Spike in number of volunteer heritage guides

The National Heritage Board's volunteer guides include Ms Fistri Abdul Rahim, 43, who works in sales and marketing; civil servant Lionel Louis, 33; and River Valley High Schoolstudents Yong Kai Qing (second from left) and Lim Yan Zhe, both 14. There
The National Heritage Board's volunteer guides include Ms Fistri Abdul Rahim, 43, who works in sales and marketing; civil servant Lionel Louis, 33; and River Valley High Schoolstudents Yong Kai Qing (second from left) and Lim Yan Zhe, both 14. There are 4,269 volunteer guides with the NHB today, more than double the 1,807 volunteers in 2015.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Stronger public interest in museum, heritage matters among reasons for growth, says NHB

She scored only a C6 for her O-level history exam but Ms Fistri Abdul Rahim, 43, is now able to rattle off facts on Malay history like a pro.

That is a good thing because she spends some of her weekends as a docent at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC), educating visitors about the artefacts on display. One can detect the passion in her voice as she speaks about archaeological finds like a Mark III rifle, which was used by the Malay Regiment during World War II.

Ms Fistri, who works in sales and marketing, said: "I didn't do much history but I ended up as a volunteer guide giving voice to lifeless artefacts. I like to guide and relate history to the world today."

Ms Fistri is one of 4,269 volunteer guides with the National Heritage Board (NHB). The number of volunteers has more than doubled from just 1,807 in 2015.

NHB told The Straits Times the phenomenal growth in volunteers over the past five years can be attributed to stronger public interest in museum and heritage matters.

Another factor is the rise in volunteering opportunities for events such as the Singapore Heritage Festival and Singapore Night Festival.

Last year, a total of 1,088 museum docents conducted more than 8,600 guided tours for over 92,000 museum visitors.

NHB assistant chief executive of policy and community Alvin Tan said the growth is also a sign of a stronger civic culture taking root in Singapore.

"Our docents are our museums' 'secret weapons'. We rely on them to ensure that every visit to our museums is both educational and enjoyable," he said.

Being a docent requires commitment. As a trainee three years ago, Ms Fistri had to attend cultural and guiding workshops every Saturday for six months, to lead tours at the Asian Civilisations Museum. She spent every other Saturday over two months training to guide at MHC and had to write papers on the artefacts, among other things.

Ms Fistri, who is single, said it was worth the sacrifice. "I feel alive talking about our history because we are so colourful as a country and we can learn so much from our past."

There are challenges being a guide, said fellow docent Lionel Louis, 33, a civil servant. "I once had a four-year-old participant on my tour who told me to stop talking.

"Then there was an elderly gentleman who asked me how good a guide I was at the start of the tour. It ended well because he gave me a 10/10 when it concluded."

To add spice to history, Mr Louis, a docent for four years, said his tours focus on stories that might not appear in textbooks.

When leading tours at the National Museum of Singapore, he shares little-known facts such as how Major-General William Farquhar lived with a French-Malay woman in Malacca and Singapore. They had six children. But he later left her and returned to Britain, where he married another woman and had six more children.

Mr Louis said: "My favourite kind of audience comprises people who think history is boring and are dragged into a museum by someone, but leave having learnt something new."

Anyone over 18 can be a docent. But students below 18 can also get involved. The Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall is the most active in this area, training 232 student docents last year.

NHB's Mr Tan said this student programme draws interest as it is often conducted in mother tongue languages and students pick up skills such as public speaking.

This year, the Memorial Hall is training 66 students from five schools to guide the public on its exhibition at the River Hongbao Chinese New Year celebrations.

Among them is River Valley High Schoolstudent Yong Kai Qing, 14, who will be talking to visitors about reunion dinners of the 1960s.

She said: "It was extremely significant and important to families because it was a time for them to finally indulge in eating chicken and duck. It's unlike today where such meats are eaten every day."

NHB's volunteers also conduct guided trails for the Preservation of Sites and Monuments division, and serve as heritage bloggers and digital advocates. They contribute to NHB's philanthropy initiative HeritageCares, introduced in 2016 to reach out to the less privileged through heritage programmes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Spike in number of volunteer heritage guides'. Print Edition | Subscribe