THE story of charging for museum admission in Singapore is a curious one that fights the tide of what is happening in many other countries.
In the cultural capitals of the world, free entry to museums such as the British Museum in London and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington has long been a given. Their struggle is against opponents who question the economics of the policy in the light of tightening government budgets.
Here, it has been the reverse. The six museums and two heritage institutions run by the National Heritage Board have always charged entry fees. In recent years, however, the Government has gradually revised its admission policy.
In 2010, children and students who are Singaporeans or permanent residents (PRs), as well as national servicemen, were granted free admission.
Last Friday, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong announced in Parliament that museum entry fees would be scrapped for all Singaporeans and PRs from May 18 to increase the accessibility of heritage institutions.
The cost of implementing free museum admission is not cheap; a portion of the museums' $2 million annual revenue from entry fees will be lost. That amount though is a fraction of the annual operating expenditure - around $151 million for the last financial year.
Still, profit-making has never been an incentive or priority for the museums. Their work has been to increase public contact with art and culture, and it is far from done by simply granting free access.
In fact, the true test begins right after museums open their doors to all Singaporeans and PRs for free in May, with the months immediately after being especially crucial.
Those who have never visited a national museum or heritage institution - about four in five Singaporeans according to Mr Wong's speech in Parliament - might venture into one after May, when admission is free, out of curiosity.
But if they are not impressed by the encounter, they might walk away for good, believing that they never missed anything or that the Government's gesture is a populist move to spread its message of strengthening community ties through culture.
And this is a tough crowd to win over because they are characteristically apathetic about the arts. In the latest biennial national population survey on the arts conducted in 2011, the majority, or 64 per cent, of more than 2,000 respondents said they were "neutral", "not interested" or "not at all interested" in the arts.
Museums must succeed, and quickly, in persuading this group of potential audience that the change in admission policy is more than a bureaucratic triumph; it is a new-found freedom precious to the individual that should be cherished and frequently exercised.
So how can museums, relying on the national collection of artefacts, excite Singaporeans and give them reasons to return the way international blockbuster shows lure crowds to museums here?
Scale, spectacle and novelty may help and an upcoming exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum holds such promise.
The show, Crossing Cultures: New Acquisitions Of The Asian Civilisations Museum, runs from May 30 to Dec 8.
It will feature more than 150 works of art from the national collection that were acquired or donated in recent years. Many of these objects will be on display here for the first time. Beyond offering visual splendour, the show also aims to engage minds by highlighting unusual artistic contacts between Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Indeed, how an exhibition is curated is important.
Many Singaporeans may not be experienced museum-goers but they should not be under-estimated. Museums should acknowledge that their local audience spans a diverse range of ages and levels of maturity. But rather than satisfy the lowest common denominator, the works chosen for exhibition and the way they are shown should offer visitors multiple entry points for understanding.
For example, beyond emphasising the sensory quality of artefacts, a show can also call attention to the personal stories behind the works and their makers, as well as any underlying philosophical issues. These varied paths for exploration in an exhibition will allow different audiences to interact with arts and culture on a level that best suits them.
The museums' exhibitions also need to combat the common perception that they are musty. A good way is for them to offer new perspectives on the works or issues explored.
An upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, on the formation of a national identity through art, could be a complete snooze. That is, if the show, which runs from October to next March, chooses to be a larger-than-life national education textbook and trot out platitudes.
However, if the curators dig deep and offer various views and voices on the relationship between art and Singapore's national identity, the show could well be a transforming experience for many.
Curators should also not shy away from offering unresolved points of view because this can inspire informed contemplation in the visitor and allow him to build personal connections with the works, the museum and, beyond that, the country's culture and heritage.
Indeed, when museum exhibitions tackle a complexity of views, they can become powerful means of showing people how to live with differences and embrace them.
Of course, softer aspects of the visitor experience such as the quality of front-line service and exhibition guiding in the form of docents or audio guides, can also influence the public's decision to return. The museums should be prepared to meet increased stress on their facilities from a likely surge in visitor numbers.
Museums here will soon have the licence to thrill a captive audience, stoke the appetite for the arts, and instill cultural pride when they make entry free for all Singaporeans and PRs from May.
How museums cast themselves in the period immediately after will make or break efforts to have them become a part of cultural and community life in Singapore. They may have just one chance to impress and they should not let it slip by.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 23, 2013
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