The Making of the Singapore History Gallery: Some Personal Reflections

Mark Ravinder Frost

Ordinarily research scholars seem to ignore the fact that the past is of interest to us only in so far as it was living and that unless they discover it for us in such a way as to make us feel its life, we may admire them for their patience and industry but will not be the wiser for their labours. I have often felt sad that so much human talent and industry should disappear in the publication of matter where bones keep on rattling without forming for us an outline of the figure that once moved.[1]

I first encountered these words by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most illustrious modern poet, around the time I was completing my doctorate in history—and I wished that I had read them earlier. I thought about them again when, in early 2005, I had the opportunity to become involved in the making of the new Singapore History Gallery of the revamped National Museum of Singapore. Before that time I had worked as a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore, where for two-and-a-half years I had ‘rattled the bones’ of history (as Tagore might have it) but for what I hope were good reasons. Poets more easily forget than professional historians that such bones first have to be dug up and assembled into something approximating the right order, lest the historical creature that is eventually given flesh turns out to be a monstrous fallacy.

Nevertheless, I sympathised with Tagore’s remarks and still do—which is why, when the National Museum came looking for someone to help them research, conceptualise and write for their new Singapore History Gallery, I was immediately seduced. Here was a chance to bring history alive in a far more public setting than academia, with a story-telling approach that placed major emphasis on people, biography and personal drama, particularly through its liberal use of modern multimedia.

Scripting dramatisations, editing oral histories, conceptualising films, as well as helping the exhibition designers find the visual materials that would turn the overarching narrative of the History Gallery into physical reality, proved exhilarating and exhausting. As in any major undertaking that involves collaboration between such a broad range of specialists (curators, researchers, designers, filmmakers, producers and dramatists), there were occasional tensions, if not conflict. Yet looking back, such conflict generally seems to have had a positive effect. Conflict, so the screenwriter’s mantra goes, lies at the heart of all good drama, and it proved fundamental to the making of a dramatic new History Gallery. The whole point of the exercise was to generate a wider passion about a subject—the history of Singapore —that has often lain dormant, not merely to trot out a neutral and banal consensus.

For me, the conflict was also internal. Entering the new realm of what is today called ‘public history’ contained its pitfalls as well as its possibilities. Public history meant populism, in Singapore (as anywhere) it opened you up to political pressures from which academia (though also subsidised by the state) was better insulated; it might mean sacrificing scholarly integrity to the demands of an audience with a five-minute attention span; most importantly, it might be hard to get back inside the ivory tower once you had forsaken its security.

What kind of historical truth?

Tagore made his comments about historical research at a time when history as a subject had already started on its path toward becoming the modern academic discipline it is today—that is to say, history was becoming a social science instead of, as it had been for centuries, a form of literature. However, in its vision for the Singapore History Gallery, the National Museum set out to turn back the clock, to bring full-blooded narrative and personal biography to the fore, to focus on the more personal human consequences of major events as much as on the grand impersonal causes that lay behind them, and to make history more intimate, emotional and accessible.

Outside of academia, the history of personal human experience has remained big business. As shown by the recent success of works by Jung Chang, or of respected academics who have managed to cross over into more populist genres such as Simon Schama, Jonathan Spence or, in Singapore’s case, James Warren. This is also the business of the National Museum, which from its re-opening in 2006 prided itself as a ‘lifestyle destination’ intended not only to educate but also to entertain.

Hence the Singapore History Gallery embraced a strong filmic, at times almost Hollywood, sensibility, aimed specifically at capturing the attention of a younger audience. To an academic historian, such a populist agenda might present a dilemma. How far does one sacrifice historical knowledge, even at times historical accuracy, in order to resuscitate that dramatic, personal and emotional historical truth that it was the Museum’s mission to reinstate? As both historical consultant and one of two senior scriptwriters on the project, the solution came to me in two ways.

