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Harryplax severus and the Twenty-year-old Secret

A secret that evaded detection for almost 20 years has finally been uncovered with the discovery of Harryplax severus.

Sorry to disappoint all the ‘Potterheads’ out there, but this is not a synopsis of a new Harry Potter spin-off. Rather, it is a tale of how a new species of crab was discovered by LKCNHM researchers, Dr. Jose C. E. Mendoza and Prof. Peter K. L. Ng, almost twenty years since it was initially collected.

Harryplax_severus_frontal_male paratype PR.jpgFrontal view; male paratype of Harryplax severus.

The new crab species (also in a new genus) was described in a scientific article, which was published in the journal Zookeys and made available to the public last Tuesday (24 Jan. 2017, local time). [see: https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.647.11455]

Seaside Exploration

The crab was found in the late 1990’s in the coral reef rubble on the Pacific island of Guam by Harry Conley, a former US marine. Mr. Conley started to frequent this western Pacific island in the 1980’s in search of seashells, but his forays into the reefs yielded not only seashells, but also crabs and other creatures, which formed a sizeable personal collection.

After Harry Conley’s death in 2002, his crab collection was presented to Prof. Ng by Dr. Gustav Paulay (then with the University of Guam) for further study. Many of these specimens were eventually shown to be new or rare species, with several resulting scientific publications.

Two small specimens, however, were somehow overlooked and would remain in the collection of the LKCNHM until they were re-examined in early 2015 by the museum’s crustacean curator, Dr. Mendoza. Together with Prof. Ng, they determined that the crabs belonged to a new genus and species based on several unique characteristics in their anatomy.

harryplax_severus_male-paratype-prDorsal view; male paratype of Harryplax severus.

This tiny crab (7.62 mm long by 5.08 mm wide) has adaptations such as small eyes, well-developed antennae, and long, slender legs, which help it feel quite at home in the dark cavities amidst the reef rubble.

Potterhead’s Wish

Why the name Harryplax severus, then?

Well, the genus name, Harryplax, was primarily chosen in honour of the crab’s original collector, Mr. Harry Conley, whose collection of ‘critters’ found in the rubble beds of Guam have contributed greatly to the field of marine science.

The name also alludes to a famous pop culture namesake, Harry Potter, the main protagonist of the fantasy novel series by J. K. Rowling, whose magical skills are likened to Mr. Conley’s ability to find rare and fascinating creatures.

The species name, severus (Latin for ‘harsh’, ‘rough’ and ‘rigorous’), highlights the tough and strenuous steps undertaken to collect the crab. Furthermore, it alludes to yet another namesake from the Harry Potter series, Professor Severus Snape, a character described by Dr. Mendoza as “notorious and misunderstood”. Just like how Professor Snape managed to conceal one of the most important secrets in the story, the new species of crab has also been able to evade discovery for almost 20 years since its initial collection.

peter_jc_lkcnhmLKCNHM Researchers; Prof. Peter Ng (left) and Dr. Mendoza (right).

A self-confessed ‘Potterhead’, Dr. Mendoza could not pass up the opportunity to name the new discovery after characters from the popular series, a move gamely accepted by Prof. Ng, who knew Mr. Conley personally and felt that he would have appreciated the connection.

We look forward to more interesting discoveries by Dr. Mendoza and Prof. Ng in the future!

Original article:

Mendoza JCE, Ng PKL (2017) Harryplax severus, a new genus and species of an unusual coral rubble-inhabiting crab from Guam (Crustacea, Brachyura, Christmaplacidae). Zookeys, 647: 23–35.

Visit by Tony Wu, Underwater Photographer & Naturalist

April has been a busy month for us at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. We have had many special visitors and exciting happenings such as the repository of the wooden whale sculpture and the donation of a false killer whale jaw from Underwater World Singapore.

One such guest was Mr Tony Wu. Mr Wu is a freelance photo-naturalist who specialises in underwater photography. His assignments have taken him to many exotic locations and wonderfully unexpected encounters with nature. Mr Wu also contributed some excellent photos showcasing various deadly threats that whales face all over the world  to the information panels of our new sperm whale exhibit, Jubilee, which are featured below.

