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Natural history museum at NUS lays foundation

14 January 2013

(From left) Prof Koh, architect Mr Mok Wei Wei, NUS President Prof Tan Chorh Chuan, Mr Nathan, Dr Lee, Prof Leo Tan and NUS Provost Prof Tan Eng Chye viewing a model of the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at NUS

Photo: Lianhe Zaobao © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd

Prof Koh admiring a model showing the details of the Museum

(From left) Prof Tan Chorh Chuan, Prof Leo Tan, Dr Lee, Prof Koh, Mr Nathan and NUS Science Dean Prof Andrew Wee officially launching the groundbreaking of the Museum

Singapore takes another step closer towards setting up a natural history museum when the first pile was driven into the ground for the construction of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at NUS on 11 January.

Located at the Kent Ridge Campus near the NUS Museum, University Cultural Centre and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, the new architecture and its complementary Alice Lee Plaza will integrate the entire precinct into a new and vibrant Cultural and Heritage Hub for the University. When completed in 2014, the S$46-million museum will house one of the largest Southeast Asian collections of biodiversity in the region - more than half a million specimens of flora and fauna - together with three almost-complete dinosaur fossils.

The seven-storey green building's "prehistoric" façade will be reminiscent of a moss-covered boulder. The 8,500-square-metre museum space will be used for exhibition, research, education and controlled storage of specimens.

The groundbreaking ceremony was officiated by Guest-of-Honour Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large and Honorary Chairman of Singapore's National Heritage Board, who tirelessly advocated the idea of a natural museum in Singapore. The happy occasion was witnessed by distinguished guests and donors, including former Singapore President Mr S R Nathan, Director of Lee Foundation Dr Lee Seng Tee and NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan.

Prof Koh related how he dreamt of a Southeast Asian natural museum showcasing the region's rich biodiversity, after being captivated by the natural history museums in the US during his years as an ambassador to the country.

His "Eureka" moment struck when he first viewed the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) specimen collection at NUS in 2004 and became so fascinated that he was convinced it could form the nucleus of a natural museum in Singapore. The then Chairman of the National Heritage Board approached NUS to support the idea and it is now "a dream come true", he said.

Prof Koh also noted that 2013 is a good year for building the museum as it commemorates the 100th death anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who had contributed greatly to the record and collection of animal specimens in this region. Wallace proposed the theory of evolution and natural selection the same time as Charles Darwin, and an NUS professor has created a Wallace Online website in his honour.

Prof Tan pointed out that natural history plays a vital role in our understanding of evolution, biodiversity and the impact of climate change. He said: "The cutting-edge facilities in this new museum will allow RMBR to substantially scale up its work on biodiversity preservation, education and research - an urgent task made more crucial against the backdrop of climate change and a rapidly developing Asia."

Professor Leo Tan, Director (Special Projects) at the NUS Faculty of Science, headed intensive efforts to raise funds for the building. He expressed deep gratitude to the generous donors who have made the establishment of the museum possible, not only in financial terms but also in support and invaluable specimens contributed. The next phase involves raising another S$10 million to run the museum and putting in place the resources, he said.

Professor Peter Ng, Director of RMBR, noted that the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum encapsulates what the founder of modern Singapore Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles envisaged as a Singapore institution in the 19th century - a museum, library and school. "In a way, we resurrect the original concept of what Raffles wanted," he said. Having the Museum within the University realised Raffles' idea as it embraces the goals of preserving heritage, enhancing research and educating the next generation.

The groundbreaking thus not only lays the foundation for the future, but also marks Raffles' historical vision coming full circle.