First of all, both the writing team and the curators were saved by the Companion: the not-so-little green box that the Visitor carries with them (around their necks) throughout the History Gallery. Primarily functioning as an audio guide, the Companion allows the Visitor to access an archive of captions, interviews with scholars and ‘Tell Me Mores’ (short films played on the Companion’s screen that are accompanied by curatorial commentary). This ‘architecture of information’,[2] as it has been called, provided a much greater depth of context to the dramatic episodes featured in the History Gallery than in more traditional museums that rely on text panels. If anything, the Companion, the full audio experience of which runs to almost 9 hours, could be accused of information overload.[3]

The second solution came from reading two insightful essays. James McPherson, an eminent historian of the American Civil War, has defended the Hollywood epic Glory, a film about the first black regiments of the Union Army, in response to a New York Times article that asked: does ‘the filmmaker, like the novelist, have license to use the material of history selectively and partially in the goal of entertaining, creating a good dramatic product, even forging what is sometimes called the poetic truth, a truth truer than the literal truth?’ McPherson acknowledged that Glory took certain liberties with chronology and for dramatic effect, took specific incidents and placed them in different contexts, but he argued that overall the personal story that the film told was ‘equally important—and, in that sense “the underlying meaning of events”, equally true.’[4]

The other essay is literary critic John Carey’s introduction to the best-selling Faber Book of Reportage, exploring the difference between eye-witness accounts and academic history:

Eye-witness accounts have the feel of truth because they are quick, subjective and incomplete, unlike ‘objective’ history, which is laborious but dead … The power of language to confront us with the vivid, the frightening or the unaccustomed is equalled only by its opposite—the power of language to muffle any such alarms.[5]

The ‘truth’ we elected to go after in our research and scripting for the Singapore History Gallery was sanctioned by these two essays. This truth would be, quick, immediate and have ‘the feel’ of authenticity, repeatedly confronting the visitor with the ‘vivid’. Inevitably, it would also be subjective and incomplete, just as the vast array of personal memoirs and oral history interviews we relied on to create the Companion scripts are. Nonetheless, inaccuracies of memory and our occasional resort to dramatic license when drawing on historical materials would be justified by our quest to get at that ‘underlying meaning of events’—especially in terms of those emotional, those dramatic and those very often personal truths about the past that Tagore and the National Museum so desired to recover.

Work began for the Singapore History Gallery with discussions between the Director of the Museum, and a Montreal-based exhibition design company, later also the Museum curatorial staff for the Gallery. Initial brainstorming sessions resulted in the idea of two pathways through the Gallery, which became the Events Path and the Personal Path. The multimedia approach to conveying Singapore’s history through personal episodes was also conceived at this early stage. The curators then began their research and the process of selecting the key characters that would be featured in the Events Path, as well as the periodisation of the nine sub-galleries, or ‘zones’.

My work on the project began, subsequently, in early 2005, first as a historical consultant working with the above-mentioned curators to flesh out the remaining Personal Path stories, and then from mid-2005, as GSM’s Content Director for the History Gallery overall. Aside from the museum staff and consultants, a legion of Singapore’s leading dramatists, playwrights, film makers, visual artists, poets and sound designers contributed to every stage of the making of the Gallery.

Voices in your head

The moment we began to research and write the scripts for the Companion, the fundamental decision was made to go back to primary sources—the letters, newspapers and memoirs from the period that related the stories of our chosen personalities. This was especially the case for our 19th and early 20th century historical characters, that lived before the advent of radio and television recordings, and certainly before the creation of the Oral History Department at the National Archives. The preoccupation with primary sources was driven as much by artistic considerations as our dedication to historical accuracy. It would have been a major problem if the History Gallery, in seeking to make the past more immediate, imagined what a named historical personality thought when his or her thoughts were already available. What the Visitor therefore encounters in most cases in the Singapore History Gallery are the thoughts and actual words of the historical characters featured. When they meet Raffles, they hear what Raffles said and wrote, or what he was reported to have said and written, or what others said and wrote about him, all drawn from a range of primary sources. For the most part, the History Gallery avoids an outright invention of dialogue, but with some important exceptions.