DSC_2019 (edit)

Featured in this photograph and flanking Mr Wu are his long-time friends, Dr Tan Heok Hui (Operations Officer) and Dr Tan Swee Hee (Facilities Manager) posing against the beautiful backdrop of our wall mural. Mr Wu was guided by both Drs Tan in the gallery, and in his own words, ‘geeked out many times’.

THH-Tony Wu-TSH-LKCNHM-06April2016 edit

Besides being an underwater photographer by profession, Mr Wu is an avid traveller who organises trips for visitors to places that are off the beaten track to experience the wonders of the marine world. These include sessions of marine photography and up-close encounters with whales!

For Mr Wu, photography is not just a career but also a purposeful medium in which he hopes that it will convey positive and lasting experiences of oceanic marvels to his audiences.  He hopes that his viewers will gain a deeper appreciation of the world and better realisation of ourselves in the process, just as he himself experienced when he embarked on this path of diving into the deep blue.

More details on his visit to the museum and about himself can be found here:

http://www.tonywublog.com/journal/jubilee-the-sperm-whale-singapore-natural-history-museum

http://www.tonywublog.com/profile/background-information-about-underwater-photographer-tony-wu/

Whale of a time at the Museum

Willy’s Tale

False Killer Whale porpoising

False Killer Whale (Pseudorca crassidens). Source: Protected Resources Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California, Public Domain, U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The whale theme continues at the museum this week!

On 13 April 2016, we received a donation of the remains of a false killer whale from Underwater World Singapore (UWS). We are thankful for this generous donation and the support from UWS.

While news of the Singapore sperm whale has dominated the press since last July, little is known about Willy, the false killer whale that was stranded in Singapore more than two decades ago.

On 23 January 1994, two men who went crab hunting off Tuas spotted the whale, which they initially mistook for a shark. They alerted Underwater World Singapore (UWS) and the animal was identified as a false killer whale by UWS divers despatched to the site.

Screenshot of Newspaper article on Willy

The Straits Times article about Willy’s stranding back in January 27 1994. 

News of the whale stranding spread and captured the nation’s imagination. The whale was dubbed ‘Willy’ by the press after the highly popular 1990s film “Free Willy”, a stirring story about a boy who befriends a killer whale or orca called Willy—which was captured from the wild—and sets him free.

Rescue attempts to move the whale into deeper waters spanned a week but were ultimately unsuccessful. Willy later went missing on 29 January 1994 and was found dead the next day by some fishermen. The UWS then collected the body to conduct a post-mortem and solve some of the mysteries surrounding her arrival and death.

Autopsy and Preservation at Underwater World

As the autopsy was underway, it turned out that Willy was an old adult female, and not a young adult male as first presumed. The cause of death was also identified as a combination of infectious injuries, old age and severe trauma as a result of being trapped in the bay.

Separated from her group, with numerous puncture wounds on the left side of her body, these were probable factors that caused Willy to seek shelter at Tuas. Willy was also found with an empty stomach, indicating that she was highly stressed at that point in time.

Willy’s body was later buried at Lorong Halus in Tampines. Her lower jaw with ten intact teeth was salvaged and preserved and used as an educational display at UWS.

Willy's remains

Willy’s remains consisting of ten teeth and a lower jaw. Photo by Jeremy Yeo.

Significant donation

What does this represent for us at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM)?

The donation represents another important and key addition to the mammal collection at LKCNHM. With the accession of this false killer whale specimen found locally, the mammal collection has been further expanded and we believe, would add to our knowledge of cetaceans in Singapore waters.

We hope that the evidence of the wonderful marine life in our waters will further serve as a reminder for future generations to treasure the rich marine biodiversity that surrounds our little red dot.

For more information on the story of Willy, you can find it at the Nature Society Singapore’s newsletter, The Pangolin, Volume 7, 1994.

Sketch of False Killer Whale Skull

Sketch of Pseudorca crassidens head. 1866. Source: Recent memoirs on the Cetacea. Author: W.W.

Swimming Ashore

Oceanic Inspirations

Whale Picture on Lawn

The wooden whale on the lawn near LKCNHM. Photo by Tan Heok Hui.

Have you visited us recently?  For those who have, you may have noticed a whale sculpture on the lawn near the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) signage just before you enter the museum.

