Last Updated on 13 December, 2021
When visitors come to Singapore for the first time, I usually take them through Singapore’s typical tourist sights for starters, which usually involves visiting Marina Bay at night for the skyline or eating seafood at East Coast Park, but if you are a culture lover and looking for some cool museums in Singapore to visit, we actually have a surprising selection to choose from. There are the obvious big name options like the National Museum of Singapore and the National Gallery that showcase Singapore’s overall history, art and culture well, but if your taste runs towards more niche topics and smaller crowds, here’s a look at some of the unique niche small museums in Singapore that will show you a different, less touristy side.
- The Intan: an intimate look at Peranakan culture
- Fuk Tak Chi Temple: the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore
- Singapore Musical Box Museum: A surprisingly intriguing collection
- Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum – Singapore’s nature and biodiversity
- Singapore Philatelic Museum: Stamps and more [revamped]
- Other niche small museums in Singapore
Researching for this article taught me some interesting things – some people have a very odd idea of what constitutes a museum. Also, just because the word ‘museum’ is in the name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an actual museum, for example the 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 at the bottom of the list for you to check out.
If you’re feeling a little lazy, watch this quick video I made for The A List, an arts and culture magazine in Singapore that I first wrote this piece for.
The Intan: an intimate look at Peranakan culture
Singapore’s Peranakan culture is quite unique to this region. A result of the mixing of the local Malay people in Singapore and Malaysia with immigrants from China (or India and other parts of the world, but Malay-Chinese is the most common here), they blended their cultures and practices into the unique melting pot that we call Peranakan.
There is a Peranakan Museum that you can check out to learn more about the history of the Peranakans, but for a more personal look at the culture, The Intan is a small private museum worth checking out.
*The Peranakan Museum was closed in 2019 and supposed to reopen in 2021, though with COVID it looks like the reopening has been pushed back
The Intan museum is unusual as it is actually a personal home — owner Alvin Yapp has his room on the second floor. It is also located in Joo Chiat, a traditionally Peranakan neighbourhood and you can find more Peranakan food, culture and experiences around the area. I recently found several street art and murals in Katong and Joo Chiat worth checking out.
Alvin wanted to create a unique and intimate way for people to understand Peranakan culture, which resulted in him creating the Intan Signature Tea Experience, an hour-long session where he personally guides guests through his tiny two-storey shop-house space filled with an array of Peranakan artefacts. It’s a truly personal way to learn about this unique culture as there are no placards or artist statements, but ask a question about any of the knick-knacks in any corner of the house and Alvin will give you a spiel that covers anything from the significance of the object to Peranakan culture, or how he managed to collect it.
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 as the tour ends with traditional Peranakan snacks and tea.
I enjoyed this tour, and while it may be a bit pricey, it’s a fun way to really take in a culture and learn from a local if you enjoy experiential learning.
Address: 69 Joo Chiat Terrace. The closest MRT station is Eunos EW7.
Cost: The Signature Tea Experience costs $60 for a minimum of 4 guests and is open by appointment only.
Fuk Tak Chi Temple: the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore
The Fuk Tak Chi Museum is a small Chinese temple along multicultural Telok Ayer Street that looks pretty unassuming at first glance – more people know about and visit Thian Hock Keng Temple further up the street – but actually has the honour of being the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore dating back to 1824. One other weird thing that differentiates it is its ‘secret’ back entrance that opens into the modern air-conditioned lobby of the boutique Amoy Hotel.
This boutique hotel was constructed in what used to be the back alley of the temple and it is considered 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 the general 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.
If you have more time, take the time to stroll Telok Ayer Street from one end at the junction with Cecil Street to its other end adjoining Church Street. This street’s Malay name translates to ‘Bay Water’ and used to be the former coastline of Singapore and the landing point of many new immigrants arriving in Singapore. There are lots of really interesting religious buildings all side by side along this stretch amidst the heritage shophouses worth taking a closer look at.