Obviously, where our historical characters did not or could not write anything down, we fictionalised in order to, in some way, have key voices present in the Gallery that would otherwise be missing. Yet such fictional dramatisations are rooted in historical sources. The main examples are found in the ‘Port City’ section of the Personal Path, which seeks to provide a subaltern corrective to the history of nineteenth-century Singapore presented in the Events Path. The ‘Rickshaw Coolies’ dialogue—in which our two protagonists, young and old, tour the Colonial District and Chinatown, reflecting as they go on the sojourner’s dream of a new life abroad compared with their present reality—is drawn from the work of historian James Warren, as is the ‘Karayuki-San’ episode, a conflation of the lives of various Japanese prostitutes in Singapore.[6]

In other cases, the Visitor experiences fictional dramatic encounters based on eyewitness accounts. When they enter an opium den in the ‘Opium Smokers’ episode and meet a concerned American woman being led on a tour through its dark, smoke-filled corners by a western-educated Chinese man, they are listening to a reconstruction of the visit by American anti-opium activist Ellen La Motte to Singapore’s opium dens in 1916.[7] When in the same section of the Gallery the Visitor hears a group of colonial memsahibs making racist comments and vainly trying to communicate with their servants in the ‘Mems and Servant’ episode, the language and attitudes are drawn from published European travellers’ accounts of Singapore and from a Malay-teaching booklet entitled Malay for Mems.[8]

Sometimes, two historical sources are placed opposite each other to create the dramatic tension fundamental to our story. This happens in the ‘John Crawfurd’ episode, in which the second British Resident’s self-congratulatory account of his exploits in Singapore is juxtaposed with Munshi Abdullah’s personal verdict of the man (Abdullah being Raffles’s scribe and a friend of William Farquhar, the man whom Crawfurd replaced). By splicing these two accounts together, we created an imaginary new context to convey a historical message of which we are pretty certain: that Crawfurd focused heavily on the financial side of Singapore as a British settlement, and that the Munshi really did not like him, or his apparently money-obsessed approach.[9]

Elsewhere, actual recorded speeches have been placed in a new context. The ‘William Henry Read’ episode is set in Read’s Orient Club in London, where the British merchant is being formally welcomed back by his fellow club members, and a toast to his accomplishments in Singapore is offered. The toast is taken from an account of Read’s farewell dinner in Singapore, not of his arrival in London (of which, the historical record, as far as we have researched, says little). The curators and designers argued that the visual material offered by the old colonial clubs in London was more exciting. Placing Read in London rather than Singapore also brought out the influence of pressure groups on old Straits ‘hands’ on the nineteenth-century history of Singapore. In addition, when Read’s Orient Club is visited alongside the other merchant worlds experienced in this zone (Aljunied’s mosque and Tan Tock Seng’s temple), a compelling contrast emerges. Our partly-fictionalised rendering of this episode captured the ‘underlying meaning of events’.[10]

The History Gallery is executed through the selective editing of historical sources. In the episode dedicated to Eunos Abdullah, the Malay leader and journalist often credited as a ‘father’ of Malay nationalism, the Visitor hears Eunos argue with the colonial authorities over the deplorable state of Malay education in Singapore. This exchange is drawn from minutes of Legislative Council hearings in the 1920s, during which Eunos spoke at least twice on the specific issue of Malay boys’ schooling. In places the transcripts of the Council meeting are repeated verbatim, right down to the applause Eunos received from his fellow Asian members of the Council. But the difference between the drama episode in the History Gallery and the historical reality in the past is that Eunos did not, in fact, have the final word on this matter. Eunos’s episode takes us away from the action at the precise moment when he has just won a rhetorical point against the British and the applause is still ringing in his ears. Reading the actual proceedings of the Legislative Council to their end, any student will discover that the debate went on and that the colonial authorities naturally had the final word.[11]

