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The museum will continue to grow new areas and encourage the use novel technologies for research and the research collection. Apart from maintaining its Singaporean-Malayan strength, it will also take on an increasingly Southeast Asian perspective.
The younger generation needs to be engaged and trained, so there is a pool of capable talent that not only knows about the needs of sustainable development and biodiversity, but also able to serve the cause of conservation, and service national and regional manpower requirements.
As a “people’s museum” – the museum not only serves the public’s needs and interests, it should also enthuse and educate them of new developments and challenges, as well as raise the level of environmental awareness.
What is today the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) has a long and somewhat convoluted history. Even today, we have long debates on when it was actually born!
1823 – Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles established the Singapore Institution
1849 – Singapore Library proposed the establishment of a museum after receiving a special gift of coins from the Temenggong Ibrahim of Johore.
1874 – Official papers which first mentioned funding for “Raffles Library and Museum” in 1874
1878 – Legislative Council for the island of Singapore approved the “Raffles Societies Ordinance”, formally making the entity legal
Regardless of the date one chooses, the Raffles Museum and its present incarnations, the National Museum of Singapore and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, are the oldest such institutes in Southeast Asia. For management purposes and point of law, the date of 16 December 1878 is a practical, and perhaps the most objective one for the “start” of the natural history museum.
The museum inherited the natural history collection from its predecessor, the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (established in 1998), whose collection was that of the Zoological Reference Collection (formally opened on 31 October 1988), which of course stems from the original Raffles Museum that was renamed the National Museum of Singapore in 1965.
Formally established as an independent academic unit under the Faculty of Sciences on 1 April 2014. The building housing the museum was built on public donations and sustained by a substantial endowment to safeguard the national collection of animals and natural heritage.
Operationally, the LKCNHM is composed of two major entities:
They are supported by the museum’s building management and administrative departments.
A seven-storey green building providing 8,500 square metres of space, the museum is home to over 560,000 catalogued lots and over a million specimens from throughout the region. Apart from the natural history collections, adorning the building and its surroundings are landscaped areas simulating natural habitats of native plants as well as a phylogenetic garden.
Spread over 2500 square meters, the biodiversity gallery consists of 15 zones, tracing the history of life on earth, with different sections devoted to the origin of life and all major branches of the Tree of Life. Other sections are thematic zones dedicated to scientific knowledge, exploring topics such as how terrestrial vertebrates evolved from life in the water and why birds are actually “dinosaurs.” The museum is also home to the three much talked-about diplodocid sauropod skeletons, each of them is about 80% complete, making them a rarity in dinosaur discoveries!
Complementing the biodiversity gallery on the mezzanine floor is the heritage gallery, where the history of the Raffles Museum and LKCNHM forms the backdrop to the history of natural history in Singapore. Explore Singapore’s history of biodiversity work and find out more about the men and women who helped build up the biological treasures that the museum has accumulated over more than 100 years of its history. It also has a zone titled “Singapore Today”, which showcases the geology of the island as well as the important conservation work done by national agencies.
The journey through the gallery is also designed to be an experiential one, with the layout as well as natural history specimens chosen with intent to maximise this outcome. The gallery is complemented by a web-based app that allows visitors to find out more about whichever plant, animal or scientific fact they are most interested in.
The bulk of the space in the museum houses our natural history collections, consisting of two floors for bottled specimens and one floor for dried specimens. The major collections of the LKCNHM are in two parts, the herbarium and the zoological collection.
NUS Herbarium (SINU)
The NUS Herbarium (SINU) was founded in 1955 as a teaching museum by Professor Gilliland of the then Department of Botany. Transferred to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in 1998, it serves as a documentation of the rich plant resources in Singapore and Southeast Asia with more 33,000 catalogued specimens in its holdings.
Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC)
The major part of the LKCNHM is the Zoological Reference Collection (ZRC), which is renowned internationally. The ZRC is one of the largest collections of Southeast Asian animals in the region with over 560,000 catalogued lots and over a million specimens in total and one of the most comprehensive collections of Singapore and Malayan animal specimens in the world.
With active research work being carried out by the museum’s scientists, regional collaborations and many expeditions over the years,the collections have grown by some 50% since the late 1990s. The ZRC also has an active exchange program with museums around the world, from which we have obtained many important species.
The museum also regularly receives donations of large collections from private collectors and benefactors; three noteworthy ones being the large collection of cone and cowrie shells from Mr Yap Kim Fatt, a substantial holding of Malayan shells from the late Professor Lim Chuan Fong and Dr Ng Cher Siang, and the most recent being the Fleming Collection of butterlies courtesy of Mr Angus Fleming and Mr T. H. Tan.
