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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

History Herstory My-stery

The National Museum was restored a while ago but I haven't been there after its reopening. So yesterday I've finally decided to visit the Museum and check out any new stuff it offers.

Like always, the usual disclaimer applies - this is not a history blog, so go to a real history blog (ha ha... like they even exist) for credible no-nonsense historical facts blah blah blah...

I needn't even mention this - after all, you already knew what's coming when you signed up for Fresh Brainz.

Besides, I'm not a historian, and even if I were a historian I'd be a science historian, and even if I were a science historian I'll only be familiar with evolutionary biology, and even if I were a evolutionary biology science historian I'd only have expertise in molecular evolution, and even if...

Specialization - it's a one way trip to irelevant hell.

On with the show!

Once you walk into the museum, the first thing that hits you is this massive 8.5-metre tall upsized version of Michelangelo's famous David sculpture, covered in a red, flowery fabric.

Positioned right at the centre, it looks very prominent.

I mean the whole statue is quite prominent too, but "it" is staring you right in the face!

Entitled "Surrounding David", artist Titarubi had intended to abrogate the aggressiveness of David's masculine form by ensheathing him in feminine aesthetics of beauty, rendering him more androgynous and ambiguous.

I'm not sure if it had the intended effect, but something is definitely not ambiguous.

He's a BIG hit with the ladies!

Women were posing for photos around the statue with their hands in the air, pretending to grab his butt or grab his Mr. Happy (TM).

In contrast, not even one man was seen anywhere near the statue. I suspect an intimidation factor.

I guess it's really hard to emasculate a male form when the most obvious manifestation of his manliness is hanging four metres above your face.

Women absolutely love him.

Even schoolgirls!

Here's a schoolgirl taking a photo of David with her cellphone, mouth agape in awe.

I'll bet you that she's not taking a picture of his face.

Overheard in conversation -

Schoolgirl A: "Wow, so big. He's really sexy. So sexy. Don't you think he's sexy?"

Schoolgirl B: "Sexy. He's sexy. Is that proportionate? Is that proportionate?"

Sorry Titarubi... either modern women really love ambiguous men, or there is nothing ambiguous about a gigantic schlong.

There are two galleries on the second floor next to the central rotunda.

One of these employs enlarged old photographs to highlight various family and social issues. On the back of each portrait is a plasma TV screen that plays a video of a different social theme.

Something sombre and eerie about the lighting in this room...

And here's one of the photos. Notice anything peculiar about this picture?

Two. Wives.

Yes my dears, you are looking at the good old days when a real MAN would go around collecting trophy wives and concubines while conquering mountains, polishing swords and decimating his rivals with an unlimited amount of machine gun bullets.

All in a day's work.

Sadly, not much remains of that glorious age.

Bound by the law, gagged by the state and chained to his cubicle, the only part of the modern man that often goes stiff and throbbin' - is his neck.

The other gallery focuses on food - something close to the hearts of Singaporeans!

(... or so I've often heard. Your humble narrator was quite OK with plain bread or simple sandwiches for many months until he built up enough savings to eat out. Also, there are some things that he values much more than tasty food...)

Here's a lighted rack packed with a multitude of spices used in local cooking.

In the spirit of interactivity, here's a device that allows you to take a whiff at some of the spices on display.

I've never seen a smell machine shaped like this before. You position your nose at the funnel to catch the aroma.

It reads: "Pull ring to smell" which instantly reminds me of a prank that starts with "Pull my finger..."

My favourite smell sample here is lime. It smells pleasant and refreshing. Cinnamon is OK too, but coconut smells a little musty and stale - I'm not sure how fresh the samples are.

Ever since the end of the colonial era, the local population has been itching to get back at their previous European masters.

This is a torture device designed to slowly crush the fingers of a hapless captured Colonial during routine interrogations.

Oops, silly me - it's just an old ice shaver machine used for making that delicious local dessert called Ice Kachang.

Ha Ha Ha...

*shifty eyes*

In addition to mechanical devices, the locals have also crafted a plethora of torture implements used to inflict maximum pain and to prolong the agony of death.

Blunt wooden mallets and branding irons are the main instruments of this approach.

Yikes, looks like I'm wrong again - these are simply moulds used to make delectable local treats such as mooncakes, nyonya kueh and crispy egg rolls.

Really, that's the truth.


Ah, a mobile tutu kueh kiosk. Still a staple at many neighbourhood fairs, the fragrance of the steamed rice and tapioca flour instantly draws people from afar.

I prefer my tutu kueh with coconut filling rather than the ground peanut filling. Ground peanut bits tend to jab into my gums resulting in pain and swelling that can take a whole week to heal.

Next - the distinctive satay fan and grill. I must say I enjoy the taste of satay but not its after-effects. As I get older I seem to be getting more susceptible to a sore throat from salty or oily foods. It's a great dish to share with friends and family, but I wouldn't order it if I was eating out alone.

