This article contains affiliates. Please note that while we constantly update our articles, exhibitions do tend to change frequently, so some of the information may have changed without our knowledge.
If you only had a day to learn about Singapore’s past, then the National Museum of Singapore would be your go-to place.
Opened in 1887, the National Museum of Singapore is the city-state’s oldest museum, once serving as the former Raffles Library and now the country’s main exhibition hall for showcasing Singapore’s rich heritage.
The white colonial building with its impressive dome and Victorian glass patterns makes the National Museum of Singapore an architectural icon. But it’s not just a pretty building – step inside and you’ll discover a surprisingly modern 18,400 square meter exhibition space with over 1,700 artefacts, multimedia displays, exciting activities and a popular place to host festivals. There’s even a multitude of restaurants and cool souvenirs to take home.
Once you’ve done exploring the museum there is just so much more to do in Singapore. Luckily we’ve created an extensive guide with insider information. Check out over 100 things to do in Singapore here and the best spots for Instagram here. Culture lovers should definitely visit these temples in Singapore after exploring the best museums.
- History of the National Museum of Singapore
- Permanent exhibitions at the National Museum of Singapore
- More things to at the National Museum of Singapore
- Where to Eat at NSM
- National Museum of Singapore information
History of the National Museum of Singapore
First established in 1849 by the then Singapore Institution Committee, the museum was originally called the Raffles Library and Museum. It housed and exhibited various artefacts from Singapore’s past.
It is said that the original concept is the brainchild of Sir Stamford Raffles with the aim of reviving the region’s cultural heritage.
There was a brief relocation of the museum in 1874 when it moved to what is now the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, but moved back in 1876 due to an expanding collection.
Its current location at 93 Stamford Road officially opened in October 1887 which was also the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The original architectural design was created by Sir Henry McCallum, but Major J.F. McNair was later brought in to co-design the building as the first draft was too large.
As the artefacts increased the building expanded anyway with various extensions being added in 1906, 1916, 1926 and 1934.
In its early years, the museum was well known for its zoological and ethnographic collections of Southeast Asia especially then British Malaya and Borneo. The museum changed its focus to nation building and Singapore’s history after independence.
The zoological items were moved to various other museums in 1969 including the biology department of the National University of Singapore as the exhibitions veered more toward Singapore’s history, ethnology and arts.
It was gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992 and fell under the management of the National Heritage Board from 1993 and with the name Singapore History Museum.
It’s current name was allotted in 2004 after an extensive 3.5 year renovation costing S$132.6 mil. The most recent revamp was in 2015 which took an entire year and cost S$10 mill.
Permanent exhibitions at the National Museum of Singapore
The museum is separated into various exhibitions. Some are permanent while others are more temporary, coming and going with the seasons’ festivities. First, let’s take a look at all the standard exhibitions you can expect on every visit to the museum.
Gallery 10 (L1)
Gallery 10 is a large space with various interactive visual displays and immersive video installation showcasing some of Singapore’s most predominant artists. You’ll find various displays from artists like Yip Yew Chong, famed for his murals around the city, particularly Tiong Bahru and Chinatown and even some in Little India, that depict Singaporean’s going about their daily lives in the old kampong days.
Expect the Museum to take it one step further by adding an extra dimension of smell and sound to make it a more immersive and interactive experience.
Singapore History Gallery (L1)
This gallery showcasing key moments in Singapore’s history from the past 700 years is both modern and snazzy. Almost everything here is interactive with exhibits requiring you to listen to an audio recording, touch a screen or watch a video.
You will walk through four zones, from Singapura (1299-1818), to Crown Colony (1819-1941), to Synonan-To (1942-1945) and ending at Singapore (1945 to present). It’s impossible to list out every artefact in this 30,000 sq feet space, but you will honestly come out feeling impressed watching Singapore transform itself from a fishing village to a major financial hub. This gallery is on Level 1.
Life in Singapore – The Past 100 Years (L2)
This exhibition is divided into four galleries on the 2nd floor of the National Museum of Singapore. The galleries go into more detail of Singapore’s past century by offering a snapshot of everyday life during different periods.
Begin your journey in a 1920’s black-and-white bungalow setting at the Modern Colony, where you’ll explore social and political life under British authority and learn how women gained visibility in this era.
Move on to a cityscape of damaged walls at Surviving Syonan to witness the resilience of Singaporeans during the Japanese Occupation in 1942.
Afterward, walk over to a much brighter and colourful space at Growing Up, which displays retro Singapore through the dreams and aspirations of people in the post-war period of the 1950s. Many of the elderly folk you meet in Singapore will relate to this gallery’s depictions of carefree childhood life at school and in the kampung (village).
