Worldwide icon-chevron-right Asia icon-chevron-right Singapore icon-chevron-right The history behind Singapore's heritage museums and concert halls

The history behind Singapore's heritage museums and concert halls

The storied halls of these buildings have borne witness to some really important events in Singapore's history

National Gallery Singapore
Photograph: Dewi Nurjuwita
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Our museums and concert halls – especially those located in the Civic District – are housed in some seriously breathtaking buildings. Whether it's Singapore's oldest museum or the stunning Neoclassical-style Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall, the structures that are now home to our cultural institutions have seen a lot in their lifetimes. We trace back the history and stories behind Singapore's museums. 

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National Gallery Singapore
Photograph: Dewi Nurjuwita
Art

National Gallery Singapore

City Hall

Known for its huge collection of the world's largest public display of modern Southeast Asian art, National Gallery Singapore is one of Singapore's most prestigious museums. The Gallery occupies two refurbished national monuments, the former Supreme Court and City Hall, completed in 1939 and 1929 respectively. 

History: The Supreme Court and City Hall (formerly the Municipal Building), have borne witness to various historical events since their inception, including the surrender of the Japanese forces on September 1945 and the inauguration of Yusof Bin Ishak as Singapore's first head of State on December 1959. 

In 2005, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the buildings would be converted into the new National Gallery Singapore. Helmed by Studio Milou Architecture from France in collaboration with CPG Consultants Pte Ltd, the restoration commenced in 2012 and was completed three years later.

Interesting fact: Prior to the restoration, two archaeological digs were held on the site of the National Gallery Singapore, uncovering artefacts from the 14th to the 19th centuries. This shed light on the rich trade networks and livelihoods of the past. 

National Museum of Singapore
Photograph: Dewi Nurjuwita
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National Museum of Singapore

City Hall

Singapore's oldest existing museum, the National Museum of Singapore is currently devoted to the history of Singapore. Its iconic wide facade and large dome have made the Museum a prominent landmark on Stamford Road for over a century.

History: The Museum's origins can be traced back to the early years of Singapore's colonial era, when Stamford Raffles proposed founding a college in Singapore (Raffles Institution, formerly the Singapore Institution). A small museum was set up within the institution's library. In September 1862, Singapore Library, along with the museum, was relocated to the Town Hall (now the Victoria Theatre). 

It was only in 1887 that the Raffles Library and Museum moved to its current location on Stamford Road. At the time, the museum was intended to be primarily a repository of zoological specimens which document the natural history of Singapore and the region.

Interesting fact: The building, largely neo-Palladian in style, was designed by Colonial Engineer Henry E. McCallum. One of its highlights is the rotunda, which is crowned with a 27-metre-high dome covered with fish-scale tiles. Coloured glass panels and arched windows were also implemented to ensure that the interiors are naturally illuminated. 

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Singapore Art Museum
Photograph: Shutterstock
Art

Singapore Art Museum

City Hall

Singapore Art Museum may currently be under an extensive restoration to preserve its heritage, but it hosts various satellite exhibitions both in other locations and online. The museum focuses on contemporary art in Singapore and around the region. 

History: The museum is housed in two buildings that were once home to Catholic boys' schools: namely St Joseph's Institution, the oldest Catholic boys' school in Singapore, and Catholic High School on Queen Street. The galleries in the Central Building, for instance, were formed by knocking down walls that made up former classrooms. The former chapel of the school is also now an art exhibition space. 

Interesting fact: Saint Joseph's Institution was taken over as a hospital for military casualties shortly before the Japanese invasion. During the Japanese Occupation, the school was renamed Bras Basah Boys' School – and Japanese was taught in the school. Gardening became part of the curriculum due to the shortage of food, and vegetables were grown within the school compound. 

Victoria Theatre & Concert Hall
Photograph: Dewi Nurjuwita
Music

Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall

City Hall

Home to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Halls are the grand dames of Singapore's performing arts scene. Characterised by its iconic clock tower and Neoclassical-style architecture, the structure houses a 614-seat theatre and 673-seat concert hall. 

History: Constructed between 1855 and 1862, the Victoria Theatre is the older of the two buildings. It was originally built as a Town Hall and served as a venue for public meetings, dances, and other social functions. In 1901 after Queen Victoria's passing, it was decided that a memorial hall was to be built in her memory. The Victoria Memorial Hall was built next to the Town Hall, with the facades unified in the Palladian architectural style and a clock tower erected to join the two buildings together. The Town Hall was then renamed Victoria Theatre.

The storied halls of the two buildings have witnessed various historical events and milestones of Singapore. Shortly before the fall of Singapore in 1942, Victoria Memorial Hall was converted into a makeshift hospital to treat the wounded and house survivors of Japanese air raids. During the Japanese Occupation (1942 to 1945), Victoria Theatre also became the heart of the Japanese community's cultural life. The Memorial Hall then served as a venue for war crime trials from 1946 to 1947 after the war. 

Interesting fact: Stucco oval shield motifs bearing the letters 'V', 'R' and 'I' surround the monument. The letters stand for Victoria, Regina (‘Queen’ in Latin), and Imperatrix (‘Empress’), to honour the late Queen Victoria. 

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Asian Civilisations Museum
Photograph: Dewi Nurjuwita
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Asian Civilisations Museum

City Hall

The Asian Civilisations Museum remains one of the architectural treasures in the Empress Place civic area overlooking the Singapore River. The museum houses permanent collections which tell the stories of Asian civilisations, including one of the finest collections of largely figural porcelain wares and a pan-Asian collection of jewellery, fashion and textiles. 

History: Formerly called the Empress Place Building, the structure that now houses the museum was completed in 1867 and had originally been planned to be used as a courthouse. Instead, it functioned as government offices until the late 1980s, including the Immigration Department, the Registry of Births and Deaths, and the Singapore Citizenship Registry. Since then, subsequent restorations and extensions have stayed faithful to the original neoclassical Palladian architectural style.

The offices moved out in the late 1980s when the Empress Place Building was earmarked for restoration and conservation. The building reopened after a 14-month renovation in 1989 as an art museum called the Empress Place Museum, hosting its first exhibition on the furniture and artefacts of the Qing dynasty. 

Interesting fact: The building was gazetted as a national monument on February 14, 1992.  

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