The Historians

Monday, March 9, 2015


After a good rest from the blistering heat and yummy lunch at the air-conditioned Kopitiam we continued our journey to my all time haunt the..


In fact, on this trail, we have been visiting places I had passed daily on my way to school during my 3 years in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Really miss this place so much. Coming back this round not as an art student (where I did my outdoor drawings, paintings and photography) but with the lens of a History student gave me greater insight to the historical background and significance of these places which have very much grown to be a special part of me. 

The Singapore Art Museum (SAM) is always the place either to get my Art assignments done or for my leisurely Art escape especially since it is now free for all Singaporeans. :D  (HOORAY!)

In the past, I had an inkling that Singapore Art Museum as some old preserved school but never knew its exact name or history. After doing some research to be the 'tour guide' for this section of the trip, I went back to SAM with new perspective-another dimension of the Art Museum that was totally new to me- imagining how it would be like then with classrooms filled with school-children, lining up at the concourse, attending mass in the chapel, shuffling along the corridors to and from class- a different light to the SAM I was accustomed to: a building that housed art work.

My fellow companions were really excited (I hope I didn't let them down) that an art person was going to bring them around and so was I!

Lets begin our journey into SAM!


The Singapore Art Museum was previously a 19th Century mission school- Singapore's first Catholic school (Pilon & Weller, p.52)  known as Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI). It was established in 1867 as a Catholic boys school run by the La Salle Brothers. SJI has since moved to its current location at Malcolm Road. This building was gazetted as a national monument on 14th February 1992 . It has been carefully conserved with the original details preserved as much as possible whilst still maintaining the stringent requirements of an art museum. 

Taking a run through old snapshots of the former SJI, it is really amazing to know how much of the structure has been preserved till today. On a personal note, appears to me as a real fine and grand school for the 19th Century. 

Fig 1.1: The statue of St. John the Baptist de la Selle  in the 1980s
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Fig 1.2: Former SJI at night 1970s
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Fig 1.3: SJI (1980)
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Fig 1.4: SJI in the !970s
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Fig 1.5: The garden in front of the school in the 1980s
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Fig 1.6: Father Jean Beural was a french priest
who was instrumental in setting up SJI, CHIJ and the Cathedral of the Good Shepard

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Fig 1.7: White-washed name of SJI
Fig 1.8: Formerly deep green painted doors-
now painted with an overcoat of grey

The exterior of the building has been preserved to a large extent. With reference to past photos I can but only partially fathom its resemblance to a school compound- maybe due to the fact I have been so accustomed to relating with this building as an art museum.

The large grass patch in front of the building was initially the school's front garden (Fig 1.4, 1.5). Now certain areas are cleared for parking usage. The name of the institution, previously painted in deep green (Fig 1.1), is now white washed (Fig 1.7). Similarly the old doors of the school painted in deep green (Fig 1.8) are now painted with an overcoat of grey.Glass panels have also been built to cover up previously exposed arches to keep the air-conditioning in.

I believe these modifications do play a part in making the building look 'more like a museum' than its previous function as a school. Perhaps a 'duller' more 'conservative' coat so the artworks inside this rather 'grand-looking' building can shine as well.

The Building's Architecture

The building structure has been carefully conserved, retaining as much as possible. This includes the roof patina and the plasterwork of the main entrance.

Fig 2.1: The current exterior of SAM

Fig 2.2: Renaissance architecture- Doric and Corinthian columns, Roman Arches

Fig 2.3: Renaissance architectureDoric and Corinthian columns, Roman Arches

Fig 2.3: Types of columns
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I realised that previously SJI was surrounded by towering spires and Renaissance-type architecture (Fig 2.4), unlike the present day urbanised reflective glass-panelled buildings surrounding it. I feel that the grandeur of its elaborate architecture perhaps made it suitable for it to be transformed into a museum and to remind us of those who came to help set up educational institutions for the people in the early Singapore.

