements - the administrative unit of the British Colonial Office also comprising Penang and Malacca.

It also helped that Mr McNair was the superintendent of convicts in Singapore and fluent in Hindustani, the language spoken by the majority of the convicts.

Nonetheless, Mr Ting believes the former Empress Place Building remains "a living symbol of Singapore's history, from colonial port city to independent nation- state".

He hopes that the building would remain "relevant and accessible" to Singaporeans.

"It is such a crucial part of Singapore's history," he said, adding that members of the public feel that they can enjoy being there.

This was a sentiment shared by Ms Schultz, who has also volunteered at the Peranakan Museum, Malay Heritage Centre and the National Gallery.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Museum a living symbol of Singapore's history'. Print Edition | Subscribe