Singapore International Festival of Arts

Science and storytelling



Institute of Critical Zoologists

72-13 /Thursday

In a glass box in the Nature Museum sits a pile of black ash labelled "moon dust".

This, we are told, is made up of the bodies of 103 species of insects collected from inside a lamp cover; the insects were burnt to death in the lamp's heat or died of exhaustion after endlessly circling what they thought was the moon. A million insects die every time you turn on the light.

Such is The Nature Museum, an eclectic collection of artefacts, around which are woven science and storytelling, often inextricably and with fascinating results.


  • WHERE: 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road

    WHEN: Performances today and Tuesday to Thursday, 8pm. The exhibition is open until Sept 9 from noon to 11pm daily (closed from 6 to 10pm on performance nights)

    ADMISSION: $35 for performance, $15 for single entry to the exhibition only, which is also free with any Sifa ticket, from Sistic


The exhibition, put together by the fictitious Institute of Critical Zoologists, comes alive in a one- hour "museum tour" by its creator, artist Robert Zhao Renhui, 34, and playwright Joel Tan, 30.

The museum, which builds on Zhao's previous work on the natural world, blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, nature and construct, documentary and art.

Are we to believe, for instance, that land reclamation in the 1970s caused cockroaches living in the sand dunes to evolve from brown to albino within a few generations?

Yet, there are also real-world touchpoints, such as stark photos of native red junglefowl in flight. The fowl, the endangered ancestor of the domestic chicken, made headlines earlier this year when they, supposedly, were culled in Sin Ming after residents complained about noise.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority told the media it had culled free-ranging chickens and not the fowl.

The depth of world-building is at times remarkable, particularly the section devoted to one Francis Leow, an amateur naturalist and unsung hero of local field research.

From a desk of memorabilia and a few minutes of narration, we begin to feel we know Leow, an avid forager of durians who secretly plastered flyover tunnels so bats could roost there in the daytime.

The narration of Zhao and Tan - aided by a computer-generated voice that reads out snippets of text in a plummy colonial accent - proves crucial to the museum experience. It is the performed narrative that makes clear the ways in which the museum interrogates the violent tensions between humans and the natural world, as we study, trap or cull it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2017, with the headline 'Science and storytelling'. Print Edition | Subscribe