Ever wondered what the story is behind the sculpture?   

When news of the dead sperm whale emerged last July, a team from LKCNHM was dispatched to salvage its remains. The sperm whale came to be known as Jubilee as she was found on Singapore’s golden jubilee year, SG50.The carcass of the female sperm whale from Jurong Island was to trigger a flurry of actions ranging from tributes, features and pledges of support for the whale to become a major exhibit within LKCNHM. 

Older generations of visitors to the old National Museum may remember the awesome baleen whale exhibit hanging from the ceiling.This whale was stranded at Malacca in June 1892 and was given to Malaysia in 1974. When the new natural history museum was mooted,  there were plans to bring the whale back to Singapore. But in an ironic twist of fate, news of Jubilee’s stranding was to change the course of Singapore’s natural history forever.  

Aileen

Sculptor Ms Aileen Toh with her masterpiece during the repository on 11 April 2016. Photo by Chia Han Shen.

Upon hearing the news, Aileen Toh, a self-taught wood sculptor from the Sculpture Society of Singapore (SSS) decided to craft a beautiful and fitting tribute to Jubilee.  Ms Toh constructed a whale sculpture titled “Swim Ashore” using recycled wood from an old saga tree in Fort Canning Park. Her source of inspiration and admiration for the whale came from a sense of intrigue. As she pondered, “why would a large sea creature be found in the shallow waters of Jurong Island”, let alone Singapore?

Asked to describe what feelings she expresses when she sculpts. She says it depends on what she wants to raise awareness for. Ms Toh loves to sculpt things related to our natural environment. With “Swim Ashore”, she hopes to inspire people to be “loving and protecting the environment so that sea creatures have a lovely habitat to live in”.

Constructing the Whale

This collaboration between the National Parks Board (NParks) and SSS took place at the Wood Sculpture Symposium 2016 from 21 – 25 January 2016, where sculptors participated in transforming dead trees into beautiful sculptures. In nature nothing goes to waste, and that is where the beauty of nature lies.

Working tirelessly from 9-5, Ms Toh put in more than 40 hours of work into the creation of the sculpture, including preparing the wood block from a 30 m Saga tree that was removed from Fort Canning as it was old, termite infested, and posed a risk to park users. 

It was an arduous task, but she was thankfully supported by dedicated NParks staff, SSS members, students, and volunteers.   

Ms Toh was grateful that “NParks could arrange for people to assist in separating parts from the larger chunks of wood”. A strenuous effort that required manpower to firstly turn over the whale and a larger chain saw to “carve out the belly”.  A final coat of lacquer was painted to protect the sculpture from the elements and to give it a shiny finish.

At the end of the symposium, Ms Toh was happy for all the support that she received from sculpture students and for NPark’s support during the event. But that was not to be the end or the final resting place for the wooden whale. The guest of honour at the Symposium, Paul Tan, deputy CEO of the National Arts Council, then made the suggestion that the sculpture should be offered to LKCNHM.

 

The Move to LKCNHM

Preparations for the move then were made after Ms Toh contacted Professor Peter Ng, the head of LKCNHM, to donate her artwork to the museum. It was a mammoth task, but made light thanks to the movers from Rhema.  Heavy machinery such as the lorry crane was used to seamlessly and safely move the wooden whale to its new home . The sculpture was unveiled on the lawn of the LKCNHM on 19 February 2016.

Ms Toh still has a sense of excitement, and is “glad and honoured to have her masterpiece in the museum” alongside Jubilee. Delightedly, she exclaims “the museum is the best place this sculpture can be placed at”.

Although the whale was placed on the museum’s lawn, concerns were later raised that termites could destroy the sculpture and that the wood would decompose faster if it were left on the soil. A decision was made to move the model once more, this time onto the paved walkway. This provided Ms Toh a chance to trim, sand, and varnish the belly.

 

On 11 April 2016, the same team from Rhema helped out with the repository of the whale. The move took 5.5 hours of reshuffling and adjustments as it was at risk of being damaged should people mishandle it. The solution was to set cement to adhere and hold the sculpture to prevent further movement.