Want to help the environment? Sometimes you don't need some spanking new technology; these old soft drink bottles point the way.

I remember that many years ago, we had a drink machine in my secondary school that dispensed soft drinks in glass bottles like these. Each drink cost 50 cents.

It was a clunky machine with a fixed bottle opener for you to pop open the bottle yourself. After you've finished the drink, you would return the used bottle (in a plastic rack), which the company would recover, clean and refill with drinks. The reused bottles were so worn down that you can see visible scratches on the brand logos.

Aside from the bottle cap, nothing else is thrown away.

This old-fashioned tiffin tin reflects the silhouette of a fork and spoon, but it also reflects the same spirit of recycling.

At that time, instead of buying take-away food in disposable lunch boxes, people would carry their tiffin tins around for the hawkers to fill up. They would then wash it and use it over and over again.

Another form of recycling was the use of old condensed milk cans to hold coffee or tea. When I was a kid, that was how hot drinks were commonly sold - filled up in old Carnation tins and suspended by raffia strings for the customers to hold so that they won't get scalded.

I know that these forms of recycling may not be practical today, but they reveal a simple truth - in the past people were kinder to the environment, not because of any special love of the environment, but simply because they were too poor to cause much damage.

Today there are people who are so rich that they seem to believe that they can simply disregard the environment or even physical reality. They think that they can buy their way out of every problem.

This is not a good practice because if someone constantly creates big problems for a long period of time, gradually fewer and fewer solutions will be practical until eventually the problems become impossible to solve.

I only have one rule of thumb for helping the environment:

Don't be a consumer. Be a producer.

Down the corridor from the rotunda are two more lifestyle galleries.

One of them is about the history of film and wayang in Singapore. The theatrette showcases excerpts from old local films, mainly scenes from Malay Pontianak-style horror movies in the 1950s-60s.

When I walked behind the screens, I suddenly noticed this large, futuristic contraption.

Is that a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range?

No, it's a 1960s-era 35mm film projector.

It says so right there on the serial number plate.

It's amazing how high-tech this old projector looks. The rusty brown colour of the machine, the marks of wear and tear, combined with mood lighting makes it look like some robot weapon of the 24th century.

Indeed, I believe that much of the inspiration for futuristic designs actually come from the past (eg. the lightsaber in Star Wars).

What was old is new again.

Arranged neatly in a light box is this selection of old slides used before the feature film and during an interval.

I'm not old enough to have seen movies that had intervals, but I distinctly remember the "Don't waste water" slide shown before the movies as recently as the 1980s.

Also note the jewellery advertisement on the upper left.

Just one slide. Isn't it so quaint?

Nowadays, the pre-feature advertisements are so sophisticated that they may contain more special effects than the movie itself!

On the other side of the corridor is a gallery that mainly focuses on the evolution of ladies fashion in Singapore.

This is an old Singer sewing machine that uses a foot pedal to drive the sewing mechanism. My grandmother used to have one of these, though I rarely saw her use it.

Singer sewing machines have a certain smell, due to the lubricating oil used to keep it operating smoothly.

I still have an old bottle of Singer oil, now used for lubricating everything but sewing machines.

Erm... I mean nearly everything. Sometimes you need other types of lubricants.

This 60s-era miniskirt reminds me of a documentary about a fashion model (I think it was Twiggy) during that time period. Due to the limitations of cameras of that time, models had to "freeze" for the photographer when they made their ideal pose so that there won't be a blurred photo.

It's so bizarre seeing a person move naturally and then abruptly stop for the camera.

Together with the brightly coloured clothes or big printed spots and patterns, the entire fashion shoot looked quite comical.

Just to show you that 60s psychedelic fashion also permeated the local culture, here's a traditional cheongsam made with decidedly non-traditional printed fabrics.

It could be quite sexy - that depends largely on the wearer.

And now - time to enter the Singapore History Gallery and learn more about our nation's past.

47 Second History - Big history questions answered in bite-sized chunks!

Time to review some history!

*tick tick tick tick...*

To start at the very beginning: this is the mysterious Singapore Stone, left behind by the earliest inhabitants of the island.

It's at least 800 years old and contains an inscription in a lost language that no one can read today.

Lost language! How cool is that???

Can you imagine a once flourishing language that has completely gone extinct? I guess that if you really want to preserve the cultural history of your society, you should translate it into as many common languages as possible and keep copies of it in as many countries as possible.

Take more pictures and videos!

Inscribe language ciphers into modern buildings!

Oh and make more friends. Human societies seem disturbingly responsible for the disappearance of other human societies.

At the entrance, each visitor is provided with a Companion - a portable multimedia device that allows visitors to choose the details that they want to know. You need to key in an area code or object code into the machine in order to hear a description about the exhibits.

The layout of the gallery is divided into two potential paths: an "events" path describing the major characters and events that shaped Singapore, and a "personal" path that tells the story from the perspective of "ordinary" people.

I say "ordinary" with quotation marks because it seems to me that some of these characters are well-known and high-ranking members of society.

