The Nature Museum, by the Institute of Critical Zoologists

Eugene Tan

September 07, 2017

Roll up, roll up, and welcome to The Nature Museum, the planet’s most prodigious wunderkammer of weird Singaporean natural history!

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From here

See postcards depicting the “ghost suns”, i.e. the absinthe-green sunrises and sunsets visible from 1883 to 88 following the eruption of Krakatoa! Gasp at the fulgurites (fused sand formations created by lightning strikes) and uncanny masks and hands discovered in reclaimed beaches by the Coastal Exploration Society in the 1970s!

Explore the Francis Leow Archives, collected by the eponymous assistant to Botanic Gardens director Humphrey Burkill: his clandestine attempts to create sanctuaries for cave nectar bats under flyovers so as to preserve their role in the pollination of durians; his observations on the interbreeding of wild and fish-farmed tilapia; his cheesy 1990s Powerpoint fearing that the reservoirs are threatening the mangroves. Collections of unlikely bird traps; a skeleton of a chicken composed of chicken rice leftovers, moon dust from street lamps consisting of fried insects, photos of red jungle fowl in mid-flight.

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Last Jungle Fowl, Nee Soon, days before a cull, 2017

It’s gorgeous and overwhelming and fascinating as you peer between the fronds of the potted plants at the labels; as you ponder the untold stories behind the glass-cased artefacts; behind the book that is nature as defaced by humankind.

But there’s a caveat. You see, most of what’s on show simply isn’t true.

It’s not 100% lies, mind you. Krakatoa did erupt in 1883, creating unearthly sunsets. Those really are fulgurites in that case. And cave nectar bats really do pollinate durians. Yet most of the narratives behind those displays are fictitious.

This may inspire irritation (the night I went, some middle-aged ladies roared, “骗人的!” / Lying to people! when they learned the truth). But there’s a purpose behind the lies: they’re drawing our attention to the theatre and illusion behind scientific and museological truth-making, inviting us all to be skeptical of received evidence.

Plus, there’s a long history of false narratives in contemporary art, from Rrose Sélavy and Pierre Brassau to  Huang Wei and  Buang bin Mohamed Ali and Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

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Artefacts excavated by the Coastal Exploration Society, 1970s

But given that there’s so much artistic manipulation at work—and that ICZ’s field of interest is human manipulation of the natural world—I’m a little frustrated that we didn’t see this theme brought to the surface a little more.

Why didn’t ICZ hire actors to lead the tour, mimicking the slick, polished professionalism of popular science presentations? (Robert isn’t a great orator. He hems and haws and moves around distractingly and breaks eye contact while talking.)

Also—and this is perhaps a personal quibble, as someone who’s seen quite a bit of ICZ’s work—couldn’t we have had a more specifically themed exhibition rather than a grab bag of everything the institute is interested in? Perhaps a specific look at one period or aspect of nature; perhaps a single figure (or family of said figure) like Francis Leow who connects the whole archive? Some kind of plot, perhaps, scripted by playwright Joel Tan, who collaborated with Robert on this project?

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The Francis Leow Archive

But I suppose I’m looking at the tour from the perspective of a theatremaker. And though people are paying extra to go on the tour, it it’s not meant to be viewed as a theatre experience—folks told me that Robert’s own lecture performances are delivered in a similar off-the-cuff manner. Ultimately, I’m asking for the show to be something other than what was intended.

Still, at the end of the day, I find I prefer the act of quietly going through the exhibition at my own pace, reading the museum texts, rather than having Robert and Joel rushing me through everything in 60 minutes. Sure, I got a few projections and details I wouldn’t otherwise have heard, and one little moment of adrenaline when a giant bird trap unexpectedly claps shut before my eyes.

But the museum without voices is a thing of beauty and enigma. It’s something I’ve experienced before earlier this year when ICZ created The Bizarre Honour: the interior a fictional naturalist’s house which we could explore at our leisure, unlocking its secrets ourselves.

I’ve dragged my feet on this review, and it’s now the final day The Nature Museum will be open—alas! But I expect the artefacts and narratives will turn up again in some shape or form in the ICZ’s future exhibitions, tour or no tour.

And if not, we’ll always have the Instagrams. :)

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Chicken skeleton reconstructed from chicken rice leftovers

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  • 2017