Alexis Ong: Why Singapore needs its own ‘Jurassic Park’

Alexis Ong: Why Singapore needs its own ‘Jurassic Park’

The hoopla surrounding S$12 million to help bring in three dinosaur fossils is small-minded

Building a Natural History Museum in Singapore is the first great museum idea that we’ve had in a long, long, long, LONG time. Yes, Marina Bay Sands, we’re looking at you.

Over the past month, I’ve read blogs across the island getting pumped up over fundraising efforts to bring three dinosaur fossils to the museum, which will open in 2014.

It’s new. It’s exciting. It makes me proud that we’re giving much-needed attention to the natural sciences for a change, instead of weird, pompous art-science hybrids.

I am, however, confused by people who don’t understand why and how these dinosaur fossils are a big deal.

The three diplodocid sauropod fossils -- dubbed Apollo, Prince and Twinky, and ranging from 12 to 24 meters in length -- will cost about S$870 million. Another S$370 million is required to build a fitting exhibit to house them.

I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that dinosaurs were an East-versus-West issue.

This is a drop in the bucket for the Singapore government, and a relatively insignificant drop when you compare it to our nice fat deficits, coupled with the government’s emphasis on public education.

The Raffles Museum -- the entity behind the Natural History Museum -- is trying to raise S$12 million in charitable donations, to contribute to the cost of buying these fossils. Local feathers are getting ruffled over why these funds aren’t being channeled towards exhibits on local stuff, or at least Southeast Asian stuff.

I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that dinosaurs were an East-versus-West issue.

“Oh, they’re not from here. They’re from Wyoming, in the United States.”

Can you really call yourself an educated individual with that sort of attitude? Can you call yourself any less myopic than Americans who think English is the only language that matters? With that kind of logic, who needs museums, or galleries, or botanical institutions, or really any kind of forum to showcase a common thread in our world’s history? You might as well send out a memo to all the schools across Singapore to tell the kids they’re being screwed out of a world-class educational opportunity.

As for Straits Times’ Ong Sor Fern’s dismal appraisal of the fossil situation, I don’t have much to say to a person who can’t understand what a significant move this will be for Singapore, culturally, educationally and for the national psyche.

She’s describes herself as a “museum aficionado” … a museum aficionado would recognize that an exhibit of this size and stature could and would only do wonderful things for the 500,000 other specimens that the museum has to offer.

Ong writes about how the money should go to creating educational materials based on the collection -- like a book.

A book -- which is a secondary source -- over a primary source. I’m not a scientist or a teacher, but I’m fairly sure that one basic point of learning is that a primary source is almost always better than a secondary one.

In the words of the Internet: EPIC. FAIL.

Nevertheless, I’m full of optimism for the Natural History Museum and the impact it’s going to have on our cultural landscape.

Natural history is real. It’s real, dirty and downright fascinating.

When you consider how young and new we are as a nation, the prospect of having a real slice of the ancient world in our backyard is tremendous. My concern is whether we’re going to do it right. Exhibit A: the ArtScience Museum. Talk about a Primary Six school project. Great ideas, terrible, terrible execution.

Thankfully, there’s something refreshingly straightforward about natural sciences. There’s no sense of postmodernism that needs to be incorporated into the building design, nor does natural science need to be dumbed-down to pure aesthetics.

Unlike “artscience”, natural history is real. It’s real, dirty and downright fascinating, and it is my sincere hope that the architects and curators will remember this when dealing with investors.

I remember I was ten years old when Dinosaur World Tour came to Singapore. There’s a great retrospective on it here at Otterman’s blog. Here’s a guy who’s just oozing enthusiasm for dinos -- this should be the guy to write press releases and op-ed arguments making the case for the museum’s billion-dollar budget, not number-crunching Captain Obvious candidates who describe our fossil bid as “the best value for Singapore, that money can buy.”

It’s true that one of the fossils -- Apollo -- is described as the best example of a preserved diplodocus found so far.

But the phrase “best value … that money can buy” seems more applicable to a clearance sale at John Little. Then again, since most Singaporeans can only compute along these lines, I guess you could say it'll appeal directly to them.

Alexis Ong has a degree she doesn't use, but can read, write, and do some arithmetic. She's spent the last few years in Singapore and previously lived in New York and Boston.

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