SINGAPORE - They may appear unremarkable and are each barely as long as a finger, but two pieces of 14th-century ceramics found in Fort Canning Park were among the standout finds from archaeological work done in 2018 and 2019.
The two light olive-green sherds from Thailand's Sawankhalok area are on display at a new heritage gallery in the hilltop park, along with other artefacts retrieved in recent decades from the park. Collectively, they back up the notion that Singapore's history spans at least 700 years.
On Friday (Aug 26), the National Parks Board (NParks) opened the Fort Canning Heritage Gallery, which occupies part of two levels in Fort Canning Centre, a conserved building built in 1926 as British army barracks.
The board also opened a new 350 sq m Spice Gallery in the park's Spice Garden, which tells of the history of Singapore's spice trade.
At a launch event at the centre, National Development Minister Desmond Lee said the heritage gallery charts Fort Canning Hill's history and the important roles it played in Singapore's story, from the 14th century until today.
Mr Ryan Lee, NParks' group director for Fort Canning Park and Istana division, said the new gallery will be a good starting point for visitors to understand the park's history and context, before exploring its gardens further.
He added that NParks is also planning to revamp the play areas in Jubilee Park from 2023, and that a feasibility study to have a lookout point constructed on the hilltop will be completed by year end.
Located on a hill, Fort Canning Park is thought to have been home to ancient royalty in the 14th century, including Sang Nila Utama, the Srivijayan prince credited for naming Singapore.
In 1822, modern Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, started a botanical and experimental garden on the hill to test if economic crops such as nutmeg and cloves could withstand the island's climate. The military fortified the hill from 1859 and used it until the 1970s, when it became a public park.
These changes are traced through the five zones in the new heritage gallery, which showcases the hill's history through artefacts that were uncovered on it during archaeological studies since the 1980s. Archaeologists and historians John Miksic, Kwa Chong Guan and Goh Geok Yian were consulted on the gallery's design.
Dr Miksic, who has conducted more than 10 archaeological studies on the hill since 1984, said having a heritage gallery in the park has been a decades-long dream for him.
He said that prior to the gallery’s launch, visitors to the archaeological site on the hill did not have access to much information that contextualises it, but now they can get a comprehensive overview of the hill’s natural and cultural heritage through the gallery.
Dr Goh added that the gallery will be a valuable educational resource, while Mr Kwa highlighted a section of the gallery that reminds visitors that Fort Canning Hill’s status as a park and heritage landmark was not always guaranteed - archaeological finds in the late 1980s halted earlier plans to turn the hill into a tourist attraction.
Also within Fort Canning Centre, which hosted The Bicentennial Experience in 2019, is a new 210 sq m gallery that will house two free exhibitions by the Society for Chinese Ceramics Studies between October and June 2023.
Meanwhile, the enhanced Spice Garden has more than 180 varieties of plants and tells of Singapore's short-lived spice plantations in the 1800s which were wiped out by pests or hampered by poor soil. Despite this, Singapore remained a centre for the spice trade, and spices today form an important part of local food culture that visitors can learn about in the gallery.
Within the garden, the Spice Gallery is located within a pedestrian ramp and underpass, and visitors will find in the underpass three displays fashioned like shophouse units, to look like a traditional spice shop, a spice trading office and a coffee shop.
Spice business Nomanbhoy & Sons, which was established in 1914, supported the gallery through a donation.
Between Friday and Sept 4, NParks will be holding Festival at the Fort, a series of free programmes such as movie screenings and activities for children. More information is available at this website.
On Friday, Mr Desmond Lee also launched a new book that details the area's history, as well as nine landscaped gardens that were opened in 2019.
The heritage gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm, except on the last Monday of each month, while the Spice Gallery is open daily from 7am to 7pm. Admission is free.