Beyond the food, shopping, and title as a clean, lush garden city, one might ask: What else is Singapore known for?
The answer might just be - travel.
Armed with one of the strongest passports in the world, it’s little wonder that Singaporeans have put that privilege to good use. According to Conde Nast, Singaporeans average 1.44 trips in a year per person, and Singapore is one of the top nations of frequent flyers. And why not, given the country’s status as a well-connected hub (and especially after two years of border closures around the world)?
But let’s not forget that Singapore is a desirable destination in her own right, and much of it has been shaped by her travel icons. Even Singapore Changi Airport itself features as an attractive itinerary item for tourists, not forgetting Jewel Changi Airport too!
In homage to this important piece of Singaporean identity, the National Museum of Singapore is presenting a travel retrospective with a curated exhibition featuring close to 600 artefacts that form a timeline from the past to the present.
Similar to the name of this blog which is all about travel in and out of Singapore, the exhibition is dubbed, Now Boarding: Experiencing Singapore Through Travel, 1800s – 2000s. Supported by the Changi Airport Group, SATS and Singapore Post, the exhibition is presented in the form of a travel guidebook, with chapters of rich history that help define Singapore’s image over the decades to visitors. The exhibition began on 27 May 2023 and is free for Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents.
Whether you’re a travel buff or a nostalgia chaser, there are discoveries here that will surprise and engage, and even tug at a few heartstrings. Here are some not-to-be-missed highlights of this travel-themed exhibition.
1. Enjoy a stirring welcome
With its distinctive riffling sound, the iconic flight information display flip board, also known as the Solari board, once used at Changi Airport’s Terminal 2, returns with a refreshed appearance to welcome visitors at the National Museum Rotunda. Standing at over 5m tall, the large artefact was a familiar sight to all passengers at the departure hall, dispensing flight information and updating itself by flipping its unique split-flap character modules. It also celebrated milestone moments with special messages – such as the congratulatory welcome for Joseph Schooling, when he returned from Rio de Janeiro with a historic gold for Singapore with his win at the Butterfly 100m event.
The charming analogue look was such a draw, it was almost quintessential for some to take a photo – often with their passports or a portrait in front of it. But after two decades of service, the boards were decommissioned and only now make their first return showing exclusively at this event.
Impressive welcome aside, the Solari board captured the excitement and aspirations of Singapore Citizens, Permanent Residents and travellers as they passed through the country. The Now Boarding exhibition serves to draw out this compelling narrative with its collection of paraphernalia.
The showcase not only presents Singapore as seen through the eyes of those who have travelled here from the past to the present, but also the transformation of the country from an eastern exotica destination to the attractive metropolis it is today.
And what better way to start the journey than to be ushered by staff dressed in stylised uniforms inspired by cabin crew and pilot uniforms as you enter with a ticket designed to look like a boarding pass?
2. Witness the movers and shakers
Like an actual travel guidebook, the Now Boarding exhibition is divided into four chapters, covering the topics of transport, accommodation, food and beverage, sights and shopping. Bookmarking each segment is a colourful standee, which makes for a great photo op. You can catch an introduction at the entrance of the museum building before you proceed.
The first is Getting Around, which looks at the modes of travel, both past and present. While many today relate flights to travel, this section also provides a glimpse of rail and sea travel, which were common forms of transportation to and fro Singapore in the early 20th century.
This multifaceted past is represented in the museum’s exhibition by travel posters, brochures and memorabilia from the era. Studying these artefacts will offer one a precious opportunity to time travel, with items that paint a picture of Singapore's rich history in vivid detail. These include a Federated Malay States Railway poster from 1933, as well as a “Fly to the Far East and Asia” brochure by the iconic Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) from the 1930s, which speaks to Singapore’s exotica destination status among travellers from Southeast Asia and beyond.
There’s even a tourist map from the 1940s, picking out Capitol Cinema, Raffles Museum and the Singapore Cricket Club as places of interest, framed by advertisements aimed at the business traveller of those days.
