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The Cathay Gallery
Photograph: The Cathay Gallery

The best secret museums in Singapore to explore

These underrated museums house some of the coolest, quirkiest collections. Additional reporting by Ho Zimin

Written by
Dewi Nurjuwita
,
Cam Khalid
&
Cheryl Sekkappan
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There's no shortage of museums in Singapore to get a dose of culture. The big guns such as National Gallery Singapore, ArtScience Museum, and National Museum of Singapore are great places to start, but if you're looking for an experience that's much more clandestine, make your way to the smaller, lesser-known gems.

Hidden in plain sight, museums such as The Cathay Gallery, and Singapore Musical Box Museum are filled with quirky hidden treasures, while those like Former Ford Factory highlight untold stories of the past. Intrigued? Go forth and explore these best secret museums to feed your curious mind. 

RECOMMENDED: The best upcoming art exhibitions in Singapore and the best museums in Singapore

  • Things to do
  • Cultural centres
  • Marine Parade

As the name suggests, Straits Enclave is a haven for Peranakans and those interested in Peranakan culture. Experience the Straits Golden era of the early 1900s at this private museum, which is decked out with heirlooms and precious antiques collected from generations of Peranakans. This is also where traditional culture and crafts are kept alive –  try on a full kebaya, learn the art of Peranakan beading, indulge in a homecooked meal, or play the traditional Cherki card game. The best part is getting to interact with members of the Peranakan community, who have a wealth of knowledge about their rich culture and heritage. 

  • Museums
  • Serangoon

Explore the unseen world of ants at The Singapore Ant Museum and gain a better understanding of the creature through 50 different native species, and some 25 intricately designed formicariums, or ant farms. The educational journey begins on the second floor, which houses a variety of ant species, sourced from various “secret spots” around Singapore. Peep at the menacing Trap-jaw Ants, which comes with huge mandibles that can snap shut at staggering speeds, creating a force so large it propels the ant away from danger. Or witness the feeding of Asian Army Ants, a species with drastic size difference among its workers.

Then head down to the first floor, and admire the many ant-inspired paintings and artworks that line the walls. But more striking are the majestic formicarium creations – conceptualised and created by museum founder Zat to double up as works of art. A zen garden, a golden music box, and even a depiction of the Garden of Eden, are just some whimsical examples of how Zat interprets his personal reflections through the life of ants.

 

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  • Things to do
  • City Hall

Calling all cinephiles – this one’s for you. If you’re at The Cathay Cineplex, your moviegoing experience doesn’t have to end at the credits. Head to the second floor where you’ll find more movie magic at The Cathay Gallery. This hidden gem is a time capsule of movie memorabilia: think antique cinema chairs, cameras and film projectors. Film buffs can geek out over the gallery’s permanent exhibition, which includes a wall covered in vintage film posters of the most iconic flicks in cinematic history, such as the animated classic The Jungle Book, and The Sound of Music

A walk through The Cathay Gallery will take you through the storied history of the Loke family, who were pioneers of the film industry in Singapore and founders of the Cathay Organisation. While you’re there, be sure to check out the black-and-white trailer for the Cathay-produced horror flick from 1957, Pontianak.

The Gem Museum
  • Things to do
  • Rochor

Be dazzled by an array of gems and minerals from around the world at The Gem Museum. The private museum aims to educate the public about gemmology – trace the journey that gems take from the time it is formed to the time it is cut and shape for trade. Meanwhile, you can get an eyeful of everything from coloured diamonds to an extensive rock garden. The museum also regularly conducts masterclasses and workshops that teach you the value and classification of various gemstones. That way, you'll never be scammed by gem fraudsters ever. 

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  • Things to do
  • Novena

Did you know that some hospitals in Singapore have museums on their premises that gives visitors a glimpse of the country's medical history? The Tan Tock Seng Hospital Heritage Museum is one. Apart from telling the story of the hospital, this space features Peranakan artefacts from the mid-1800s (including tiles from the original TTSH wards), medical equipment and hospital artefacts, as well as the occasional art exhibition. In the hospital atrium just outside the museum, you’ll find a crystal installation, ‘The Healing Sky Garden’, part of TTSH’s Art of Healing programme, which uses art to create a conducive environment for recuperation.

  • Museums
  • Serangoon

Most people consider ants to be pests. But for others, the tiny creatures serve as an uncanny source of inspiration. That person is Zat Low, who transformed his love for the insect into a two-storey museum filled with exhibitions, interactive displays, and works of art. Over at The Singapore Ant Museum, explore an unseen world of ants and gain a better understanding of the creature through 50 different native species, and some 25 intricately designed formicariums, or ant farms.

