National Museum's exhibition on 1970s-2000s tech offers chance to experience history

The exhibition focuses on gadgets between the 1970s and 2000s and the contexts in which they were used in Singapore. ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Step into the basement exhibition area of the National Museum from Friday (June 10), and one will be taken back five decades to an office from the 1970s, with typewriters on desks, scattered pencils, bulky personal computers and a view of the old city skyline through the window.

Overhead, speakers played the clattering of typewriter keys, the thump of stamps and inane office chatter.

The only thing missing seems to be the smell of freshly brewed coffee, as the National Museum puts up an immersive experience that pivots away from what is traditionally possible in an exhibition, choosing to recreate whole environments so visitors can live and breathe history - even if it is just for an hour.

Called Off/On: Everyday Technology That Changed Our Lives, the National Museum's new exhibition, which runs from Friday to Oct 30, focuses on gadgets from between the 1970s and 2000s and the contexts in which they were used in Singapore.

Payphones are placed in recreated hair salons and coffee shops; cameras are situated in photography studios and dark rooms; cassette players and a Nintendo game console are installed in a living room, complete with homely furniture and sports medals that could have been won by young students.

A recreated coffee shop at the exhibition. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

"It was a time of change. Pre-war, people sought entertainment outside, at Gay World Amusement Park for example. But with the new gadgets, people could make their own fun in the comfort of their home, at their convenience," said Ms Priscilla Chua, senior curator of the National Museum.

"The only way for us to understand how technology works is to try to experience it and I think that's something that we have inserted as part of the entire exhibition. We really wanted to make it unique, different from our usual exhibitions."

Looking at the many historical items placed around each room, one might even be hard-pressed to find the actual artefact on display, since the items are integrated quite seamlessly into their surroundings, separated from other objects only by a small transparent case.

Historical items on display at the exhibition include (clockwise from top left) a Nokia 3310 mobile phone, a Motorola numeric pager, a Sanyo portable radio and cassette player, an IBM personal computer, an Apple IIe personal computer and a Nintendo Family Computer game console. ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI

The artefacts are on loan from members of the public or from the national collection.

Items that are not in a glass case can be touched or even played with.

Visitors can press the buttons on a cassette player to hear the whirring of the device or lift a hand receiver from an old coinafon - orange public phones introduced in the 1980s - to feel its weight or dial 1711 to get the time.

Remote video URL

There are also quick games that can be played by scanning a QR code, such as a typing test that secretaries would have taken for an office job in the 1970s or a puzzle that requires visitors to learn how to decode a pager message.

The Game On section at the exhibition. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Ms Chung May Khuen, director of the National Museum, said the exhibition is also part of a call to get people to contribute stories and objects that relate to technology from the 2000s, following the museum's first drive to collect more contemporary objects during Covid-19.

The first effort, which focused on Covid-19 related items, has had an encouraging response, she added.

Close to 300 items have been submitted for this, among them photos of stacked-up chairs at a Toast Box outlet, face masks with built-in microphones for lecturers and lounge wear with formal tops suitable for Zoom office meetings.

The 1970s to 1990s were a period of rapid transformation for Singapore.

Installation of television sets from the past at the exhibition. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
A recreated hair salon at the exhibition. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Typewriters heralded the entry of women to the workplace as secretaries, and where there used to be only 1.6 phones per 100 people in the immediate post-war period, they became much more ubiquitous.

The National Museum has also transformed the exhibition into an escape room at night, so that participants can decipher clues that will help uncover a secret technological.

Those who wish to contribute objects and stories relating to gadgets from the 2000s can do so at this website until the end of the year.

Admission to the exhibition is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents. Escape room tickets will be released separately from Thursday.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.