Despite the difficulties that beset the wooden whale, Toh’s message remains the same.  The sculpture’s plaque captures the undeterred optimism for us to appreciate and protect the fragile marine biological environment. “How did a deep sea creature end up near our offshore island? In my opinion, the marine biological environment and human activities are closely related. Ergo, the causes of their death are food for thought.”

Celebrate Singapore’s Biodiversity at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum this December!

Update [30 Dec]: All copies of Temasekia have been fully redeemed. Limited copies of Stacey Goes to the LKCNHM are going fast.

We bring you the gift of books in celebration of SG50!

NUS-flyer-151218-landscape-2

From Friday 18 Dec 2015
First 2,000 gallery visitors will receive the Celebrating Singapore’s Natural Heritage trail guide and activity book to explore our rich biodiversity through the museum’s gallery containing some 2,000 specimens.

From Saturday 26 Dec 2015
Launch and gift of 2 new books on Singapore’s natural heritage and the LKCNHM: Temasekia: 50 Plants and Animals Native to Singapore, and Stacey Goes to the LKCNHM.

Terms and conditions:
Each adult ticket can be exchanged for Temasekia: 50 Plants and Animals Native to Singapore, while a child ticket can be exchanged for Stacey Goes to the LKCNHM. One ticket is exchangeable for one book only. LKCNHMember (Individual), and NUS staff and students can receive 1 copy of Temasekia: 50 Plants and Animals Native to Singapore. LKCNHMember (Family) can receive one copy of Temasekia: 50 Plants and Animals Native to Singapore and Stacey Goes to the LKCNHM. LKCNHMember (Corporate) can receive one copy of Temasekia: 50 Plants and Animals Native to Singapore per card per visit. Limited books available on a first come first served basis.

Information about the books:

Celebrating Singapore Natural Heritage

Celebrating Singapore’s Natural Heritage trail and activity book is produced by the museum’s outreach and education unit for visitors (age 3 and up). It aims to raise awareness about the rich biodiversity in Singapore.

Stacey goes to LKCNHM

Stacey Goes to the LKCNHM by Lianne Ong is the forth book of the Stacey and the Museums series. In this new adventure, she explores the exhibits in the natural history museum and learns secrets from the past. Recommended for children (age 3–7).

Temasekia

Temasekia: 50 Plants and Animals Native to Singapore is written by LKCNHM staff and researchers in Singapore and introduces the biodiversity and discoveries in Singapore. The species featured in the book were described from specimens collected from Singapore or bear a name related to the country. Some are found nowhere else in the world!

Bukit Batok bug a harmless beetle – ST Story 3 May 2015 Sunday

Entomologists, Dr Hwang Wei Song and Foo Mao Sheng, from the museum and the Department of Biological Sciences, NUS, have found the identity of the insect that has been bugging Bukit Batok residents. Carolyn Khew from The Sunday Times reported the following article on 3 May 2015:

20150503

Bukit Batok bug a harmless beetle
By Carolyn Khew

The mystery bug that plagued Bukit Batok residents has been identified as a harmless beetle which does not even bite.

But what caused their sudden outbreak last month remains unclear.

Experts from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore have found out that the insect is the Ataenius australasiae.

About the size of a rice grain, the black-winged critters were seen in large numbers at three blocks of flats at Batok Batok West Avenue 8 at night, congregating at the lights in the void decks and common corridors. They then simply dropped dead, leaving huge piles of carcasses to clear.

“The sudden outbreak is still a mystery but now that the species is known, we can trace the possible sources. The immediate trigger is usually environmental,” said Dr Hwang Wei Song, museum officer at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

Experts identified the beetle after studying its morphology and using DNA sequencing. They then sought the help of entomologist Paul Skelley, who works for the Florida State Collection of Arthropods, to confirm their finding.

Dr Skelley said that these bugs have no “chewing mouth parts” and so cannot bite. But the way their legs hold on to surfaces can cause scratches, which people may think are bites.

“They do not carry any known disease, are not venomous and cannot harm humans,” he said. “When numerous, adult beetles are only a nuisance pest.”

To prevent future outbreaks, research needs to be done to find out where the beetle grub lives and to “alter the conditions that lead to the great increase in numbers”, he added.

“Sometimes, outbreaks are the result of the species recently coming into an area where it has no natural enemies,” said Dr Skelley.

