Museums Singapore

Changi Chapel Museum gets a revamp with new artefacts and an enhanced experience

Initially slated to re-open last year, the Changi Chapel and Museum (CCM) has finally completed its renovations and is now open to the public again after closing in 2018 for major redevelopments. Shedding light on the personal stories of prisoners of war (POWs) and civilians interned in Changi prison camp during the Japanese Occupation, the museum will showcase 114 artefacts across eight galleries delving into the daily lives of the internees, their responses to the challenges they faced, and their eventual liberation.

The Changi Cross, designed by Reverend Eric Cordingly, crafted by prisoners using a howitzer shell and strips of brass from camp workshops

Chung May Khuen, Director of the National Museum of Singapore, said: “Changi Chapel and Museum is widely known for its sensitive portrayal of the personal stories of the POWs and civilian internees who lived under difficult conditions and circumstances. When the National Museum of Singapore took over the redevelopment and management of CCM, we were mindful to retain the focus on these personal accounts within an enhanced narrative and new displays that highlight the stories of Changi. I would like to thank the overseas museums and families of former internees for contributing the artefacts presented in the new CCM for the first time. Many of the personal artefacts contributed by the families are now part of Singapore’s National Collection and will allow us to continue to share their stories with future generations.”

“Given the National Museum’s strong focus on the World War Two narrative, CCM’s refreshed content and offerings will not only complement the overall narrative as told in the National Museum’s World War Two galleries, but also those of other World War Two institutions in Singapore, including the Former Ford Factory and the revamped World War Two commemorative centre at Bukit Chandu which will reopen later this year. I hope that visitors will find that the new CCM continues to honour the internees and find inspiration through their stories of courage and resilience, especially during these challenging, uncertain times.”

– Chung May Khuen, Director of the National Museum of Singapore.

Centred on a narrative of remembrance and reflection, the new CCM seeks to present an immersive experience that combines personal artefacts with new multimedia offerings to convey the stories and experiences of POWs and civilian internees in Changi during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore.

In all, the CCM holds over 100 artefacts, with 82 of these artefacts being displayed at the CCM for the very first time. These include a never-before-seen 400-page diary and a Kodak Baby Brownie camera, which were painstakingly hidden by some of the internees. The diary belonged to Mr Arthur Westrop, who wrote every entry as a letter to his wife, who was in Africa. The camera belonged to Sergeant John Ritchie Johnston and was given to him by his wife. Johnston managed to bring the camera with him to Changi and hid it from his captors during the entire period of his incarceration.

Some of these donors include Ken Aldridge, son of former POW William Aldridge, whose driver’s license he donated; Sandra and Ken Sleeman, daughter and son-in-law of former POW Lt. Penrod V. Dean, whose duplicate of a war crimes trial affidavit they donated; and Malcolm de Carteret Bowen, son of former POW William de Carteret Bowen, and donated the Changi Souvenir Song Album.

“Even though this has been kept as a family heirloom all these years and is a treasured memory for us, it’s a part of history and something we value greatly, and should be there for the world to see,” says Ken Aldridge, on the driver’s license he donated.

“My father was given it as part of the motor transport group, and the Japanese gave him this license so that he could transport things from the docks wherever they needed. But my father didn’t like the Japanese at all, so he did everything in his power to discreetly try to slow the effort down, like putting sand in the engine oil or gearbox oil to make the engines seize up and cause problems, or remove minor parts of engines or electronics so it wouldn’t start, or wouldn’t run for very long.”

– Ken Aldridge, son of former POW William Aldridge

Other familiar and significant objects, such as a section of the Changi Wall, a Morse code device hidden in a matchbox that was used by internees to transmit messages, and replicas of biblical murals painted to give internees spiritual comfort continue to be key highlights.

The Nativity, by Stanley Warren

The narrative is presented across eight exhibition zones. In the first, Changi Fortress, the history of Changi is presented, where visitors will learn how it was originally largely covered by mangrove swamps and rainforests. All this changed in the 1920s however, as the British started to construct batteries and barracks to protect Singapore from attack.

In the second part, Fallen Fortress, visitors will learn about the fall of Singapore as well as the fate that soldiers and civilians alike faced in the aftermath. In part three, The Interned, visitors will learn of the 48,000 soldiers and civilians that were marched to Changi, which was converted into a vast prison camp. This section spotlights the stories of the men, women, and children who were interned in Changi.