Address: 76 Telok Ayer Street. The closest MRT is Telok Ayer (DT18) or Raffles Place Interchange (EW14/NS26).
Opening Hours: Opens 10am-10pm daily.
Cost: Free Entrance!
Book your stay at the Amoy Hotel on Booking.com [affiliate link]
Singapore Musical Box Museum: A surprisingly intriguing collection
Collectors always leave me in awe with their dedicated passion for a specific item. There’s something about single-mindedly amassing a huge number of a particular object that is particularly impressive to witness all in one place. The Singapore Musical Box Museum has over 40 pieces from the personal collection of a Japanese man Mr Naoto Orui, and this museum is the first overseas of his collection.
What do musical boxes have to do with Singapore though? These fancy music playing items always struck me as a very European affectation and a frivolity that only the rich could afford because it’s mostly decorative and particularly practical. It turns out that back in Singapore’s British colonial days, local craftsmen were taught by the British to repair musical boxes and some craftsmen even went on to make their own music boxes. You can see one of these rare Singapore-made musical boxes produced in the 1800s in this museum, which is 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 – some of these musical boxes contained their very own marching band. The big musical boxes are large enough to rival grandfather clocks and some contained 7 or more different instruments inside! The guide carefully wound up some of these boxes (some are coin-operated) to show us the mechanical workings of the musical box and the songs they play.
It’s not all musical boxes on display though, you can also see some old school gramophones and random decorative items, definitely something you don’t quite expect to see in Singapore.
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. What’s fascinating about the gallery is its 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 part with some serious cash.
Address: 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).
Opening Hours: Opens 10am-6pm (last tour 5pm), closed on Tuesdays.
Cost: 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’s nature and biodiversity
Singapore is a very built-up city with few untouched natural spaces left, so it’s sometimes easy to forget Singapore’s lesser-seen natural side. Head to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum where there are lots of well-presented interactive and digital displays to teach you about biodiversity in Singapore and around the region, including some pretty impressive skeletons and specimens on display.
While 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, I’d been putting off a visit to this museum just because it’s a little out of the way. Located on the National University of Singapore campus on the west side of Singapore, it’s not the most centrally located spot compared to other more easily accessible museum. But having to research this article and my desire to learn more about the Singapore Whale finally led me there, and I feel like I need to go back again because there’s so much to discover.
Address: National University of Singapore, 2 Conservatory Road at the Faculty of Science. Closest MRT is Dover EW22.
Opening Hours: Opens 10am-7pm, closed on Tuesdays.
Cost: 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.
Singapore Philatelic Museum: Stamps and more [revamped]
This museum is closed for revamp and set to reopen in 2021 as a dedicated Children’s museum. It will still showcase its stamp collection alongside other exhibits designed for children.
The Singapore Philatelic Museum (SPM) is the only place in Singapore where you can personalise 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!
Address: 23B Coleman Street. Closest MRT is City Hall Interchange (EW13/NS25). Currently closed for renovation and set to reopen in 2021
Other niche small museums in Singapore
These are other small museums that I was recommended to visit but didn’t make the final list. I haven’t checked out all of them, but do leave me a note if you loved/hated any of these particular museums.
- Parkview Museum – This private museum had a stellar opening exhibition about Sharks and Humanity that I really enjoyed. It’s free which is always a plus point, but even if you don’t visit the museum, Parkview Square (aka the Gotham Building) is worth seeing just for its weirdness and art deco features
- 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 interesting
- 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 history, 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!
If you’re short on time and want to see the bigger landmark museums in Singapore, they are definitely 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
- The National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Art Museum (Closed for renovation), Asian Civilisations Museum and Art Science Museum are good one-stop options if you are short on time. They often host larger festivals or programmes throughout the year as well – check their calendars before visiting.
This article was first written for The A List in 2017 and republished here with permission and additions [article link no longer active]