Jurong Town Council general manager Ho Thian Poh said that while the town council has combed through open spaces, trees, rooftops and areas surrounding the blocks, it did not detect any breeding grounds.

The beetles were observed to have flown in from across the road towards the open field near the affected blocks.

Corridor and void deck lights facing that open field have since been covered with yellow cellophane paper so as not to attract the insects.

Residents said that they now see far fewer of these insects.

Said 29-year-old Simoh Goh, a financial consultant who lives at Block 170, one of the three affected blocks: “Initially, we were concerned, but we realised they don’t bite so they’re pretty harmless.”

APS2

Online database captures S’pore’s rich biodiversity

24022015 ST

Dr Ang Yuchen (left), a post-doctoral researcher helming the new site, with Professor Rudolf Meier. — PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Online database captures S’pore’s rich biodiversity

Audrey Tan audreyt@sph.com.sg

A NEW online database has been launched compiling research on how Singapore’s flora and fauna interact with each other.

Called Animals and Plants of Singapore, it is managed by Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and went live on the museum’s website this month.

Users can click on an animal and find links to information on the plants or animals it feeds on – though work on the site is ongoing and not all species have links in place yet.

The database provides a name and a photograph of each species. For further information, users must click on the links to external sources, such as pages created by the National University of Singapore‘s life sciences classes, or the museum’s Singapore Biodiversity Records – an online collection of “flora and fauna in Singapore, including sightings of uncommon or rare species”.

Professor Rudolf Meier, deputy head of the museum, said the goal is to understand how different species interact to sustain Singapore’s green spaces.

“Animals and Plants of Singapore will track these interdependencies by linking species pages of prey and predators, or plants and pollinators,” he said.

“If we had a dedicated person or team doing the research, it would be as time-consuming as writing an academic paper for each species. But by tapping already-published research and observations, the site can be updated more frequently.”

Prof Meier hopes the site will make it easier for people to appreciate Singapore’s diverse ecosystem and give them a reliable source of information.

Data is cross-referenced with the museum’s stable of experts before being uploaded, and the site lists the names of the experts who identified the species.

The database now records more than 1,000 species of plants and animals, but Prof Meier hopes to more than double this figure by the end of the year. He estimates that there could be between 50,000 and 100,000 multicellular plant and animal species here.

Studies are under way to establish this, such as Singapore’s first comprehensive marine biodiversity survey, led by the National Parks Board (NParks). It began five years ago and is expected to be completed by May this year.

Dr Lena Chan, director of NParks’ National Biodiversity Centre, said: “Biodiversity databases are very important as they are historical records of plants and animals. These databases can be set up only if long-term monitoring surveys are carried out.”

She said the museum’s new database will complement NParks’ records, including its online Biodiversity and Environment Database System, which was started in 2011 and records 5,000 species of flora and 750 species of fauna.

“Together, we can generate greater awareness and appreciation of the rich biodiversity that we have,” she said.

Animals and Plants of Singapore, designed for desktop browsing, is at http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/APS

李光前自然历史博物馆4月底开幕

23022015 ZB

李光前自然历史博物馆4月底开幕

李光前自然历史博物馆将于今年4月 28 日,正式向公众敞开大门。

届时,人们将能亲睹三副恐龙化石的风采,也能欣赏到2000件珍贵馆藏,包括在本区域找到的巨型石斑鱼、大海龟和巨型竹节虫等稀擂动植物标本。

除了恐龙化石,李光前自然历史博物,1 馆将收纳的物品, 绝大部分迁自莱佛士1生物多样性研究博物馆;数量高达50多万件。不过,只有约一成馆藏得以和公众见面,其余的物品均用于研究工作。但无论!是展品数量和展馆面积,均比莱佛士生物多样性研究博物馆多出十倍。

为确保所有标本顺利搬迁,莱佛士生物多样性研究博物馆早在2013 年4月率先关闭,以便工作人员有充裕时间为各类标本“打包”,做搬家准备。正式的搬迁工作从去年8月陆续展开。