Finally, head to Voices of Singapore to learn how different racial and religious communities came to live harmoniously while expressing their distinct cultures through music, film and festivals in the 1970s. All the exhibitions can be found on Level 2.
Magic and Menace (L2)
This exhibition in the Goh Seng Choo Gallery was Previously titled Desire and Danger. It showcased the threatening animals and exotic plants that were sketched by William Farquhar, the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore in the colonial times.
The gallery has recently had a change and the new Magic and Menace exhibition explores the world of magic and supernatural beliefs, particularly those practised in traditional Southeast Asia. It’s a really interesting insight into the shamans and traditional healers of the area. The Goh Seng Choo Gallery is located at Level 2.
Murals and installations
What would a museum be without some great art. The first permanent piece comes from Yip Yew Chong, a national treasure and mentioned before in this article. He was commissioned to tell the history of the Museum in one mural and has done a fantastic job. The name of his mural is aptly named History of the National Museum of Singapore. So now that you’ve read up on the its history above, you can see it told visually.
Wings of a Rich Manoeuvre is a kinetic installation by local artist Suzann Victor. This cluster of eight chandeliers, created using Swarovski crystals, sway in mid air to create an epic site. Be hypnotised by the swaying chandeliers below the 19th-century colonial building.
Singapore, Very Old Tree tells the story of Singapore through trees, a reminder of Singapore’s kampong past in today’s concrete jungle filled with skyscrapers. The multi-disciplinary artist Robert Zhao Renhui reminds us that no matter how high we raise our buildings, mankind has a closer relationship with nature.
The final installation is by super creative Japanese collective teamLab. Story of the Forest showcases all the drawings of threatening animals and exotic plants that were sketched by William Farquhar, the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore in the colonial times.
But of course, they do it with a modern twist. They create an immersive installation that transforms 69 of his drawings into a 3D animations extravaganza. Remember to download the app for this exhibition on the Apple Store or Google Play before you go.
Fun fact: Does William Farquhar resemble anyone you know? He is the great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of the handsome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau!
Apart from the permanent galleries listed above, the museum is also home to temporary photo galleries and world-renowned artefacts borrowed from museums across the world, showcasing anything from ancient Egyptian mummies to designer wedding dresses. These require an additional fee.
More things to at the National Museum of Singapore
There are even more things to do at the National Gallery of Singapore beyond the exhibitions. Read on to find out what else there is to do.
Free Guided Tours
If you’re not the type of person to read every placard next to each display, joining a free 30min to 1 hour tour with museum experts is your best way to absorb all the information and have your questions answered. Tours are available across all galleries in several languages, with its duration depending on the gallery toured.
Make sure you visit on the right day or you’ll miss out. See more information here.
Opened by the National Heritage Board, MUSEUM LABEL doesn’t sell your typical branded mugs and keychains, but offers a more “hipster” and fun take on Singaporean-themed souvenirs. For example, you can find an old-school calendar with a daily Singlish phrase, or erasers shaped like Singaporean desserts.
The store is open daily from 10am to 6:30pm.
Festivals & Activities
The National Museum of Singapore is worth more than a single visit. Join their regular arts and crafts workshops, lectures, film screenings and performances to enhance your understanding of Singapore’s history. Or visit during special festivals to see the museum “after hours” from a different perspective. Two great festivals to experience here are the annual Singapore Night Festival and HeritageFest.
Where to Eat at NSM
Take a break at Food for Thought, an F&B social enterprise serving all-day brunch, burgers and pasta. You don’t have to feel bad if you’d like to indulge and order more, as Food For Thought uses part of their profits for good causes. Everything from raising funds for clean water systems to feeding needy children in third world countries.
You can visit Food For Thought between Sundays to Thursdays, from 10am to 7pm and Fridays & Saturdays, from 10am to 10pm. See here for more info.
For a higher-end dining experience, head to the oldest section of the museum to eat at Flutes, a smart-casual European restaurant that was named one of the “Top 101 Best Restaurants in Asia” in 2013.
Flutes is open from Mondays to Thursdays, from 11:30am to 10pm; Fridays from 11:30am to 10:30pm; and Saturdays from 10am to 10:30pm. See here for more information.
National Museum of Singapore information
The National Museum of Singapore is located at 93 Stamford Road S (178897). You can contact them on (+65) 6332 3659 / (+65) 6332 5642 if you have any further questions.
The museum is open daily, from 10am to 7pm with the last admission being at 6.30pm. There is free access for Singaporeans & Permanent Residents but you will have to pay a S$10 fee if you’re an international visitor. It’s totally worth it.