Museum can be national, international repository

Straits Times Forum 22 Jul 11;

THE disagreement over the intended purchase by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research ("What have dinosaurs got to do with Singapore?"; last Saturday) appears to reflect a difference in vision.

Detractors view the museum as a repository of indigenous natural history, while curators aim to present natural history as a field in its entirety. Although both sides have merits, I am inclined towards a more comprehensive, if not ambitious, display for two reasons.

First, while South-east Asia suffers from no lack of biodiversity, its richness is still a constituent piece in the wider narrative of the Earth's natural history. Rather than being confined to national borders and time, natural history as a field embraces the diversity and interconnectedness of life - both across regions and through geological time. Indeed, it was the need to grasp natural history in its entirety that drove early biologists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to the Galapagos Islands and Malaya for research. As an important link in the history of life on this planet, the dinosaur fossils will remind visitors how our biodiversity relates to an even more distant past.

Second, while valuable repositories of national heritage, museums also allow the local populace to access artifacts that would otherwise require overseas travel. Historically, museums such as the British Museum, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - holding not only European or American artifacts, but also those from around the world - have enabled their populace and scholars to benefit from the cross-torrent of ideas. Similarly, the purchase of the dinosaur fossils would give Singaporeans, rich and poor, the opportunity to be inspired by exhibits they now have to travel hundreds of kilometres and spend thousands of dollars to see first-hand.

Of course, a nation without track of its own history often loses track of itself, and the Raffles Museum must ensure that its display of Singapore's own natural heritage does not fall short. However, it is possible for it to be a repository to both Singapore and humanity's shared natural heritage, and to be a museum we are proud to call our own.

Ng Junrong

Museums are meant to be expansive
Straits Times Forum 22 Jul 11;

IN HER commentary, Ms Ong Sor Fern asserted that the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research's bid to buy a trio of dinosaur skeletons for $12 million is extravagant, intended only to lure undiscerning visitors, has no historical or biological links to Singapore and is, therefore, irrelevant; and that the money is better spent on the museum's infrastructure and training ('What have dinosaurs got to do with S'pore?'; last Saturday).

Mr Ignatius Low's rebuttal the next day ('Why we need dinos') suggested that the skeletons would be an inspiring influence on budding scientists and artists, argued that they would give Singaporeans a sense of their place in time, and then conceded his arguments to be 'silly'.

Surely the greatest creatures ever to have roamed the earth deserve a better case.

Museums are intended not simply as a reminder of what is pertinent and familiar to our lives and surroundings. They guide us out of our comfort zones into the vast untapped universe that is human knowledge, imbuing us with surprising facts and ideas as yet unknown to us.

Any self-respecting museum would aspire to a set of exhibits that is broad and as representative as possible of the entire body of knowledge that it has set out to present, whether it is modern visual art or war history.

One would surely baulk at the notion that Singaporeans should study only the writings of Edwin Thumboo or watch only the films of Eric Khoo because these works are homegrown and more relevant. Similarly, a zoo that showcased only dogs and cats, or a history museum focused only on Sang Nila Utama would be neither educational nor popular. Things we deem irrelevant are inevitably things we do not understand and know little about.

Even if one is merely questioning prioritising dinosaur skeletons over other museum needs rather than criticising the intrinsic educational value of the skeletons, a natural history museum should strive to educate its visitors on what was arguably the most important period in the natural history of the world.

The skeletons will draw crowds to learn about not just the dinosaurs, but also the vast collection of other natural specimens already on exhibit in the Raffles Museum, while boosting the museum's coffers. I struggle to see anything wrong with this outcome.

The day the ArtScience Museum throws out works by non-Singaporean Salvador Dali, or the Singapore Zoo decides its Ethiopian Hamadryas baboons should be replaced by the monkeys of Bukit Timah, will be a sad one indeed.

Liang Kaicheng