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Museum Musings: Off / On – Everyday Technology That Changed Our Lives, 1970s-2000s at the National Museum of Singapore

From sleek smartphones to laptops, technology is inextricably linked to our daily lives today. But what came before these gadgets, and how did life look like then? Get a glimpse of this era that predates smart devices in the National Museum of Singapore’s latest experiential showcase, Off / On: Everyday Technology that Changed Our Lives, 1970s–2000s, and be transported back to a time where gadgets such as pagers, payphones and typewriters were among the technologies that were widely used. 

The showcase is the second edition of the Collecting Contemporary Singapore initiative that is aimed at growing the museum’s contemporary collection to better reflect Singapore’s ever-evolving national identity. Set against the backdrop of a time when Singapore was undergoing rapid transformation during its post-independence decades, Off / On invites visitors into uniquely themed installations that are inspired by common spaces found at the time, including a hair salon, coffeeshop and office space set in the 1970s to 1990s. Each space features a specially curated selection of ubiquitous technological icons of that era, with interactive elements that invite visitors to discover and experience how these technologies transformed and made an indelible mark on our everyday life. The showcase also aims to spur visitors to think about how they can continue and contribute to this conversation, by sharing their stories and objects with the National Museum.

Chung May Khuen, Director of the National Museum of Singapore, said, “We were heartened by the encouraging response from our first edition of the Collecting Contemporary Singapore initiative on documenting COVID-19 in Singapore, which saw contributions of diverse stories and objects from residents here. We are returning with the second edition of the initiative – focusing on the theme of technology – to continue engaging the public in contributing and co-creating with the National Museum. As technology evolves rapidly through the years, and with the pandemic further highlighting the significant role of technology in our daily lives, we hope to broaden and update our collection in this area which would enrich our documentation of the lived experiences of the people of Singapore.”

On entering the showcase, visitors are greeted by the familiar buzz of the workplace. But instead of modern laptops, the Work in Progress section is filled with typewriters and bulky computers, reminiscent of an office from the past. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, companies and businesses in Singapore were encouraged to adopt new technologies and to automate their processes to raise productivity. This was seen as critical in maintaining Singapore’s competitive edge in the global economy. Visitors can interact with tactile elements such as typing on a typewriter and view the early models of computers by IBM and Apple – once a common sight in offices of that era – giving visitors a taste of what a day in the office was like then. The computer screens also come alive with personal anecdotes of using everyday technological objects for visitors.

Moving from computers to handheld gadgets, the next section, Hello Mobile, explores the use of telecommunication tools that predate the smartphones of today. During the post-war years, Singapore had a telephone density of just 1.6 telephones for every hundred individuals. In the late 1980s, telephones and other personal devices such as pagers became more accessible, allowing people in Singapore to contact one another more conveniently, even if it meant having to wait in line to return a call using a payphone. Today, while personal telecommunication devices such as smartphones and mobile devices have evolved to be an everyday essential, visitors to the showcase can relive the experience of using some of these gadgets from the past, within the familiar local settings of a hair salon and coffeeshop. These include picking up telephone receivers to listen to re-enacted nostalgic conversations of daily experiences that would have taken place in these spaces, and engaging with larger-than-life interactives modelled after a handphone or pager, to send personalised messages that will be displayed on running LED bars. 

The next section, The Art of Living, outlines how the influx of consumer technology transformed the lifestyles of Singaporeans. The introduction of home entertainment gadgets such as colour television sets and radio cassette players, as well as lifestyle gadgets like cameras, allowed Singaporeans to choose their preferred entertainment and recreational activity at their own convenience and within the comforts and privacy of their own home. In this section, visitors are invited to step into an old-school interactive photo studio to interact with a camera replica that allows them to take black-and-white photos against a backdrop with various props, to help them create their preferred ambience. They can then enter the adjacent dark room, where their photos will be “developed”. Visitors can also interact with an installation of television sets from the past, where they can toggle between and view a selection of nostalgic local television programmes, commercials and re-created Teletext messages. The section concludes with a typical 1970s to 1990s’ living room setting, featuring some memorable technological objects from that era as well as a cassette player replica that visitors can interact with.

The next section, Game On, looks back at how gaming became more prevalent as a source of entertainment, especially in the 1980s, with the increasing popularity of video games. The design of this section takes inspiration from the once-popular handheld series of games known as the Tomy Pocketeer, which typically required players to guide a ball bearing in and around obstacles. Here, visitors can look forward to playing digital games that will pit visitors against one another for a chance to be featured on the leader board. 

Each section of the showcase contains other unique digital and gamification elements that visitors can access via a digital companion on their mobile devices. To enjoy these exciting elements, visitors can visit to find out how they can sign up for an account and generate a unique QR code, which they then scan with their personal mobile devices. Activities include exclusive digital games such as the ‘Fastest Typist’ game, as well as a pop quiz that challenges players to decode numerical pager messages. Visitors can also access bonus educational content that is unique to the digital companion, which will complement their learning experience at the showcase. Players who successfully complete all the assigned activities in the digital companion can stand a chance to win prizes through a lucky draw that will be conducted at the end of the showcase period. Details on the draw and the list of prizes to be won will be announced soon.  

The fun doesn’t end after hours. Off / On also transforms into an escape room at night, where visitors can pre-register in groups of minimally 3 and up to 10 participants each time, to explore the showcase space through the popular and interactive format of an escape room game. Participants will “journey” through time in the gallery to decipher clues that will help uncover a secret technological device that can help prevent a mass shutdown of the world’s technology. 

Beyond objects from the National Museum’s collection, Off / On will also feature contributions and loans of technological objects from individuals and corporate organisations. This includes homegrown company Creative Technologies, which has loaned the museum its revolutionary Sound Blaster 1.0, launched in 1989, as well as the 2004 edition of the Zen Micro. The Sound Blaster 1.0 was the world’s first sound card ever made that significantly improved the audio quality of personal computers. Creative Technologies was also a pioneer producer of MP3 players, and the 2004 edition of the Zen Micro displayed in this showcase, is among its most popular models of MP3 players. In addition, local contributors, Professor Tan Tiong Gie, loaned an Apple IIe personal computer, while Gerald Tan, from local gaming collective, Retro DNA, loaned a Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld gaming console. 

In line with the Collecting Contemporary Singapore initiative, the museum also invites residents in Singapore to share their technological objects from the 2000s onwards up to the present day, along with their related experiences and stories of the objects that have shaped their lives in the areas of work, communications, home living and play. The public can visit to submit stories and photos of the objects. The public call runs until 31 December 2022.

Says Priscilla Chua, Senior Curator, National Museum of Singapore: “Through the Off / On showcase, we invite visitors to reconnect with these technologies, while inspiring conversations and curiosity among the younger generations unfamiliar with them. As we are more ‘switched on’ now than ever before, the indispensable role of technology continues to shape and change the way we live, work and play, and we hope visitors will share their unique stories and experiences with us.”

Images courtesy of National Museum of Singapore

Off / On runs from 10th June to 30th October 2022 at the National Museum of Singapore. More information available here

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