By cutting away from the historical action at this point, we evoked the emotional response that Eunos’s fellow Malays and supporters in the Council seem to have had to his words—the relief that someone was speaking up on this particular issue. Again we were aiming at another kind of historical truth: to capture the feeling amongst Eunos’ supporters in the chamber as they clapped along, backed their man against the Empire, and once a point had been scored probably walked away, ignoring what colonial officials said afterwards, with their happy and selective memories still intact. In this episode the Visitor thus experiences a heavy dose of subjective nationalist bias. The intention was, first and foremost, to recreate the high emotion of the period. The reality of colonial intransigence and complacency could be readily explored by the Visitor elsewhere in the History Gallery.

The National Museum has never made it its goal to provide a selection of comprehensive mini-biographies in its Singapore History Gallery. Its larger concern was to generate, in an audience bored by national history, an excitement about the past. If a Visitor is engaged enough by history, as the History Gallery presents it, to go off and actually discover what Munshi Abdullah wrote, or what Eunos Abdullah said—to, in effect, go beyond the National Museum edit—then the ‘grand old dame’ has achieved her purpose. Where we have created a fictional context for the Visitor (however rooted in actual historical incident it may be) it is made clear in the Companion.

Historical dramatisations become less frequent in the 20th century sections, where oral history accounts, interviews and straight readings from personal memoirs predominate. In the 14th century ‘Temasek’ section, the visitors see Singapore as a series of broken fragments and hear the legends and myths associated with this period. From 1819, they view numerous artistic representations of the island, mostly by European painters. Then, from around the late 19th century, photographs appear, and in the 20th century sections, film footage. As the media in the Gallery become more contemporary, the experience of history becomes more immediate and, the Companion scripts are adjusted accordingly. Fewer creative liberties are taken with historical materials.

Music to your ears

Music and sound, as any filmmaker knows, are highly manipulative. Yet, used sensitively, they can transmit an emotional immediacy about the past that a historical text rarely matches. This was brought home to me when working on the audio dub for the ‘Emergency’ chapter in the ‘Merdeka’ section of the History Gallery. Originally, the narrator’s description of the Malayan Emergency was accompanied by a communist folk song, but for licensing reasons this music had to be dropped from the version that is currently playing. What the original soundtrack conveyed—in a more visceral fashion than anything I have ever read on the subject—was the strong emotions that drove people to join the Malayan Communist Party. To understand the power of communist ideology and what it meant for many ordinary comrades one really has to hear it sung.

The music used in the History Gallery inspired the entire David Marshall episode from scripting through to graphic design. I had listened to the tape of Marshall’s ‘Under the Apple Tree’ speeches held in the National Archives. On the same reel that featured Marshall’s live recordings, the archivist had tagged on a round-up of the year’s major radio highlights in Singapore. A long drum solo from a touring American jazz band became fixed in my mind with the rhythms of Marshall’s suave, stylish and flamboyant delivery when speaking in public. The idea formed that certain jazz seems to go well with the Chief Minister’s evident capacity to play off and even improvise in front of an audience.

Marshall’s ‘drums of Merdeka’ was the soundtrack selected to embody the pivotal political events his episode covered. I reached for Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’—as the jazz accompaniment, especially since Brubeck, like Marshall, was Jewish and the album was recorded in the year that Singapore achieved self-government. This entire episode came to be dominated by a jazz theme, such that when editing Marshall’s speeches for the final audio recording, we cut his words slightly so that they fit with the syncopated rhythms of the Brubeck Quartet. The designers used the two-tone graphics of famous jazz albums from the 1950s to create the visuals on the walls of the David Marshall room.

