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Museum Musings: City Hall – If Walls Could Talk at National Gallery Singapore

Screenshot 2019-07-20 at 12.44.23 AM

The City Hall has had a long and colourful history since its completion in 1929. From serving as a bomb shelter during the Japanese Occupation to housing Singapore’s first Public Complaints Bureau, the building has borne witness to key moments in Singapore’s history. In conjunction with the Singapore Bicentennial commemoration, National Gallery Singapore will present City Hall: If Walls Could Talk from 1st September 2019 to cast the spotlight on pivotal moments that have occurred within and around the walls of this grand dame.

Slated to run for two years, the immersive multimedia experience in the City Hall Chamber introduces audiences to the rich stories and evolving functions of the building in decades past as Singapore grew from colony to city-state – and in more recent times – when it transformed into National Gallery Singapore. The first long-term exhibition staged within the Chamber, City Hall: If Walls Could Talk will augment the Gallery’s role in bridging history, art and ideas as the defining historical events showcased provide the context and backdrop to the masterpieces on display at the museum.

Upon entering the City Hall Chamber, visitors will first be invited to capture images of themselves at customised photo stations; a pleasant surprise awaits. Next, guided by “Encik Awang” – a character inspired by a real-life caretaker – they embark on a multisensorial historical journey through the key national events that took place at the building. They see what was then the Municipal Building when it was first completed and witness its evolving roles over the years, each of which marked pivotal moments in Singapore’s history and development as a nation. Aside from encountering lesser-known trades from yesteryear during the experience, such as the lamplighters (overseen by the Municipal Council) who climbed up lamp posts daily to illuminate the streets with gas lamps, visitors will learn when the building was named “City Hall”. They will also get a better understanding of its transformation from being the space for government bodies in the early years of Singapore’s independence to becoming the home to the world’s largest public collection of Southeast Asian art today.

Echoing City Hall’s changing roles and transformation into an art institution today, the exhibition, with its immersive storytelling through digital technology, also adds to the varied and evolving suite of experiences offered by the Gallery to engage and capture the imagination of visitors with diverse interests. The experience of City Hall: If Walls Could Talk will culminate with the Social Wall, a multi-touch interactive screen made up of twelve 55-inch panels that allows visitors to unravel historical events of Singapore with selected artworks that are displayed at the DBS Singapore Gallery.

Visitors can choose from seven curated themes (e.g. “Places and Landscape) to be presented with a selection of artworks of a particular topic; they can also choose to answer a few short questions and be presented with a customised selection of artworks. The Social Wall invites visitors to look closely at the artworks and imagine the historical and cultural contexts in which they were created, thereby deepening their appreciation of these artworks and forming personal connections to them. The Social Wall also provides a digital map for curious visitors to hunt for the original artworks at the Gallery.

City Hall: If Walls Could Talk complements the Gallery’s ongoing efforts in delving into the history of the two national monuments which it is housed in. This is further supported by a visual display at the nearby Singapore Courtyard. Titled Memories of City Hall, the display features a selection of oral history interviews and archival materials that capture the unique stories and memories of people who were based in City Hall from the 1960s to 1980s.

Other related exhibitions at the Gallery include Listening to Architecture: The Gallery’s Histories and Transformations and mark; related programmes include daily “Building Highlights” tours, as well as special back-of-house tours of the Former Supreme Court.

Visitors can also download the Gallery Explorer App to read about some of the compelling but lesser-known stories relating to key moments in Singapore’s history. These include the activities of the Indian National Army during the Japanese Occupation, post-war medal ceremonies, Lim Bo Seng’s memorial funeral service, the unveiling of Singapore’s State Crest and National Flag, first public performance of the national anthem, the tumultuous years as part of the Federation of Malaysia and the National Day parades that have been celebrated in and around City Hall.

Says Ms Suenne Megan Tan, Director (Audience Development & Engagement) of National Gallery Singapore: “In the course of Singapore’s history, many have congregated in front of City Hall to rally around worthy causes that reflected our ideals, values, hopes and aspirations. It is for this reason that we continue to celebrate our independence in front of this building. Events that have marked key moments in our history have taken place in and around City Hall and the Former Supreme Court, which now form National Gallery Singapore, and since our opening visitors have shown a keen interest to learn about the history of these national monuments. As a museum for the people, we wanted to create this exhibition so that City Hall can continue to be a place where important memories can be shared, and to which future generations of Singaporeans can return to learn and experience the connection between history and art.”

City Hall: If Walls Could Talk runs at the National Gallery Singapore from 1st September 2019. General admission applies, for more information, please visit their website here



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