Metal bowl, on loan from Museum Bronbeek. Originally belonged to Ernest van Wiljen, who carved the name sof different internment camps he’d been to into the bowl

In the fourth section, Life as POW, visitors will learn about the day-to-day lives of those imprisoned in Changi, along with remnants of the actual Changi Gaol. The fifth section, Resilience in Adversity, offers a glimpse into both the hardships that the internees faced as well as how they responded to their situation.

Sime Road Camp, by Mary Angela Bateman.

Part six, Creativity in Adversity, showcases how internees found ways to write, draw, read, craft, play sports, and even stage concerts and plays during their imprisonment, and presents some of their creative works. In the seventh section, Liberation, visitors can read about how internees felt when the Japanese finally surrendered on 15th August 1945.

Finally, in part eight, Legacies, visitors will learn how the legacy of Changi prison camp continues to live on in the present day, and can look up the names and stories of the internees, and view some artefacts that were produced to remember how they had survived the internment.

Letter from Mrs M. Wallin to her POW son, Edward William Wallin. Mail was irregular, and the letter only reached him a year after it was sent in.

In addition to the opportunity to view the personal artefacts up close, visitors will encounter a projection show that sets the context of CCM’s narrative with an introduction of the key milestones over the three-and-a-half year Japanese Occupation. Visitors can also step into a recreated Changi Gaol cell where the internees were housed to get a sense of the cramped living confines of the internees. The re-created cell includes historical recordings of conversations between the internees which offer a glimpse into their living conditions and daily experiences.

Changi prison door from the 1930s. Prisoners often had to sleep on concrete floors due to bedding not being provided.

Building on existing databases including original camp registers and nominal rolls from Changi and Sime Road as well as the efforts of various individuals and interest groups such as historian Ronald Bridge who researches the history of POWs and civilian internees in Asia, The Changi Museum Pte Ltd (the company that managed CCM from 2001 to 2017) and the Trustee of Children & Families of Far East Prisoners of War (COFEPOW), the revamped CCM features a “living” database of over 50,000 POWs and civilian internees. Visitors can access specific, personal stories and are also welcome to contribute any memories they have of the internees to add to and preserve the legacies of those who passed through Changi’s gates.

“Each person we contacted was thrilled that their artefact was actually going to be shown at CCM, no hesitation whatsoever,” says Christine Willis, representing the COFEPOW. “It was so wonderful that you would get so many nations, so many visitors from all over the world visiting.”

“Hopefully this collaboration between the National Museum of Singapore, CCM and COFEPOW, will ensure that their memory never gets forgotten, and whether civilian FEPOWS, military FEPOWS or Singaporeans, they’ve all suffered greatly.”

Christine Willis, representative of COFEPOW

In addition to the new artefacts and exhibits on display, the revamped CCM also boasts new features to enhance visitors’ experience. This includes a glass and timber canopy that has been constructed in the Chapel space. It is designed to provide visitors with some shade in the Chapel space while retaining the open-air atmosphere reminiscent of the original World War Two chapels which were typically built in the open during the Occupation.

For contactless ticketing and assistance, as well as additional museum content via mobile devices, visitors are encouraged to access the CCM chatbot for audio tours, exhibit captions in the four national languages and Japanese, and even virtual visits to nearby World War Two-related sites. Currently, the museum will be able to host about 100 visitors at once (due to COVID-19 measures), and a tour (self-guided or with a guide) would take around an hour to complete.

Said Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth at CCM’s online opening: “It has been 79 years since thousands of Prisoners of War and civilians were marched to Changi prison camp to be imprisoned, following the British
Surrender of Singapore on 15 February 1942. It is episodes like these which anchor our history and heritage. Even though they may have taken place before the independence of Singapore, they are important reminders of this country’s journey, and indeed, an indelible part of our national identity. They also represent how far we have come, as a nation.”

“Since it was opened in 2001, the CCM has been well-received locally and internationally, for its portrayal and recognition of the contributions of these individuals,” he continues. “The re-opening of the CCM is the latest demonstration of MCCY and NHB’s commitment under Our SG Heritage Plan to document, safeguard and to celebrate our heritage, while ensuring that they remain relevant to our lives today.”

“I hope that the experience of visiting the new CCM, whether live or digitally, will help all visitors reflect upon the importance of values like resilience, a sense of community, and hope in the face of adversity. These are all values which will continue to stand us in good stead, especially as we battle the ongoing pandemic.”

– Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth

Photos courtesy of Changi Chapel Museum

Changi Chapel Museum is located at 1000 Upper Changi Road North Singapore 507707. More visitor information available here

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