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New ways to tell old stories: National Museum of Singapore makes history trendy to nurture new generations of museum-goers

New ways to tell old stories: National Museum of Singapore makes history trendy to nurture new generations of museum-goers

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This post is sponsored by the National Museum of Singapore.

The National Museum of Singapore may be 136 years old, but she is certainly no stick in the mud.

Fresh out of the pandemic, and confronted with shifting audience trends, the grand dame of Singapore history embarked on a bold content experiment in 2022 to try out new formats of telling Singapore stories to connect with local Gen Z and Millennial visitors, who are increasingly interested in immersive experiences, but less so in traditional museum content.

This was in a bid to drive more visitorship to the museum and increase the pool of local residents who have not visited the museum for more than a year.

Chung May Khuen, director of the National Museum of Singapore, said: “The pandemic changed the rules of the game for cultural institutions in Singapore. We were forced to rethink and reinvent our approaches to storytelling – from pivoting to the digital realm at the height of the pandemic, to introducing ‘phygital’ touch-points in our galleries to engage both our first-time and returning visitors.

“We continued experimenting and pushing the boundaries with the OFF / ON showcase, creating one of our most immersive and interactive experiences that resonated with many.”

The museum’s efforts were recognised at MARKETING-INTERACTIVE’s PR Awards 2023, where it clinched the silver award in the category of Best PR Campaign: Government / Public Service for its work on the showcase OFF / ON: Everyday Technology that Changed our Lives, 1970s – 2000s.

Markedly different from previous exhibitions at the National Museum, the showcase is the brainchild of its marketing communications team, who worked with the museum’s curators on a radical idea to spotlight the second edition of its Collecting Contemporary Singapore initiative that aims to collect artefacts and stories from the public.

Recognising that technology is a connective thread between the younger and older generations of Singapore, the showcase featured a small, but carefully curated collection of gadgets to spark curiosity about what everyday technology was like before the advent of today’s sleek mobile phones, laptops, and gaming consoles.

These artefacts were situated in eye-catching, “photo-worthy” rooms that were set up to look like places from yesteryear – such as a living room, photo studio, office, and kopitiam – aimed at sparking fond memories for both the young and young-at-heart alike, while allowing photographers to create eye-catching visuals for social media content.

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Jonathan Goh, senior assistant director, strategic marketing and communications, shared further on the concept.

“Other than our artefacts kept in the glass display cases, visitors could physically touch and interact with everything in the showcase,” he said.

“We wanted to bring back the experience of using past technology – visitors could send a pager code or SMS (short message service) and see and hear their messages pop-up in front of them for instance, or they could interact with exclusive games such as a typing test through a digital companion.

“To create an additional layer of interactivity, the museum also transformed the showcase into a fun escape room experience at night which helped to further engage visitors.”

As a result of the showcase’s unique format and the strong shareability factor, the response to it exceeded expectations and it received positive attention from both the media and public – akin to results from an international blockbuster exhibition. It also sparked organic conversations with journalists and creators reminiscing on their nostalgic use of technology.

Despite opening amid a crowded June holiday calendar, the showcase saw snaking queues to the museum, which prompted the implementation of crowd control measures. People were also keen to join the ticketed escape room experience, with all slots being sold out throughout the showcase duration.

The showcase’s strong visual elements led to multiple requests for it to be used as a photo and video location, featuring the key theme of everyday technology of the past for social content articles from both media titles and public agencies, and thus spotlighting the showcase among different communities.

More importantly, the showcase enabled the museum to meet its wider objectives. It brought in younger groups of visitors who would otherwise not have visited the museum, and created opportunities for intergenerational bonding with parents bringing their children to the museum to share their experiences.

The results of this experiment inspired the National Museum to further explore new approaches to storytelling and the use of relevant multimedia technologies to connect with visitors – such as the creation of three travel-themed pop-up rooms within the museum’s spaces, and a new story-driven audio tour inspired by its special exhibition this year, Now Boarding: Experiencing Singapore Through Travel, 1800s-2000s, which traces the Singapore identity through the medium of travel.

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This approach will be valuable in informing the museum in its upcoming revamp, which will be carried out from later this year until 2026 in progressive stages. As part of the revamp, the museum will update the narrative across its galleries to incorporate the latest developments in scholarships, new acquisitions to the museum’s collection, and adapt to shifts in public sentiment and expectations on how Singapore history is presented. The museum also hopes to allow for more personal stories and diverse perspectives to come through in its narration of Singapore’s history.

“The museum has always strived for innovation and reinvention in our pursuit to collect, preserve, and present stories that are important to the people of Singapore,” Chung said.

“It is important to us to continually evolve as a constant bridge between Singapore’s past and present, and to always offer meaningful and compelling experiences that are accessible and relevant to our visitors.”

The museum will remain open to visitors throughout its revamp, and visitors are invited to check out its website for information on its programmes and exhibitions.

(Photos credit: National Museum of Singapore)

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