What is there to do in Singapore besides admiring our beautiful city skyline at night and instagramming our weirdly beautiful alien-looking trees? Singapore may not be the obvious choice for artsy and cultural things to do, but there are a bunch of interesting niche museums that are worth checking out for anyone looking to show you a side of Singapore that’s a little different from your usual tourist hotspots.
Most institutions will have you scurrying for the exits if you pull out a snack amidst the exhibits, but at The Intan, the Nyonya kueh you are served is considered an integral part of the visitor experience.
Owner Alvin Yapp wanted to create a unique and intimate way for people to understand Peranakan culture, which resulted in the Intan Signature Tea Experience, an hour-long session where he personally guides you through his tiny two-storey shop-house space filled with an array of Peranakan artefacts. Yapp caps off the tour with traditional Peranakan snacks and tea.
It’s a truly personal way to learn about this unique culture — there are no placards or artist statements, but ask a question about any of the knick-knacks in any corner of the house and Yapp will give you a spiel that covers anything from the significance of the object to Peranakan culture, or how he managed to collect it. The museum is unusual as it is actually Yapp’s current abode — his room is on the second floor — and is located in Joo Chiat, a traditionally Peranakan neighbourhood.
The Intan is located at 69 Joo Chiat Terrace. The closest MRT station is Eunos EW7. The Signature Tea Experience usually costs $60 for a minimum of 4 guests (it used to be $45 for a minimum of six guests) and is open by appointment only.
Fuk Tak Chi Temple
The Fuk Tak Chi Museum, a small Chinese temple along multicultural Telok Ayer Street, looks pretty unassuming at first glance — until you discover the back entrance, which is attached to the modern air-conditioned lobby of the boutique Amoy hotel.
The hotel was constructed in what used to be the back alley of Singapore’s oldest Chinese temple and a part of the Far East Square premises today. Your welcome drink as a hotel guest is accompanied by a complimentary tour of this little museum courtesy of hotel staffers, who have been trained to tell you more about the temple built by Chinese immigrants and once housed the statue of Tua Pek Kong.
You don’t have to be a hotel guest to explore this museum — it is open to public though there are no museum guides or placards to give you more information on site. The Amoy hotel with the attached Fuk Tak Chi Museum makes for a unique option for those who like a hotel stay with more personality.
Fuk Tak Chi Museum is located at 76 Telok Ayer Street. The closest MRT is Telok Ayer (DT18) or Raffles Place Interchange (EW14/NS26). Opens 10am-10pm daily. Free Entrance! Book you stay at the Amoy Hotel on Booking.com [affiliate link]
Singapore Philatelic Museum
The Singapore Philatelic Museum (SPM) is the only place in Singapore where you can personlise your stamp sheet, thanks to the MyStamp Service, which allows you to print your photo in the tab next to an actual stamp. It costs around $23 to create one and makes for a unique and personalised souvenir. You can also get a special SPM postmark on your letters if you mail them from the SPM mail counter.
One might imagine that a museum dedicated to stamps might appeal only to those with a serious interest in philately, the study of stamps. However, the various exhibitions covering themes ranging from Singapore history to pop-culture heroes like Harry Potter and Shakespeare don’t just showcase stamps in all their finery. The stamps form parts of exhibits that tell a larger story of a particular moment in history in a surprisingly interesting way. The interactive exhibits also make the SPM a popular choice for schools and families, especially during school holidays and weekends.
I was honestly expecting to be bored here but it turns out I really enjoyed my visit. Thanks to Adeline who gave me an awesome tour of the place!
Singapore Philatelic Museum is located at 23B Coleman Street. Closest MRT is City Hall Interchange (EW13/NS25). Opens 10am-7pm daily. Free for Singapore Citizens & Permanent Residents, for visitors it’s S$8 for adults and S$6 for children
Singapore Musical Box Museum
Collectors always leave me in awe with their dedicated passion for a specific item. Something about single-mindedly amassing a huge number of a particular object and then seeing it all in one place strikes me as impressive. In this case, that item is the musical box, of which the founder of the museum Mr Naoto Orui has over 40 pieces from his personal collection displayed here in this little museum.
What do musical boxes have to do with Singapore anyway? These fancy music playing items always struck me as a very European affectation, a frivolity that only the rich could afford because it’s mostly decorative. It turns out that back in Singapore’s British colony days, local craftsmen were taught by the British to repair musical boxes and even went on to make some of their own. In fact, you can even see a rare musical box produced in the 1800s that was made in Singapore, one of the reasons that the founder wanted to set up the museum here in the first place.
What I also found fascinating is that musical boxes aren’t just table-top sized – in fact some of these contain their very own marching band. Some of the big ones are large enough to rival grandfather clocks and contained 7 or more different instruments inside! The guide carefully wound up some of these boxes (some are even coin operated) to show us the mechanical workings of the musical box and the songs they play. It’s not all musical boxes though, you can also see some old school gramophones and random decorative items, definitely something you don’t quite expect to see in Singapore.
Also another bonus is that in the same Chong Wen Ge compound, you can have a drink and some snacks at the Peranakan Tile Gallery, which is more of a cafe cum shopfront for tiles sold by Aster by Kyra, but what’s fascinating is that these people have quite an impressive selection of Peranakan tiles that were salvaged from old shophouses that were demolished – you can get replicas of course but you can also buy the originals if you are willing to fork out quite a lot more!
Singapore Musical Box Museum is located at 168 Telok Ayer Street, Chong Wen Ge next to Thian Hock Keng Temple. Closest MRT is Telok Ayer (DT18) or Raffles Place Interchange (EW14/NS26). Opens 10am-6pm (last tour 5pm), closed on Tuesdays. Costs S$12 for adults, S$6 for concession tickets. Includes cost of mandatory tour (40-60 mins) that starts on the hour.
Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum
Singapore is very much a built up city with little untouched natural spaces left, so it’s sometimes easy to forget the amount of biodiversity we have on our own shores. I’m happy enough to go trekking or animal spotting when I’m overseas but back home I’m pretty clueless and would rather not sweat it out outdoors (I did see a Pangolin recently! Now that was a real wow)
I love visiting natural history museums because I find the subject matter of wildlife, evolution and conservation much more intriguing than dry historical facts or obscure art, but the location of this museum at the National University of Singapore campus isn’t the most convenient for me and put me off visiting. Having to research this article and my desire to see the Singapore Whale finally led me there, and I feel like I need to go back again – it’s definitely a place worth spending a few hours in if you love animals and biodiversity. Lots of interactive and digital displays to teach you about biodiversity in Singapore and around the region, the museum is presented very beautifully and a wonder for animal lovers to behold.
I was there on a weekday afternoon so the place was pretty empty and I had all the space and time to linger at the exhibits. There are some pretty fine skeletons on display – 3 large dinosaurs and of cause the skeletal remains of the sperm whale that washed ashore on Singapore’s west coast a bit further inside.
The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum is located at the National University of Singapore, 2 Conservatory Road at the Faculty of Science. Closest MRT is Dover EW22. Opens 10am-7pm, closed on Tuesdays. Note that there are 3 sessions of tickets available based on entry time – 10am, 1pm and 4pm. Tickets cost S$16 for adults, S$9 for children 3-12 years (Singaporeans and PRs), and for visitors its S$21 for adults and S$13 for children. You can buy tickets beforehand online or at SISTIC counters, and you can get tickets at the museum itself but it’s NETS and Credit Card only.
Other Niche Museums in Singapore
These are other small museums that I was recommended but didn’t make the final list. Some I haven’t checked out yet, a few I’m ambivalent on (I liked them but don’t have that much to say about it) and some which are more commercial in nature (nothing wrong with that, but they seem more like a shopfront for selling their product than an actual curated museum):
- Parkview Museum – This private museum that opened pretty recently had a stellar opening exhibition about Sharks and Humanity that I really enjoyed. I’d definitely recommend it except I’m not sure what it’s upcoming exhibitions are and if there are any, but even so Parkview Square (aka the Gotham Building) is worth seeing just for its weirdness if you are in the area
- MINT Museum of Toys – this one’s high on my list of quirky museums to see in Singapore. Free entry in the evenings on the last Saturday of each month, stay tuned!
- Malay Heritage Centre – It’s well presented with a lot of informational displays about the history of Malay culture in Singapore and some fun stuff like a Malay music jukebox, but I thought it was pretty standard
- Indian Heritage Centre – this is quite a new museum and a bit jarringly modern looking compared to its shophouse neighbours! Also well presented and informative about the Indian diaspora in Southeast Asia and Singapore, but also pretty standard
- Singapore Chinese Opera Museum – I wanted to see this but it was closed when I tried to visit! I’d suggest calling ahead to check first but it sounds really interesting
- Peranakan Museum – a popular museum about the Peranakan culture in Singapore that offers a different perspective from the Intan above, but for some reason I’ve never made it inside the building
- Civil Defence Heritage Gallery – Located in the historical Central Fire Station, this is popular among parents with young kids when combined with the Open House events that happen every Saturday from 9-11am
- Singapore Maritime Gallery – I honestly never even heard of this until someone told me about it, but it looks pretty well presented and a fun look at Singapore’s shipping and maritime history
- Changi Museum – this one is actually quite well known internationally because of its WWII ahistory, but it’s in a pretty far flung Eastern corner so I’ve never made it out there so far
- Former Ford Factory – they’ve recently renovated this one so it sounds quite interesting to check out. This is where Singapore surrendered to the Japanese in WWII
- Reflections at Bukit Chandu – also another historical place I’ve not seen, a memorial where a brave Singaporean army brigade faced down the Japanese invaders in WWII and sadly lost
- Swiftlet Garden Museum – I don’t know how much of a museum this actually is, but it’s run by a company that sells birds nest products so it seems more like a shopfront for its business – I’m keen to see the bird calling demo though
- Our Museum @ Taman Jurong – this is located on the far western end of Singapore and is a community museum. I’m a little bit curious to see what’s there but I have to get my butt there…
Feel free to give me more suggestions to go check out in the comments below!
Of course the bigger museums in Singapore are worth checking out – the National Gallery is a behemoth of a building whose history and architecture is worth seeing even if you aren’t into South East Asian art, while the National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Asian Civilisations Museum and Art Science Museum are good one-stop shop options if you are short on time and often host larger festivals or programmes throughout the year. But if you want to dig deeper, are easily overwhelmed by too large spaces or have very specific interests, these 5 little museums are a pretty good way to start exploring and seeing a different side of Singapore!
This article was first written for The A List in 2017 and republished here with permission and additions [Link no longer active]
Researching for this article taught me some interesting things – some people have a very odd idea of what constitutes a museum, and also that just because it calls itself a museum, it is NOT necessarily an actual museum! Like we have a museum of cats (which is a cat cafe), and a Live Museum or tortoises and turtles in the Chinese Gardens (a mini zoo is not a museum)…
Check out www.museums.com.sg for a listing of more than 50 private and public museums in Singapore and their range of activities. These places listed in this article I have actually visited so you are reading my personal accounts and opinions, feel free to chime in or add on what you know in the comments. I also have a ton of recs thanks to my FB friends, most of which I have yet to check out – I’m putting those on the bottom of the list for you to check out.