搬迁工作繁琐耗时

新加坡国立大学鱼类分类学讲师陈旭辉( 43岁)是其中一名负责博物馆搬迁的工作人员,他受访时透露,迁馆工程不仅浩大,且好事多磨。

他说: “博物馆收藏的标本主要分为民干湿两种,前者包括鸟类和哺乳动物等实体标本,后者则是存放在酒精中的有机、体。我们原以为可以同时搬迁,但由于工程和技术等无法预期的问题,不得不分开进行,因此过程相当耗时耗力。”

由于馆内珍藏了年代久远的各类动物标本,为确保它们搬入新馆后的品质,工作人员必须先把实体标本冰冻至少两个星期,以除去依附在标本上的寄生虫等“外来物”,同时确保新馆环境不会被它们 “污染” 。冰冻标本的温度在零下21 摄氏度左右,过程中使用特别制作的箱子,方便之后的解冻工作。

为了让这些动物标本以最佳状态呈现在公众面前,工作人员也必须趁搬迁之际,修复标本上破损的皮肤或毛发,特别是眼睛。

陈旭辉说: “动物标本就好像一副艺术品,除了确保毛发体型还原真实状态,最重要的其实是它的眼睛,一定要让它们看起来栩栩如生。我们的同事这次特别进行了修补工作,把毛发和眼睛重新清理丁一遍。”

李光前自然历史博物馆位于新加坡国立大学文化中心旁,楼高六层,耗资4600万元打造。一楼展厅将分为上下两层,有“生物多样性”和“生物遗产”两个对外开放的展馆;二楼至四楼将不开放给公众参观,主要放置用于研究工作的干湿标本, 五六楼则用于行政和其他工作。

据陈旭辉介绍, 由于湿标本装在灌有酒精的标本瓶中, 新馆中的收藏室不但防爆,也设计了特别的沟渠和隔板系统,在酒精外漏时可迅速排出易燃液体。

工作人员目前已进入最后的准备阶段, 所有展品也即将各就各位。陈旭辉说: “这真是一项不简单的工作,现在我们看到旧博物馆中空空的架子和纸箱,非常有满足感。”

yangyang@sph.com.sg

©Singapore Press Holdings

Behind the scenes at new natural history museum

23022015 ST

Behind the scenes at new natural history museum

More than 500,000 lots of specimens have purpose-built home at NUS

A RARE golden babirusa specimen stood encased in glass in a dusty little corner of the National University of Singapore (NUS) for decades.

The pig artefact, collected in 1913 in Indonesia, will soon be watching over something bigger and better when it takes its place at the upcoming Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, located next to the University Cultural Centre at NUS.

Before the move, however, it had to undergo at least two weeks of preparation. First, it had to be placed in a waterproof box to protect it from condensation. Then the prized wild pig was frozen at -21 deg C to kill mites or insects, before being progressively thawed to about 15 deg C.

All this, just to prepare one specimen for its new home at Singapore’s first and only natural history museum, slated to open its doors in April.

The museum will be a treasure trove of the region’s rich natural heritage, housing animal specimens and fossils from the vaults of the former Raffles Museum, which dates back to 1849.

More than 500,000 lots of specimens were moved – from quirky creatures like an eight-legged piglet to locally extinct species like the three-striped ground squirrel.

And even though not all will go on display – more than 90 per cent will be kept as part of the research collection for academics, students and scientists – they all had to be packed and prepped for the massive move, which involved the museum’s seven curators, a team of about 10 professional art movers and about five student assistants and museum specialists.

Dr Tan Heok Hui, one of the curators, said the collection could be broadly divided into two categories – dry and wet.

The dry category will be housed on the museum’s fourth floor, and consists of plants, birds, mammals, fish and coral specimens, among others.

Like the golden babirusa, specimens in this category had to undergo extensive preparation work.

Moving the wet collection, which included specimens kept in a liquid medium of about 75 per cent ethanol (a flammable liquid), involved getting permits from the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

The wet category will be housed on levels two and three of the new museum, which has purpose-built rooms.

The curators are confident that the move will be completed by June, although specimens for public viewing will be ready by its official opening.

The research collection, however, will be opened only in phases for scientific use, said Dr Tan.

He added: “I once visited a bookshop in Vietnam and found that the books were arranged by size – I couldn’t find anything.

“It is the same for the research collection. If nothing is in its place, information cannot be extracted and is as good as lost.”

audreyt@sph.com.sg

©Singapore Press Holdings Ltd

Museums remind us dinosaurs still fly

Museums remind us dinosaurs still fly 

What is a museum?

