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Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum
Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

E-Book Launch: 200 Points in Singapore’s Natural History

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E-Book Launch: 200 Points in Singapore’s Natural History

Exactly one year ago, LKCNHM launched the exhibition ‘200: a natural history’ to commemorate Singapore’s Bicentennial. The exhibition chronicles 200 natural history events from the last two centuries of modern Singapore, filling the walls of the temporary gallery with specimens, images and anecdotes of animals, plants, events, places and people that have played important roles in shaping the country’s natural heritage.

Gallery view, ‘200: a natural history’.

Walking through the gallery, the viewer encounters stories that range from quirky to sobering, from momentous to mundane.

 

Early years

 

The 200 begin with an epic scuffle, sprawling from the East to West, to be the first to describe a mysterious creature that was variously called “water horse” and “divine stag”. It was none other than the distinctive, black-and-white Malayan tapir, which French naturalists ultimately first described and named. Tapir footprints guide the viewer through the rest of the exhibition.

Engravings of the Mo, a mythical Chinese metal-eating creature that shares its name with the tapir. Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library / Internet Archive.

The arrival of the British East India Company, including company men such as Thomas Hardwicke, Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar, brought the beginnings of modern natural history to early 19th-century Singapore. In addition to their day jobs, these men were avid collectors of nature. In 1819, the same year in which Singapore began its journey towards becoming a British settlement, Thomas Hardwicke named the first-known animal to be described scientifically from Singapore—a goblet-shaped sponge called the Neptune’s Cup. Its population soon declined due to soaring demand from museums and collectors, and it was presumed extinct for over a century.

A specimen of the Neptune’s Cup mounted on a wooden plinth. Photo by Tan Heok Hui / LKCNHM.
Painting of Green Broadbill, first scientifically named in Thomas Horsfield’s ‘Zoological Researches on Java’. Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library / Internet Archive.

The sponge was followed by other ‘firsts’, as scores of naturalists and collectors from Europe and America descended upon Singapore’s shores. In 1822, the striking Green Broadbill was the first bird from Singapore to be given a scientific name. Within the next few years, the first corals, fish and snake from Singapore were scientifically described and named, and, in 1847, a multitalented surgeon from the East India Company published the first such paper on molluscs in Singapore.

There are more quotidian encounters with nature. German explorer Andreas Fedor Jagor grumbled about winged termites that appeared in swarms during mating season, flew into rooms, then shed their wings and fell to the ground. It’s a familiar complaint even today—think of the flimsy-winged insects that throng around household lights during certain times of the year! Similarly, Englishman Stanley Smyth Flower remarked on the “detested” croak of the Banded Bullfrog on nights after rain, which he amusingly described as a “deep guttural ‘wau-auhhhhk’”.

Stanley S. Flower reported on Singapore’s Banded Bullfrogs in an 1896 article on reptiles and amphibians from the Malay Peninsula. The article was accompanied by the above plate, which depicts other frog species. Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library / Internet Archive.

There are even accounts of curious and fantastical sightings. In 1861, a French naturalist reported a case of “fish rain” in Singapore, which he suggested could have been caused by a waterspout forming and passing over a river during the torrential downpour. And in 1869, engineer Edward Pringle spotted what looked like a sea serpent on his voyage to Singapore. It even appeared to be racing through the sea, head raised, sinuous coils stretching behind it! Alas, these phenomena were soon debunked by science.

Engraving of another alleged sea serpent sighting, titled “Sea-Serpent seen from the S.S. ‘City of Baltimore,’ in the Gulf of Aden, Jan. 28, 1879”. Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library / Internet Archive.
Change and growth

 

In the mid- to late 19th century, the exponential rise of plantation agriculture in Singapore brought great economic growth as well as massive deforestation. Singapore became a trade hub for cash crops such as gambier, pepper, nutmeg, rubber, pineapple and the strategically important gutta percha (used for the insulation of submarine telegraph cables), and the planting, processing and export of these crops vastly changed the landscape and transformed the island’s ecology. Today, the only trees remaining from before this time of agriculture are in small areas of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Central Catchment Nature Reserve and Botanic Gardens.

Gutta percha is a natural plastic derived from the latex of Palaquium gutta, pictured above. Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library / Internet Archive.
Postcard image of a rubber plantation in about 1915, Singapore. Source: LKCNHM.