But without a doubt, eyes will be drawn to the highlight of this chapter – the portion that talks about the country’s national carrier, Singapore Airlines (SIA). Started in 1972, SIA not only impressed the world with its outstanding hospitality and distinct image, but it was also known to be a pioneering leader in aviation, introducing many firsts.
Take, for instance, the magnificent display pieces of the first-generation A380 Business Class seat and a first-generation A380 Suites seat. These premiered in a maiden flight in 2007, and also marked the airline as the first to debut the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft. Changi Airport was also the first international airport in the world where the inaugural A380 commercial flight took off from, with a flight from Singapore to Sydney on 25 October 2007.
On top of other industry-leading offerings, such as unprecedented level of personal space and comfort in Suites, and direct aisle access for all Business Class seats, SIA’s strong, elegant brand presence even conjured items like the Singapore Girl perfume. Created in Singapore by Dadi Balsara and Christina Lee, one can imagine the fresh and light scent just by looking at the bottle on display. This piece of aviation heritage, along with other rare items such as boarding passes, in-flight games, physical printed route map, luggage tags and more, will surely thrill even the most ardent of SIA fans.
There are also exhibits on domestic transportation to look at how locals and tourists alike have made their way around the island. For five decades in the late 19th century, rickshaws and trishaws plied the streets, and you can see one on display, faithfully restored. At the other end of the spectrum, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train system is the modern hero when it comes to efficiency, and its development is laid out with a light projection installation and Transitlink cards (phased out after EZ-Link and other contactless payment options were introduced) depicting scenes of Singapore - including one of Changi Control Tower! It's a true collectible, especially when the control tower has always been an architectural wonder while being a key facility managed by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.
3. Stay a little while longer
When one arrives at a destination, the accommodation can speak as much of the location as the attractions themselves. After all, hotels and other forms of lodging are like microcosms of society.
The Raffles Hotel captures not just this aspect, but also the romantic mood of an era when travel was glamorous and an exercise in exploration. Established in 1887 by the Sarkies Brothers, the hotel boasted electric lights and powered ceiling fans – a first in the region. But while it hawked modern inventions in those days, now it focuses on its rich legacy, and remains a coveted stay on many dream lists. This prestige has spawned other Raffles Hotels in the region, but one can argue it’s hard to compare to the grand dame.
This has somewhat to do with the iconic visuals the hotel has preserved – one of which can be found on display. The regal doorman uniform cuts a striking figure, and you can scan your boarding pass ticket to the exhibition at this section of the museum to activate lounge music to really jazz up the mood. Then, head over to the picture of Ngiam Tong Boon. Who is he, you might ask? He is the bartender credited with inventing the Singapore Sling before 1915 – the very same that has been featured in films and added to cocktail lists all around the world (and onboard SIA, of course).
Afterwards, witness Singapore’s modernisation by browsing through a selection of postcards featuring hotels from the 1960s to the 1980s. Hotel Singapura Intercontinental was the first international brand to land, and other major chains like Hilton, Shangri-La and Westin Stamford soon joined after, all adding to the rise of tourism in Singapore.
Locally, New Majestic Hotel added another dimension to the hospitality scene by being one of the first Singaporean-managed boutique hotels. Featuring chic thematic rooms in a heritage building, the owner – Loh Lik Peng – also has a fondness for designer chairs. Some of these he placed all around the hotel lobby, and the exhibition features one used for a room designed by fashion director Daniel Boey.
These places continue to leave their mark today through relics and recounting, while others like Marina Bay Sands Singapore, with their notable contemporary design, continue to catapult the country into the global limelight thanks to appearances in pop culture through films and TV.
4. Tuck in to local food heritage
Singaporeans and tourists alike have always loved local hawker food, but when it was inscribed in 2020 by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the whole world really tucked in.
In the Eating Out chapter, we pay homage to how Singapore’s vibrant food culture has been an iconic part of its identity. While most of the street trolleys and stalls are no longer plying the roads, their recipes continue to feed happy diners gathered at hawker centres, such as for lunch at Lau Pa Sat and midnight cravings at Maxwell Food Centre.