The Oxford Dictionary defines it “as a building used for storing and exhibition of objects illustrating antiquities, natural history, art, etc”.

In the modern world, it is often seen as a byword for “old and outdated”. A place to put irrelevant things. A place of obsolescence. A place of history. A place of the dead.

But to understand what a museum really is, one needs to delve into the origins of the word. “Museum” is derived from the ancient Greek word, mouseion – a place, a temple, dedicated to the Muses. What are the Muses? They are the patron divinities in Greek mythology, and all of them personify the arts, philosophy and learning. They were the very embodiment of knowledge.

The new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in the National University of Singapore, which will open in April next year, is a convergence of destinies.

A university is the place of learning. The Latin word for this institution – universitas – means the whole. It symbolises what a true scholar must be, one who can see the whole and prescribes wisdom to the community of which he is part. A temple dedicated to the Muses – the spirits of knowledge – in the courtyard of the whole; what a wonderful synchronicity of purposes.

Yes, Singapore’s natural history museum is a place of the dead, a tomb, where we keep the bodies of over half a million plants and animals. But it is not a mere sarcophagus of decaying carcasses. It is also a place that holds a huge body of knowledge, with great potentialities.

The specimens and associated labels contain important data that we use to better understand our natural world and our place in it. In the bodies of the plants and animals reside a wealth of scientific data – dried skins and dehydrated cells, preserved structures and DNA molecules.

The bodies held for perpetuity are snapshots of what life was at one point in time. The deeply embedded data in the bodies is enormous.

As we develop better tools and contemplate even better questions, we will repeatedly call upon these bodies to help us answer all manner of questions. Some may even save human lives. The secrets of the dead epitomise the wisdom of the ages. Their potential is limited only by the magnitude of our curiosity and intelligence.

This natural history museum, however, is not a static organism. Its collections continue to grow, as our sense of curiosity drives us further into nature’s secret places. To go where few, or none, have gone before; to see what few have seen or none has imagined.

There are few human ventures so exciting – when the subjects of one’s endeavours are not man-made objects hidden by human time but products of evolution, generated over a billion years of uncompromising (and often violent) natural selection.

It is not just about finding unknown lifeforms. It is often about finding wonderfully un-imaginable lifeforms that share the planet with us.

It is sad that we as a species born of Earth know so little about its planet’s own denizens, even as we seek to travel beyond the stars and seek extraterrestrial lifeforms. And it is a tragedy that, in our ignorance, we continue to decimate entire ecosystems, seemingly oblivious to the consequences of our actions. Millions of species, woven into the very fabric of life on Earth, comprising the essence of which we are part. Yet we delude ourselves that we are a benign presence and all our activities are harmless.

People working in museums are not just explorers, they are also in a helter-skelter race against time to discover what is out there. They are the scribes of Mother Nature, recording the planet’s diversity, even if few cared. It is a task borne out of necessity. A museum holds the objects of the scribes, and the scrolls of their efforts. It is a depository of what the planet has. It is a library of our continuing endeavours.

And yes, a museum is also a cemetery. Cemeteries remember the dead. They remember past lives and old glories. And woe betide anyone who dismisses the power of memories. Memories are immensely important. Memories make a person, a people, a country. Without memories, peoples and countries have no soul.

The past is prologue. And it is ironical that memories and knowledge share a bloodline. One of the Muses was Mneme, the bearer of memories.

A museum, any museum, represents the collective memories of many generations. It is also a depository of immense knowledge – both realised and not yet known. It safeguards the past for our future. In it are treasures, both tangible and intangible, that defy valuation.

Strange, then, that the temple of the Muses guards such seemingly anachronistic entities in a modern transactional world, in which almost everything is defined in cold, hard economic terms. Treasures priceless, yet without real value; the perfect paradox for a human society that all too often forgets what it means to be human.

Natural history museums hold dead bodies. They hold the skeletons of dinosaurs. Once there were real dinosaurs. They died. Today, the bird is a dinosaur. So the dead did not die. Their death was misreported. It was exaggerated. Dinosaurs still fly. As does the place of the Muses which holds and guards the secrets of nature.

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