Dinosaurs' lair to have prehistoric facade

But the interior of the new museum building will have high-tech features
Tan Dawn Wei Straits Times 19 May 12;

(Clockwise from top left) Mr Foo Yong Kai, Mr Ng Weng Pan, Mr Mok Wei Wei, Mr Marcel Peter, Mr Micki Chua and Ms Stacy Cheang, members of the architectural team behind the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, which will house three dinosaur fossils and the region?s largest collection of South-east Asian animals. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

ON THE outside, the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, resembling a moss-covered rock, will look as prehistoric as the three dinosaurs it will house.

But on the inside, cutting-edge technology will keep the 150 million-year fossils, as well as the region's largest collection of South-east Asian animals, in tip-top condition.

The museum, to open on the National University of Singapore (NUS) campus in 2014, will be armed to the teeth with firefighting technology, as well as the means to keep the air there dry and cool.

The building and the hardware did not come cheap - $46 million was raised from private and public donations.

But this is because the 7,500 sq m museum will be the new home of the respected Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and the three diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs, bought for under $8 million from the United States.

And with many of the 500,000 specimens of vertebrates and invertebrates preserved in alcohol, the museum has to follow fire regulations to a T.

It is wired up with sprinklers - but not the kind commonly found in most buildings.

The museum cannot risk its sprinklers accidentally discharging water and damaging the specimens, so it has the kind that does not store water in its pipes; the system activates and can draw water in a snap only when a fire alarm goes off.

And some areas are kitted with an inert-gas system which reduces oxygen levels so fires are denied the means to blaze on.

Dampness is also an enemy of the museum's specimens, so humidity is kept at 50 per cent, and the building is insulated to keep heat out.

Home-grown architect Mok Wei Wei and his team at W Architects had to deal with these technical issues, but they had consultants from London's Natural History Museum to advise them on safeguarding the collection, the development of research facilities, exhibition spaces and other matters.

Mr Mok, 55, said: 'We couldn't have had a better consultant. They have scientists, estate managers and designers, so we get a full range of inputs from them.'

But he is not new to the business of designing museums. He had a hand in the redevelopment of the National Museum of Singapore in 2004 and designed the exhibition space of the Peranakan Museum. His other notable current project is the rejuvenation of the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall.

Those experiences came in handy, he said.

But still, he knew from day one that the natural history museum, to have dimly lit galleries, would not need light. This is how it came to be windowless.

Outdoors, though, it will form a cultural hub with the University Cultural Centre and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

The conservatory will be fronted by a renovated plaza and linked to the museum and cultural centre by covered walkways.

The museum's courtyard will be landscaped to reflect Singapore's natural habitats - the vegetation native to its beaches, cliffs, mangrove forests and freshwater swamps.

Associate Professor Hugh Tan of the Department of Biological Sciences said the landscaping will give an idea of the kind of natural habitats found here, 'to give visitors a preview and to entice them to visit the real habitats' in the museum.

And while the dinosaurs will take centrestage in a cavernous space in the main gallery, the designers have yet to decide whether they will be the first thing visitors see as they enter the place.

Meanwhile, the existing Raffles Museum in NUS' Science Drive 2 (Block S6, Level 3) has its last open house today under the National Heritage Board's Children's Season programme. It will be open from 9am to 5pm.

After this, the packing up starts for the big move to its new home just 850m away.