Here, you’ll enjoy a nostalgic viewing through old advertisements on drink trays, such as the one from Fraser and Neave (F&N) featuring actress Maria Menado – famous for her roles in the 1950s and 1960s Malaysian cinema. Or catch photographic scenes of how locals dined by the Singapore River, and compare your existing experiences of places like Bugis Street with how they used to be.
The American Allen & Wright Family Restaurant, better known as A&W, was the first fast food restaurant in Singapore. Looking at one of the preserved menus on display, would you have ordered the same items? One might just be tempted to head down afterwards to the outlet at Jewel Changi Airport to enjoy the full experience.
5. Visit the attractions of yesteryears
Even a century ago, a 1922 travel guidebook described Singapore’s greenery, multiculturalism and modernity as points of interest and pride. Words used in another version in the 1950s described the island as a “kaleidoscope”, “dynamic mixture of the East and West”, and a “city rich in colour and contrasts”. This storied image has come from the multifaceted sights and attractions in Singapore – some of which are still around today - but the rest can be reminisced with photos at the Now Boarding exhibition.
One can view pictures of people gathered at the Bunga Tanjong dance hall at New World Amusement Park - the hotspot for entertainment in a pre-TV era. Or gawk at how tightly-packed the shops were at Change Alley in 1937. Some will recognise Haw Par Villa (also Tiger Balm Gardens) from the photos, but not many will know they had a mascot or how their traditional packaging looked, until they see the artefacts. Today, the curative properties of Tiger Balm are well-known, and visitors can easily purchase these as souvenirs at Changi Airport or on iShopChangi before they leave.
Last but certainly not least, two bright signages light up this segment, proudly displaying their legacy. World-famous Zouk opened in 1991 and quickly achieved acclaim for its mix of music and vibes, becoming the nightclub experience people travel to Singapore for. Over at The Neptune Theatre, it was famous for revues including topless numbers – a startling offering given that it began in the 1970s. Standing below these original signages of these entertainment institutions and their iconic contributions will no doubt produce some snazzy Insta-worthy pics.
6. Go on this trip with friends and family
There’s no passport needed to take this trip down memory lane, and Singaporean visitors can expect an emotional journey with artefacts stirring up a mixture of pride and nostalgia. It’s also a way for the younger ones to catch a glimpse of how far the country has come, and how its image and identity have evolved through the generations.
Gather these feelings and thoughts and share them at the many digital kiosks, or offer a small museum donation and receive a limited-edition postcard which you can keep or hand in to be mailed anywhere in the world to invite your friends to visit.
Don’t forget to try one of the free pop-up experiences while you’re there. Summon up those feelings of nostalgia and step into the disco booth – it’s like karaoke but with dance moves instead. Groove to tunes from the Asia Pacific or numbers from the West. You’ll also receive a digital recording which you can easily share with your friends and family or on social media. Two other rooms, inspired by the themes of transportation and hotel accommodation, will be launched later in early August, and a theatrical audio tour will be available as well.
The Now Boarding: Experiencing Singapore Through Travel, 1800s – 2000s exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore is located at the Exhibition Gallery at the basement level.
Address: 93 Stamford Rd, Singapore 178897, National Museum of Singapore
Opening hours: 10am to 7pm, daily (Last admissions at 6:30pm)
Tickets: If you're after free things to do in Singapore, this will be perfect!
Singaporeans and Singapore Permanent Residents can enter the travel exhibition for free. Find out more about ticket prices for tourists and foreign residents on the National Museum of Singapore’s webpage. As certain timings are popular with visitors, it is advised to reserve your slots online.
In the meantime, check out the online Now Boarding interactive game. You’ll experience a cross-island treasure hunt as you try to locate and collect iconic memorabilia on a map. Rise through the levels and emerge a winner to receive a special reward upon completion.
These are not permanent galleries, so visit this special exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore from now till 19 November 2023 and uncover the threads of travel that connect us all, beginning from the humble doors of Changi Airport.
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