From Monument To Modern Museum

Over 100 years ago, the builders of St Joseph's Institution (SJI) would probably never have thought of it, not even in their wildest imagination.

Space once designed for the education of schoolboys is being turned into a state-of-the-art art museum, poised to become a regional first in size with a range of facilities that include full climate control.

That will be the reality at the former Christian boys' school in Bras Basah Road when the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) opens in October 1995.

The museum will be 10,000 sq m in size with a gallery space of 2,500 sq m, double that of the National Museum Art Gallery (NMAG), and can exhibit about 400 works. The metamorphosis costs over S$30 million.

Says Mr Kwok Kian Chow, director of the SAM: "When the Singapore Art Museum opens, it will have full climate control and art work handling capability for major art exhibitions. We will be the first in the region to have such facilities on this scale."

This is no empty boast, though the new national gallery in Malaysia, which will be ready in 1 1/2 to two years' time, is estimated to be 13,338 sq m in size. There are also plans for a national gallery in Indonesia and there may be larger art collections elsewhere in the region.

But for the time being, most art museums and galleries in the region are either not fully air-conditioned or lack an art conservation department, or are smaller in size.


The task of converting a national monument - the school was gazetted in February 1992 - into an art museum when it was not designed specifically for the purpose, goes far beyond restoring paintwork and the strengthening of walls of a building that dates back to 1855.

It is a question of maintaining a balance between retaining the historic while providing the practical.

Says Mr Wong Hooe Wai, senior architect, development and management services division, Public Works Department, who is in charge of the restoration and conversion:

"This is a national monument and we are very careful in planning the layout, in doing all the modifications needed to change it into an art gallery without unnecessary intervention in the historic fabric.

"Therefore, many things are kept. Whenever we uncover something of historic or architectural value, it is kept. We are prepared to work with the Singapore Art Museum to modify our plans just so these historical things are kept."

However, this does not mean that no changes are made. In fact, some of the significant changes to the structure include:

Conversion of classrooms into galleries, involving the knocking down of the walls between classrooms to create more space for the galleries. Addition of frameless glass panels along the outer edge of the corridors of the second storey verandah as these areas will be air-conditioned. This is to protect the paintings and for the comfort of visitors.


The focus of the SAM collection programme is on South-east Asian contemporary art, though its exhibition programme will be international in focus.

While the museum will continue with its Singapore Artists Series and South-east Asian Artists Series, there are plans for an exhibition on early 20th-century French masters, Egyptian modern art and works by American photographer Arthur Tress.

Explains Mr Kwok, who notes that the research in South-east Asian modern and contemporary art is still lacking: "Every museum should have a focus and the focus should be realistic to its resources and to the specific role it can play in the world. Everywhere in the world now, people are looking at art development in its own context.

"There is a need, first of all, to study ourselves and to study our own development. And this is where establishing the SAM, at this point of time in the '90s, comes our natural focus.

"This becomes a service we can provide for the region and the international museum community."

At present, there are 3,000 works, including works by important Singaporean and South-east Asian artists, in the museum's permanent collection.


Even though work is still in progress on the museum, it seems that its significance will also be felt in other Asean countries with sizable and important art collections of their own.

Art experts and administrators from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia already welcome and acknowledge the potential of the SAM.

For Madam Wairah binti Marzuki, acting director of Malaysia's National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, the SAM could provide well-programmed exhibitions.

In fact, some in the region even hope that the SAM will inspire their own governments to further develop the arts in their own countries, as Professor Emmanuel Torres, curator of the Ateneo Art Gallery at the Ateneo University in Quezon City, the Philippines, said:

"A cultural infrastructure like the SAM may yet convince the political leadership of the Philippines that it is a necessity, not a luxury, and that it plays a key role in the intellectual, social, and moral, not to mention economic, development of a nation."

The Straits Times, 2 February 1995