Pandemic sees private museums here struggle for visitors

Some help at hand, with six receiving NHB grants last year amid plunge in ticket sales

Mr Alvin Yapp, owner of The Intan, a private home museum dedicated to Peranakan culture, says private museums must "remain relevant to the community". PHOTO: PA FRENZ
Mr Alvin Yapp, owner of The Intan, a private home museum dedicated to Peranakan culture, says private museums must "remain relevant to the community". PHOTO: PA FRENZ
Singapore Musical Box Museum owner Takumi Minami is Japanese but passionately believes in his work of highlighting the Republic's important role in the development of music boxes in the region.
Singapore Musical Box Museum owner Takumi Minami is Japanese but passionately believes in his work of highlighting the Republic's important role in the development of music boxes in the region.PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAKUMI MINAMI

To keep all six of his full-time employees, Mr Takumi Minami has had to sell his shares in a restaurant and a gym.

The owner of the Singapore Musical Box Museum is Japanese but passionately believes in his work of highlighting Singapore's important role in the development of music boxes in the region.

In the absence of tourists during the Covid-19 pandemic, his small museum at the Thian Hock Keng temple in Telok Ayer Street has seen visitorship drop by more than half. Even with SingapoRediscovers voucher bookings by locals, his sales last year came to a meagre $6,800, compared with $22,000 in 2019.

"That is not enough to manage the place," he said. "We have made a drastic cost reduction, for example, by reducing unnecessary air conditioning. Private museums are either understaffed, underfunded or both. We are no exception."

Singapore's heightened alert following the resurgence of community Covid-19 cases is adding to the pain of a cultural sector that has been trying to find a way to break even without tourists.

Private museums have it the hardest. Unlike their publicly funded counterparts, their survival depends to a greater extent on ticket sales.

As their venues are usually smaller and more cramped, safe distancing measures also reduce their capacity disproportionately.

For some, this means the only way to proceed is to hold private tours. It is the norm to have the number of visitors decline by about half from pre-Covid-19 figures, and for revenue to plummet even more.

Last month, the company operating the Chinatown Heritage Centre (CHC) decided to hand it back to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), saying "the operating model was no longer viable".

Pre-Covid-19, it paid STB for the rights to run the centre, charging visitors about $18 each for admission. Under its management, CHC climbed the ranks to third among Singapore museums on TripAdvisor, but even that was not enough to keep it commercially viable.

The company, which has been dissolved, said: "When Covid-19 struck, we lost 80 per cent of our customers as air travel came to a halt.

"The decision to return the centre to STB is a tough and painful one, but this is the right thing to do."

The museum has been closed indefinitely as STB reviews how best to run it.

Like many other businesses, the museum sector received financial support from the Government last year.

The Jobs Support Scheme helped to pay the wages of some museum workers, while an arts and culture resilience package gave out grants to help museums find ways to digitalise their offerings.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) approved 10 grant applications for six private museums last year, hoping that through digitalisation efforts, they can reduce their reliance on physical visitors.

The Intan, a private home museum dedicated to Peranakan culture in Joo Chiat, made use of the NHB grant money to produce a series of subscription-based videos on different Peranakan topics, each lasting 10 to 15 minutes.

It also created a Peranakan digital game, which is free to play but requires players to pay a nominal sum to buy new lives or items.

Mr Alvin Yapp, owner of The Intan, said these were nowhere near enough for the museum to regain pre-Covid-19 revenues, which have fallen by half.

He has had to find other ways to make money. Mr Yapp managed to get the museum's merchandise, such as Peranakan bead slippers, put on sale at the Raffles Hotel.

By teaming up with education institutions like the Singapore Management University or elderly care homes, he has also made a profit from tailored live tours of The Intan conducted over video, in which he talks about Peranakan kueh while eating them and plays the piano for his audience.

The NHB said private museums contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of Singapore's museum landscape, often showcasing niche interests or aspects of the nation's heritage.

It will continue to engage private museums to promote public awareness, boost visitorship and share digitalisation practices, it said.

Mr Yapp said: "Private museums are in a unique position today. While we don't enjoy the funding and support like public museums do, we also have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to work hard and rely on our own efforts to keep afloat and, most importantly, remain relevant to the community."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2021, with the headline 'Pandemic sees private museums here struggle for visitors'. Subscribe