A trip to the history museum opens new vistas for kids but is it all a little too much?
by Clara Chow
ST Illustration by Adam Lee
Wake up on a Sunday, convinced you have to do something educational with your children. Trawl websites for ideas.
Decide to go to Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Buy tickets online and print them out while still wearing your pyjamas.
Drag children, groaning, out of the house. Drive to the museum. Find it because it looks like a giant lump of moss-covered clay. Beat a beat-up Mazda to a prime parking space. Whole family cheers.
Hang out at the eco-roof garden until your allotted time of entry. Wrestle with the museum’s official app. Point out mangrove plants in the garden, the spores on the underside of fern leaves and fish fry in the ponds. Natter on.
Look up, and realise that the kids are squinting at their father’s iPhone screen in the bright sunlight. Throw a fit.
Go back downstairs; go through the turnstiles. Feel a slight sense of urgency: Everything must be examined in less than two hours, before your time is up.
Battle other parents to lift the almost-six-year-old up to the eye pieces of microscopes to look at bacteria. Keep opening your mouth to pontificate about fungi and molluscs. Keep stopping in mid-sentence, when you realise your kids have run off. Look sheepishly at strangers.
Give up and, alone, examine the bank of creatures preserved in jars along a back-lit wall. Marvel at sea whips, daisy sponges, fat-armed jellyfish and a Reeve’s turtle – long dead, and suspended in chemicals and time. Gawk and shudder a little at worm specimens.
Flit back and forth between display case and wall captions – a busy bee soaking up facts. You are taller than most of the kids crowding around but you feel eight again. You remember the excitement of school excursions, the thrill of looking at something other than textbooks.
Try and ignore the fact that your two sons are having pretend lightsabre fights and running in circles somewhere in the biodiversity gallery, their footsteps echoing. Pretend not to know them.
Go for micro over macro. Remain strangely unimpressed by the expensive dinosaur bones rising like cranes up to the ceiling in the centre of the room.
Systematically catalogue every tiny cowrie shell and beetle with your eyes. Imagine you are a camera. Thai zebra tarantula. Click. Crucifix swimming crab. Click. Carpenter bee. Click.
File away facts to use, either casually in conversation or in some literary short story you will one day write: Jewel beetles (Chrysochroa toulgoeti) are shiny and metallic-looking, not because of pigmentation but because of the way their exoskeletons reflect light.
One of your children comes to you and begs to go home.
Too late, you remember that he has a deep phobia of snakes, and an aversion to other reptiles and insects. This effectively rules out more than two-thirds of the exhibits at the museum.
You tell him you will steer him to the mammal section.
Tell him it is safe there. You put your hands over his eyes, and your husband takes one of his hands, his younger brother the other and, together, the entire family – like some strange new eight-legged and six-eyed insect – crawl slowly, excruciatingly, across the atrium, under the mirthless gaze of the dinosaurs.
Along the way, you try to get your children to stroke a panel of possum fur because it is soft like a dream. The elder son screams because he spots a scrap of bleached snake skin right next to the fur.
You realise that sand dollars are actual living things – not lost money on the beach, which is what you always pictured them as being when reading about them in books.
The clash between old ways and philosophies, and new identities and nationalities, intensifies after you climb the stairs to the Heritage Gallery. Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles’ stuffed birds and monkeys sit quietly, a few cabinets down from a drawer containing a Singapore $1 bill featuring a photo of a black-naped tern taken by Datuk Loke Wan Tho, who built up Cathay Organisation.
The children press buttons in the sound booth. They have exhausted the possibilities of the dinosaur app.
Standing in front of showcases, you wonder about the Victorian obsession for pigeonholing dead creatures into curio cases that
the museum’s collection sprung from. You laugh inwardly at the arrogance of men, colonial masters, trying to fix their world, insisting on stasis, even as
Nature refuses to be pinned down. You see the error of your ways, trying to herd your children’s imagination through life, so they learn the way you do.
Meditating in front of the jars of pickled snakes, you overhear one young man telling a few others that the python coiled up over there has two penises, and one of them is showing.
“Why?” you blurt out, before you can stop yourself.
“Why what?” he asks, startled.
“What is the second one for?” you ask.
“I don’t really know,” he replies.
Months later, you will still be wondering about this. You will look it up on the Internet and find an explanation: Female snakes are able to control which male snake they mate with will fertilise their eggs, so having two penises helps the male increase their sperm count, maximising their chances of reproduction. You will realise you need to wait for the younger son to grow up before you have someone to tell it to.
But in the museum, you nod at the young men, who scurry away from you, embarrassed.
What you must do next is this: Gather your children. Tell them it’s time to go home. Stop by the gift shop if necessary, and buy yourself a piece of petrified wood.
Drive away, and cheer again as a family when you realise that parking is free. Promise yourself to do this again.
That some of it will sink in.
Copyrighted to Singapore Press Holdings Limited – Straits Times 27 July 2015