Personally, this "Choose Your Own Adventure" approach didn't work for me since I keep backtracking and switching paths because I want to know what happens on the "other side".

It gets hectic when I try to keep track of all these disjointed stories.

If you want a linear, simplified review of Singapore's history with lively dioramas and wax models of key figures, then the Images of Singapore attraction in Sentosa would be a better choice.

On the other hand, if you want to go into more details, understand the nuances behind the events and view the actual historical artifacts themselves, then the Singapore History Gallery would be the place for you.

This is a mockup of an opium den. Like I said earlier, the gallery doesn't use any models of people; instead, actual artifacts, photographs and mood lighting help to recreate the atmosphere of a real opium den.

I put up this photo because I would like to emphasize the fact that I may not agree with everything that the government does, but I certainly agree with their strong policies against drug abuse and drug trafficking. I believe that we should learn from the lessons of history and never again be conned by anyone who peddles addictive "recreational" drugs.

There is no shame in lacking the willpower to quit an addictive substance, but it is lamentable to lack the wisdom to avoid it in the first place.

Not sure about the historical significance of this tailor shop, but mannequins and mood lighting invoke a very eerie feeling, almost like the scenes in the Silent Hill series of horror games.

It probably isn't an intended effect here, but later I'll show you another place where lighting is used for dramatic effect.

I like film-noir style machinery - this is a Typex coding machine used by the police in Singapore in the 1930s. It is a rotor cipher machine similar to the German Enigma.

It must have looked impressive in its day, but through my pair of modern eyes it just looks like a huge typewriter with two oversized Mickey Mouse ears.

The placement of historical items in the gallery is quite artistic.

Here is a wall of bicycles in the 2nd World War section. I presume that it represents the rapid advancement of the Japanese army, which used bicycles and tanks to increase their mobility during the invasion of Malaya.

I say "presume" because there is no description of the installation on the actual location: the exhibition is completely reliant on the Companion system, such that historical artifacts only have a numbered label to identify them.

To find out anything about the exhibit at all, you MUST key in the object code and read it off your Companion machine. When I took the above picture, I haven't figured that out yet, so I missed the information.

I think it would be better to have just a short description on site, so that the visitors can quickly scan the area and decide if they they want to know more about it.

Something like "123. Japanese Army bicycles" would be enough.

Likewise, only a number marks this object here which looks like a machine gun but could very well be part of something else.

Luckily, there's Wikipedia to help save the day. This is indeed part of a machine gun - the Japanese Type 1 heavy machine gun.

I put up this picture to stress one important point: the imperial Japanese military was superb at attacking but much weaker at defending.

A gung-ho never-say-die spirit might exact some spectacular initial gains; however, gradually fundamentals such as good training, nuanced administrative skills and basic human decency will play an increasingly important role.

To me, the most objectionable aspect of the Japanese invasion force was not their ferocity in battle or their insatiable ambitions - it was their persistent brutality and inhumane treatment of the people who have already surrendered to them.

When you apparently have absolute control over the lives of your captives - it is prudent to give them some breathing room.

Desperate people have very little to lose. Mistreat them at your own peril.

As a symbolic representation of the Japanese occupation years, the official "events" path on the right is bright and wide, whereas the "personal" path on the left is dark and narrow.

I believe this is done to convey the message that although officially Singapore had been renamed the "Light of the South"by the Japanese military, it was in reality the darkest period in Singapore history.

Both paths are long and winding, such that visitors cannot immediately see where the path would end. The metaphorical meaning of this is obvious.

Ah, what a masterful use of symbols!

Finally, the post-war section of the gallery.

I'd like to highlight just two interesting objects.

First, this Khong Guan biscuit tin. I've been eating these biscuits since I was very young. However, I have always seen them packed in a rectangular tin like this.

Feels so odd to know that the earliest biscuit tins looked more like metal buckets... with a picture of some celebrity on top!

Incredibly, the assortment of biscuits seem to have remained the same all these years.

Second, this Rediffusion set.

Long before cable television existed, "cable radio" was King.

Old uncles would sit in the coffeeshop with their favourite cuppa and listen to the programmes on a Rediffusion set like this one, which is really just a simple speaker box that the coffeeshop boss would usually install in a high place.

It came with a simple remote control that you can see in the above picture, to switch between two stations and to adjust the volume.

When I was a kid, sets like these were already in decline. I have no first hand experience using one of these, but this blogger here has fond memories of his Rediffusion set.

*tick tick tick... DING!*

Was that 47 seconds? Man you read fast!

You are thinking: "What kind of a crap historical review is this? None of the key figures in Singapore's history was named, there is no logical flow whatsoever, only one major event was briefly discussed, and there wasn't a single specific date about anything at all!"

Dude, chill.

This blog post isn't a review of the entire history of Singapore.

It's a review of my visit to the National Museum.

Told you that specialization is a bitch.

1 Comment:

along said...

The new museum is nice.
I also went there once.