A world-class gallery for a global city

Volunteer guide Tan Hui Kheng says that the National Gallery is impressive even without the artworks. One of the highlights of the new building is the roof, made of 15,000 aluminium panels in shades of gold that extends from the old Supreme Court bui
Volunteer guide Tan Hui Kheng says that the National Gallery is impressive even without the artworks. One of the highlights of the new building is the roof, made of 15,000 aluminium panels in shades of gold that extends from the old Supreme Court building and runs atop the length of City Hall.PHOTO: TED CHEN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

How do Singaporeans see change as the Little Red Dot sets out to realise its future as a vibrant global city? In the last of a DBS series on a new Singapore, Wong Kim Hoh talks to museum volunteer Tan Hui Kheng about the city state's latest jewel, the $530 million National Gallery

IN 2010, when Ms Tan Hui Kheng learnt that City Hall and the former Supreme Court were throwing their doors open for an open house, she volunteered to be a guide for the exclusive tours.

A museum volunteer since 1997, she had never seen the inside of the buildings before then, and figured she should get to know them before they undergo a $530 million facelift to be reborn as the National Gallery Singapore.

After a short training course, she conducted a couple of tours for members of the public.

"Many people were excited to go into the 'Surrender Chamber'," she says, referring to the grand City Hall Chamber where the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II was formalised.

Ms Tan, 56, resolved then that she was going to be part of the National Gallery when it was ready.

When it opens its doors at the end of the year, the IT professional will be one of its docents, or volunteer guides.

The prospect excites her.

"Even without the artworks, the space is so impressive," says Ms Tan who conducted some of the tours of the Gallery when it opened its doors for a sneak peak of its interior two months ago.

When it opens, the space will be home to the world's largest collection of South-east Asian art. There are about 8,000 pieces in Singapore's National Collection, two-thirds of which are by regional and local artists. At any one time, the new gallery will be displaying about 1,000 pieces from this collection.

DBS Bank has also donated $25 million along with 26 artworks from its corporate art collection, amassed since 1968, when the bank was founded, to set up the DBS Singapore Gallery, which gives an overview of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present day.

Ms Tan said: "I'm so glad that these historic buildings were not turned into hotels but into a world-class gallery."

Situated in the heart of the civic district, City Hall and the Supreme Court were the focal points for some of the most significant events in Singapore's history.

Built between 1926 and 1929, City Hall used to house the Municipal Council.

It was here that the Japanese army, represented by Lieutenant- General Seishiro Itagaki, surrendered to the Allied Forces, represented by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, on Sept 12, 1945.

It was also on the steps of City Hall that Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew declared self government in 1959. A few years later, in 1963, he jubilantly declared Singapore's independence in front of a roaring crowd on the same steps.

Adjacent to City Hall, the former Supreme Court was built between 1937 and 1939. The seat of the country's highest court until 2005, it was modelled after the Old Bailey in London.

Both City Hall and the former Supreme Court were gazetted as national monuments in 1992.

When he had a sneak peek of the building in late April, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said: "The two buildings in the civic district have witnessed key milestones and turning points in Singapore's history. It is especially meaningful that, on our 50th birthday, these buildings play a part in preserving our memories and nurturing our appreciation of the arts."

Indeed, when it reopens, the 64,000 sq m National Gallery Singapore will be the largest visual arts venue in Singapore, and one of the largest in the region. Its size is comparable to the Musee D'Orsay in Paris.

Ms Tan says the building's transformation - by Paris-based studioMilou Architecture and Singapore firm CPG Consultants - swept her off her feet.

Highlights of the new building include the 15,000 aluminium panels, in different shades of gold, which make up the building's roof and veil. Starting at the old Supreme Court building, it extends over the former alley between the buildings, and runs atop the length of City Hall, effectively conjoining the two institutions.

There is also a rooftop garden with restaurants and cafes, as well as space for artists-in-residence, exhibitions and other activities.

Ms Tan's favourite part of the gallery is the new link bridge connecting the two buildings.

"The area below used to be a carpark," she says.

A computer science graduate from the University of Toronto, she says she signed up to become a museum volunteer in 1997.

"I knew nothing about the arts then. I was very much a maths and science person," she says with a laugh. "But I decided to sign up because I wanted to do something meaningful instead of shopping and going to the movies every weekend."

She was first assigned to become a guide for the old Asian Civilisations Museum in Armenian Street.

"I didn't go to museums in those days, so the training was an eye-opener. Everything was new to me, and there were many things I did not know. I like learning about things I know nothing about," she says.

Learning about Buddhism, Hinduism and the significance of different artefacts was daunting at first, but she persevered.

"Over time, you will learn to connect the dots."

She got hooked and soon started volunteering for other museums, including the National Museum and its Singapore History Gallery, as well as the Peranakan Museum.

Since the beginning of the year, Ms Tan has been undergoing a structured training programme conducted by the National Gallery. The programme runs the gamut from art history classes to presentation and story-telling skills. Ms Tan has already worked out her tour on the history and architecture of the two buildings.

"My theme is people associated with the buildings - from the sculptors, to the caretakers to migrant workers and Samsui women who helped to build them," says Ms Tan.

She cannot wait for the museum to open. "It's something to be proud of, a world-class gallery, worthy of a global city."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2015, with the headline 'A world-class gallery for a global city'. Print Edition | Subscribe