Of Whales and Dinosaurs book talk with author Kevin Tan June 3, 2015 16:00

NUS Press held a book talk at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum on 29 May 2015. Dr Kevin Tan, author of Of Whales and Dinosaurs: Singapore’s Natural History Museum, was present to give a talk about the museum's natural history collection. 

Full house at NUS Press book event with Dr Kevin Tan 

In his talk titled “Singapore’s Natural History Collection: A Perilous Prologue”, Dr Tan took the audience through the long and perilous 127-year history of the Raffles Zoological Reference Collection. He shared anecdotes of the brave individuals and past curators who managed to keep the collection mostly intact through two world wars, numerous financial and leadership crises, and the damning hand of modernisation and progress after Singapore’s independence.

Notably in 1942 when Singapore was occupied by Japan during World War II, the fate of its cultural heritage and natural history collections was uncertain. After Singapore’s surrender, E. J. H. Corner, the assistant director of the Botanic Gardens, had a “crazy idea” to “approach the Japanese to preserve the [collections]”. Dr Tan recounted how Corner approached the Japanese authorities with a note signed by the Governor to request them to protect the cultural properties.

Corner was joined by Hidezo Tanakadate, a professor from the University of Japan, who proclaimed that he had come to “conserve the cultural heritage”. Many years later it was discovered by Corner that Tanakadate had no real military authority to take over Singapore’s cultural heritage; he only had the rank of a sublieutenant. Dr Tan emphasised that it took the courage of such individuals who recognised the importance of the natural history collection and endeavoured to preserve it. The dedication and efforts of these stalwarts are duly recorded in Of Whales and Dinosaurs.

Mrs Yang Chang Man, former curator of the natural history collection, was also present at the book event to show her support. Mrs Yang and her team kept the collection from disintegration in the early 1970s when the government’s nation-building focus marginalised natural history and placed priorities elsewhere.

Dr Tan and Mrs Yang (both in pink) with the NUS Press team 

During the Q&A session, Dr Tan took a question from an audience who asked about the legal protection for cultural heritage.

"I’m afraid there’s no real legal protection [in Singapore] but the [natural history] collection does belong to [National University of Singapore] now. I’m quite sure the university has insured the collection and I think it’s probably in the safest hand possible.”

Another audience posed the question on the possibility of retrieving the whale skeleton which was given to the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur in 1974. Dr Tan shared the possible legal and diplomatic complications in recovering the mounted whale skeleton:

“It’s not a problem of money if the [skeleton] is for sale because it is a matter of national pride. But it’s not so direct [to retrieve it back]…since the skeleton was given to the federal government, not to the state government.”

Dr Tan addressed the last question on the damage incurred by the collection before Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum was established and the possibility of expansion for the new museum.

“Very little [of the collection] was actually lost, thanks to Mrs Yang [Chang Man] and her team. Specimens do deteriorate over time so you have to throw [them] away. That’s [inevitable] given our weather and the [poor storage conditions]...The museum did lose two of the biggest things: the whale skeleton (given to Malaysia) and the skeleton of the elephant which was shot by the Sultan of Johore in 1909.

...I’m sure there’s room for expansion. In fact the museum never ceases to grow. Many of the specimens here are post-1970s. The museum scientists continue to go on expeditions. In terms of biodiversity the sea life is richer and much more unexplored [in Singapore]...For instance the fish collection has grown a lot. Peter Ng, director of the museum, is also one of the leading experts in crabs so the crab collection is amazing.”

Thank you for your support for Of Whales and Dinosaurs. Do visit the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum to learn more about Singapore’s rich biodiversity and natural history.