After a human death by tiger was reported in 1831, Singapore’s tigers gained a fearful reputation for killing a person a day. A campaign for tiger extermination was swiftly implemented; hunts were glorified; and the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot within 100 years of that first article. In the later 1800s, attitudes toward Singapore’s wildlife continued to be casual and cruel, with the rise of a thriving trade in live animals and the organisation of annual menagerie races in which various animals were forced to compete against each other for onlookers’ amusement.

Postcard image from the 1900s, captioned “Oran Utan, Singapore”. This animal was possibly from the animal trade as Orangutans were not found in the wild in Singapore. Source: LKCNHM.

The transition from the 19th to 20th centuries, however, saw significant development in attitudes toward nature and wildlife. There was burgeoning support among the population for the protection of animals and landscapes, and Singapore took steps towards becoming the country it is today.

The first reservoir—MacRitchie—was built in 1864. The Singapore Zoo opened its doors in 1973, and the decision to preserve Chek Jawa was made in 2002. The killing of a harmless whale shark off Pulau Sebarok in 1964 sparked public outcry. Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of a ‘garden city’ lay the foundation for 1975’s Parks and Trees Act, and in 1996, the National Parks Board was established. In 1987, Singapore mourned the loss of the last Banded Leaf Monkey of the Bukit Timah ‘tribe’, while in 1995, the last known sighting of the Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel was reported, both consequences of irreversible changes to the environment.

The whale shark that was killed in 1964. The photograph appears to have been taken by John L. Harrison. Source: LKCNHM.
Two Orangutans that were photographed in 1997 at the Singapore Zoological Gardens. It was later renamed the Singapore Zoo. Photo by Samuel Chua / ‘Straits Times’ / Singapore Press Holdings Limited.

Finally, the viewer is presented the story of Singapore’s natural history museum, from its earliest inception as the Raffles Library and Museum in 1874, through tumultuous years of name and staffing changes, collection movements, termites, burglary and the uncertainties of World War II. Today, with the guidance of luminaries such as Michael W.F. Tweedie and Eric R. Alfred, the Museum has found its home at the National University of Singapore, as the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

The new building opened in April 2015, with purpose-built facilities for collections, staff, and research—even dinosaurs! The Museum actively organises and publishes findings from major expeditions to various parts of Southeast Asia, such as the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia (1924); Pulau Tioman, Malaysia, (1927); Panglao, the Philippines (2004) and the deep sea off South Java (2018).

Two posters showing a tiny fraction of the hundreds of crustacean species collected during the PANGLAO 2004 and PANGLAO 2005 expeditions.

In what is perhaps the most moving validation of Singapore’s progress with biodiversity, the Neptune’s Cup was rediscovered in Singapore waters! In 2011, marine biologists Karenne Tun and Eugene Goh made an emotional finding of a specimen in the Singapore Strait.

Living specimen of the Neptune’s Cup sponge found in Singapore waters in 2011. Photo courtesy of Lim Swee-Cheng, Karenne Tun and Eugene Goh.

A thread that winds through all these events is curiosity… the urge to learn and tell others about one’s surroundings, to explore new lands, to find out why, and to protect the natural environment so that later generations may continue getting to know our shared planet.

 

Record of the exhibition

 

Today, fans and friends of the Museum may rejoice, for we can now view these stories and more from the comfort of our homes. As the first event in an exciting two-parter, LKCNHM is launching the digital version of the print publication, ‘200: Points in Singapore’s Natural History’, which was published in conjunction with the exhibition.

‘200: Points in Singapore’s Natural History’.

Written by our Museum staff Martyn Low, Kate Pocklington and Peter Ng, the book rearranges the 200 interweaving stories into 18 thematic parts, each with an overview of its own. Importantly, the sources of all information, images and exhibition materials have also been provided, pointing readers to the enormous amount of natural history resources that are freely available on the Internet, and ripe for further exploration. As the book’s introduction declares, it sure is a good time to be a natural historian!

The digital copy of the full book can be freely downloaded by members of the public, for non-commercial purposes, here. We hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as we did gathering them.

In the meantime, ‘200: a natural history’ will continue to run from now until the end of 2020.