Looking to the future, the museum also has a modern cryofacility using liquid nitrogen to store over 12,000 important plant and animal tissue samples as well as modern facilities for molecular work.
Staff of the museum and their colleagues in Department of Biological Sciences of the National University of Singapore, as well as several government agencies actively conduct research in conservation biology, ecology, and systematics that covers many terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments. Numerous surveys, expeditions and collaborative work are also conducted in the Asia-Pacific region with colleagues from Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas.
Research strengths resident in the museum include systematics of many aquatic and terrstrial arthropods, molluscs, reptiles, amphibians and fish; as well as conservation of small mammals. More than 90% of the museum’s specimens are used for research by academics, students and scientists from Singapore and the world; generating more than 70 scientific publications every year. Since the mid-1990s, the staff and students of the museum with its many associates have published between 1700-2000 scientific papers!
A research room with laboratory facilities is available for visiting scientists at the museum. Bench fees are not normally levied since much of the work done with international organisations is of a collaborative nature. In addition to standard microscopes, the museum also has a radiography machine and a dedicated photography room.
The museum also leverages on the expertise of international and local colleagues who are not with the museum. These research friends have helped us become stronger as they complement us.
The museum offers a range of educational workshops and programmes for teachers and students of all levels in the area of natural history, conservation and ecology, leveraging on the museum’s extensive knowledge base in biodiversity research. The approach of these workshops and programmes is interactive and stimulating, with cutting-edge content delivered through engaging hands-on experience.
The new galleries, together with a dedicated teaching laboratory and garden, are wonderful new resources that will take public education in LKCNHM to the next level. Adjacent to the main building is a single-storied teaching laboratory that can easily host more than a hundred students, and can be customised depending on the needs of the class – whether it is laboratory based or for lectures as a seminar room.
Since 1998, the museum has been actively publishing papers through its own dedicated organ, The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology (RBZ); as well as many educational books. The RBZ is a leading international, peer-reviewed journal focusing on Southeast Asian biodiversity that is in the Web of Science’s Science Citation Index as well as many other indexing systems.
One of the few such journals in the region, it receives hundreds of submissions every year from around the world. The main journal has gone fully electronic since early 2014, expediting publication as well as saving costs. The RBZ also publishes thematic supplements, and although designed to be occasional, the numbers have been slowly increasing over the years.
The museum manages two other scientific publication. Nature in Singapore (NiS), an online peer-reviewed journal, publish papers on the natural history, biology, conservation, botany, zoology, and ecology of Singapore. Singapore Biodiversity Record (SBR) complements the NiS, providing a platform for the publication of short communications on previously unrecorded sightings of rare species of plants and animals. In addition, the museum publishes the peer-reviewed Lee Kong Chian Natural History Books (LKCNHMB) to share information pertaining to the biodiversity of Singapore, Southeast Asia, and the rest of the world. All our publications are open access and freely downloadable.
Depending on funding and occasion, the LKCNHM also authors and/or publishes major books. These have included books on the Colugo, seashores and forests; the Private Lives Series of nature books on Singapore’s habitats; as well as the landmark book “Singapore Biodiversity – An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development” which became a bestseller.
A library contains a choice of literature including reference books, periodicals, journals and about 6,000 articles concerning materials in the museum. Although prior permission is required to access the library, a collection of about 10,000 zoological reference books and periodicals, as well as thousands of reprints originally form the Raffles Museum, is presently housed at the Science Library in NUS or hosted online.
The research strength of LKCNHM has achieved a high regional and international reputation with regards to environmental consultation matters. A number of local and international organisations have sought professional assistance with the museum with regards to Environmental Impact Assessments and management options.
LKCNHM offers a short-term visiting fellow programme with research stints of 2–6 weeks in Singapore. This programme endeavours to bring in experts in relevant fields to work with LKCNHM staff and students to further the cause of Southeast Asian biodiversity research. Fellowships are given on a merit basis, dependent on funds and research areas identified. A long-term fellowship programme of 6–12 months is also available but this depends on the funding available and projects.
The specimen catalogues of various floral and faunal groups in the museum have been maintained as handwritten entries in catalogue books. The catalogues are now currently being maintained digitally.
Parts of the reptile and amphibian collection is available online and searchable on Herpnet. The two moss databases available online are East Asian and Malesian. The next stage of the LKCNHM is currently in progress and will see the type collections digitised to modern standards and a basic databasing of the collections to facilitate their usage to the international community.
The graduate studies programme is centred in the Department of Biological Sciences, and on average 15-20 graduate students pursuing MSc and/or PhD degree by research are supervised by staff of the LKCNHM. Past and present students come from Singapore, Malaysia, China, France, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, U.S. and U.K.
Both the public and researchers are welcome to the museum. Details on arranging a visit, and how to get to the museum are available here.