 

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  • Things to do
  • City Hall

How did Singapore, the impregnable fortress and all that jazz, fall to the Japanese in 1942 even though we had twice the number of soldiers? Find out at this former WWII British underground command centre. The Battle Box's hour-long tour takes you into the namesake underground command centre, where the decision to surrender was made, and re-tells the story of how Malaya and Singapore succumbed to the Empire of Japan in just 70 days. Guides also explain the roles that the bunker played during the war while showing you around replica and genuine rooms used by the military of the era. 

  • Museums
  • Specialist interest
  • Rochor

Growing up in mainland China, Mr Bian Hui Bin was exposed to Chinese opera from a young age. He has harboured a deep love for the artform ever since, so when he came to Singapore, he wanted to introduce the different types of Chinese opera to locals and foreigners alike. Tucked away on the second floor of a Kampong Glam shophouse, the museum showcases the styles, costumes and props employed by the various types of Chinese opera in Singapore.

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  • Things to do

Housed in the majestic Bowyer Block, the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) museum documents almost 200 years of medicine and medical education. Check out the extensive extensive artefact collection, which includes a 1930s X-ray machine, a silver scroll holder belonging to the first Principal of the Medical School as well as the medical theses of late president Dr Benjamin Sheares. Other noteworthy exhibits include a re-created façade of the King Edward VII College of Medicine Building and the Luminaries Section which pays tribute to the hospital’s top doctors.

  • Attractions
  • Community centres
  • Raffles Place

Co-curated by NHB and the Kreta Ayer Community Club (CC), the 100sqm Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery serves as a platform to showcase the rich history of the Kreta Ayer and Chinatown areas. It features a new interactive heritage gallery led by students from Anderson Secondary School and Gan Eng Seng School. The gallery displays objects, photographs and personal effects contributed by intangible cultural heritage practitioners and former residences. Admission to the gallery is free. 

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  • Museums
  • Natural history
  • Kent Ridge

A dinosaur fossil, a sperm whale skeleton, the only specimen of the largest species of turtle ever recorded, and an Asian Brown Flycatcher specimen collected by the famed British naturalist Alfred Wallace himself – these are just some of the highlights you’ll see at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Featuring sixteen zones display specimens that run the gamut of plants, fungi, mammals, dinosaurs, and more, the museum is ace for anyone interested in wildlife, but not the legwork it involves.

  • Things to do
  • Rochor

Give Peninsula Plaza a miss and head down to this one-of-a-kind museum instead. Boasting a repository of over 1,000 vintage cameras, the museum is the first gallery in Singapore that's dedicated to a collection of the analog instrument – in fact, the building itself resembles a massive Rollei camera. On display are everything from novel old-school spy cameras – think James Bond – to pistol cameras. Besides equipment, the museum also showcases retro photographs, interesting nuggets on photography, and an authentic replica of the first-ever picture taken on a camera.

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  • Things to do
  • Bukit Batok

An unassuming Art Deco building along Upper Bukit Timah was once home to Ford's first motorcar assembly plant in Southeast Asia – and the spot where the British forces surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army on February 15, 1942. Gazetted as a national monument in February 2006, it has since been restored by the National Archives of Singapore as a museum which, through pictorial exhibits and film documentaries, details the conditions that residents in Singapore and Malaya endured during the Japanese Occupation.

  • Things to do
  • Tanjong Pagar

Be enchanted by tinkling musical boxes in a museum dedicated to these delightful trinkets. Hidden behind the museum's doors are centuries worth of history, with each antique musical box telling a unique story of the craftsmanship of yesteryears. Learn about the popularity of musical boxes throughout the years, how they first came to Singapore, and how the city played a pivotal role in bringing musical boxes to Southeast Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum aims to upkeep the preservation of these artefacts, and its collections hail mainly from Switzerland, Germany, and the US.

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  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • Geylang

This private museum gives visitors a taste of old-world Peranakan charm. It is a treasure trove of Peranakan furniture, costumes, trinkets, and even old black-and-white photographs – all owned by collector Alvin Yapp who is also of Peranakan descent. Take a tour around the shophouse residence with Alvin, and learn about the rich Peranakan history, culture, and even embroidery craft. That's not all – an hour tour includes tea, while a two-hour tour of lunch or dinner with authentic Nonya dishes prepared by his mother. Mmm, nothing like home-cooked food.

The Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum
  • Museums
  • Yishun

In this day and age, it's not politically correct to call The Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum a museum. It's more of a sanctuary for more than 200 turtles and tortoises of over 60 species, including a host of rare reptiles. Previously located in Chinese Gardens for 18 years, the museum has just moved into its new home in at leisure park in Yishun's Orto. Be wowed by the weird and wondrous mata-mata, fearsome alligator snapping turtles, and one muscular 60-year-old Asian Turtle. Your kids will have a whale of a time at the petting corner, where they'll get up-close and personal with some of the gentler critters. Just be mindful of the tiny terrapins and soft shell tortoises roaming freely through the park.

Chin stroke your way through these museums

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