Jazz evoked the dawn of a new age of media-savvy political icons, a period that, as Marshall himself put it (in an almost beatnik kind of way), was ‘very, very radical’:

Hey we’ve got the right to vote! Hey, we’ve got a right to elect our own representative! We’ve got a right to a voice in how we are to live. Now that is something you don’t understand today … [12]

Singapore Story or Singapore cacophony

As a historian accustomed to the relative freedom of expression afforded by academia, what was it like to work within the constraints set down by a government-funded institution, in which it remained the curators’ responsibility to patrol the outward boundary markers of the official ‘Singapore Story’ and ensure that certain requirements of National Education were met?

In its post-war sections, the Singapore History Gallery certainly contains several noticeable silences, which some observers have not failed to notice. Singapore’s ‘Battle for Merger’ is dealt with almost in passing, as if the Gallery, as one local writer put it to me, was rushing, exhausted, in a final sprint for the finishing line. Another notable absence in the final ‘New Nation’ section (1959–1975) is the mid-1960s student unrest that swept across Singapore, as well as the impact of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution on, amongst other things, Singapore’s nascent Chinese theatre scene. A video installation dedicated to this story was planned and is perhaps still pending.

Nevertheless, the content in these last two sections—‘Merdeka’ and ‘New Nation’— has room to evolve. As Singapore changes, and hopefully becomes more accepting of alternative voices from its recent past, the Singapore History Gallery, through its emphasis on history as a multitude of voices, has the capacity to adapt and be at the forefront of this change, and even the potential to contest itself.

The Events Path of ‘Merdeka’ and ‘New Nation’ present the dominant public narrative. However, it is possible to literally ‘get off’ this path and encounter individual personalities who refine this dominant narrative, who critique it and who sometimes outright oppose it. In fact, by permitting the History Gallery to question its own authority visitors might find themselves in a rough sea of potential confusion–a ‘Singapore cacophony’ rather than a ‘Singapore Story’. The Singapore History Gallery has preferred (to borrow the words of historian Simon Schama) to opt for ‘chaotic authenticity over the commanding neatness of historical convention’.[13]


[1] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Dr. P.K. Acharya on Indian Architecture’, Visva-Bharati Quarterly, May–July 1935:115 (original emphasis).

[2] The phrase was coined by Yves Mayrand of GSM Design during early discussions of the way the Companion would function.

[3] The next stage of development will perhaps be to streamline the Companion experience so that the Visitor who is unable to spend a whole day in the History Gallery is still able to come out with a sense of Singapore’s history that is not overwhelming.

[4] James McPherson, Drawn from the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 99–109.

[5] The Faber book of reportage, ed. John Carey (Faber & Faber: London, 1987), pp. xix-xxi.

[6] See James Warren, Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986) and Ah Ku and Karayuki-San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1879–1940 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[7] Ellen La Motte, The opium monopoly (New York: Macmillan, 1920).

[8] See Travellers’ Singapore, ed. John Bastin (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994); Maye Wood, Malay for Mems (Singapore: Marican, 1958).

[9] John Crawfurd, Journal of an Embassy from the Governor General to the courts of Siam and Cochin China (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1967; originally published in London, 1828); Abdullah Abdul Kadir, Munsyi, The Hikayat Abdullah, translated by A.H. Hill (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1970).

[10] The actual speech made in Read’s honour at his farewell party in Singapore can be found in Charles Buckley’s An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[11] See Proceedings of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council, June 1924 and July 1929.

[12] From ‘The 1955 elections’, David Marshall (Singapore History Gallery, National Museum of Singapore).

[13] Simon Schama, Citizens: A chronicle of the French Revolution (London: Folio Society, 2004), p. xvi.

Mark Ravinder Frost studied history at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and is currently Research Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong. Between 2005 and 2007, he worked as Content Designer and Senior Scriptwriter for the National Museum of Singapore’s award-winning Singapore History Gallery. He is the author of the forthcoming books Singapore: A Living History and Enlightened Empires: New literati in the Indian Ocean world, 1870-1920.