Fig 2.4: Aerial View of the Old SJI and its surroundings
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Galleries in the Main Building

Previously these galleries were classrooms for the schoolchildren. However due to the requirements of an art museum, the cross walls were knocked down (hence the easy accessibility to adjoining gallery spaces). Floors were reinforced with concrete (to take the load of artworks - unlike the preserved tiles outside (which I will mention later) and a wall system that was light weight ,made of insulation material and vapour barrier so as to protect the artworks in the gallery)

This research has given me some understanding to the needs of refurbishment to suit the standards and requirements of a museum.

Housing artworks ain't that simple after all!

Preserved Floor 
(pictures courtesy of Nisa and Jia Hui)

These floor tiles were meticulously preserved and damaged ones restored.I felt the tiles had a certain vernacular feel to it as it appears similar to the ones you can see along 5-footways of old shop houses and even in their interior. They somehow exude a certain quaint vibe to them too. 

The amalgamation of the renaissance architecture with these 'shop house tiles' (found both inside the shop houses and along the 'five-foot-ways' ) add a certain Singaporean flavour to an outwardly very European-looking building


Assembly at the Courtyard (n.d)
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As you can see from the picture above, the Courtyards were originally school quadrangles where students assembled. Other uses also a include serving as a basketball court and a carpark.

Being at the place and re-imagining how it was supposed to be in the past  somehow creates in me an uncanny feeling about the place..


Been in this chapel countless times to see various artworks. Never spotted this before!
Fig 3.1: The Chapel in 1997
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Fig 3.2: The Chapel at present

Fig 3.4: Details on the chapel walls

Fig 3.5: Details on the Chapel walls

Fig 3.4: Centre strip of Chapel and doors painted black

Fig 3.5: Details on the Chapel ceiling

There was a video art piece being shown that day. Unfortunately we were unable to see the washing basins and front design of the chapel. (Fig 3.2) With comparison to the old photograph of the chapel (Fig 3.1), I believe the modifications made would be the centre strip of the chapel. The doors were painted black (Fig 3.4) leaving the details on the chapel walls to stand out. A really new look to a chapel (I believe chapels -that are still in use) will usually not be coated in black paint). This modification likewise contributing how one would not associate the place with its original purpose as a chapel and only perhaps to discover it on closer inspection.

As Goh (2004, p. 101) puts ,

 "one of the several historical edifices de-commissioned of their religious function and signification, and converted into tourist spectacles and commercial structures."


Well that sort of concluded our day at the museum. Being an art teacher, I am so glad I took on the research on this place. A totally new dimension to SAM that I have never known much about before the trail. I really feel more can be done to raise awareness about such places - being gazetted for preservation. Places that we are in so close contact with, but its histories never really made known to the public in general apart from the inanimate signs placed around (that many walk past without even noticing).

Bringing my students to the art museum the next time round, I will definitely show them around the place, not only talking about the artworks but also letting them know more about the background of this place and its history.

On a side note, I am secretly wishing that there will be a real initiative where Singaporeans can sign up and be brought around to the various preserved national monuments in Singapore. So much effort had been put in preserving these buildings but with so little attention paid to them. I am certain it will be of interest to the public at large.

Thoroughly enjoyed this segment of the journey with my fellow explorers! (:



Gascon, G. (1995, October 25). From school to museum: Architect's labour of loveThe Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved on November 8, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

Pilon,M & , Weiler. D (2011), The French in Singapore: An Illustrated History (1819-today), Singapore: Editions Dider Millet Pte Ltd.

Goh, R.B.H, " Chapter 6: Evangelical Economies and Abjected Spaces: Cultural Territorialisation inf Singapore" in Bishop, Ryan, Philips,John and Yeo, Wei Wei, Beyond Description: Singapore Space Historicity, London: Routledge, 2004, p.101

Tan, B. (2010). Former St Joseph’s Institution. In Singapore Infopedia. Retrieved from

Singapore Art Museum (n.d) About, Retreived from:

Statue sculpted in China gets pride of place at new SJI. (1988, March 20). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved on November 8, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

The priest whose vision gave birth to SJI. (1989, April 8). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved on November 8, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

Work to convert old SJI into fine arts museum to begin soon. (1992, July 19). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved on November 8, 2010, from NewspaperSG.

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