Prelude To Our Bicentennial: The Raffles Archives and Museum

By Matthew Ethan Ramli (21S03F) and Thet Hninn Zin (21A13A)

As the institution’s bicentennial nears, we look back as a school on our past two centuries of history. For many Rafflesians, both past and present, it is the traditions that we remember most. Be it the age-old ceremonies that continue to underpin our journeys or the illustrious histories of our co-curricular activities, these legacies are what shapes our ethos. Carrying the mandate to protect such a heritage for generations before and to come, is the Raffles Archives and Museum (RAM). Together with the Office of Alumni Relations, and led by Mr. Magendiran (Advisor Special Projects & Alumni Relations), the RAM will oversee some of the upcoming bicentennial celebrations in the next two and a half years.

A section of the Raffles Archives and Museum chronicling the history of the school.

Located in the Yusof-Ishak Block of the Year 1-4 campus, the fully-fledged museum seeks to preserve the histories of the school. Softball gloves from more than a few decades ago lie encased in pristine glass, the cuts and tatters telling of countless hours spent on the pitch; ’60s saxophones in different sizes retain their sheen even to this day, accompanied by photographs of the marching band that once was; a line-up of council blazers over the years display the evolution of student leadership, with each aberration in the crest design marking the succeeding generation of leaders. Many of us have seen the artefacts in the museum during open house tours or in passing as we peer along the corridor by the garden. We imagine a static space, opened only to welcome special guests, or perhaps to accommodate the occasional maintenance work. What we do not see, however, is the continuous efforts to preserve our past. 

Mrs Cheryl Yap is the main custodian of the school’s Archives and Museum. Being a member of the Raffles family for close to 34 years, first as a teacher at Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) and then at Raffles Institution (Y1-4), her heart has become well intertwined with the institution’s. Ten years ago, she oversaw the museum’s relocation, and five years later, on 25 July 2015, the RAM was opened, with Guest of Honour Professor Tommy Koh gracing the ceremony.

A group photo of the 2015 batch of RAM club members, staff and a volunteer together with Professor Tommy Koh (center).

From then on, her determination to catalogue and display the workings of the school has not faltered in the slightest. Together with Ms Mary Wang, an administrative member of staff at the museum, and Mr Siu Kang Fook, an old boy who volunteers his efforts to its cause, Ms Yap strives for current and ex-Rafflesians alike to foster an intimate connection with the school’s history. “Although we were not students ourselves, being with the school for so long has made us have a strong connection to it,” she explains, “and we hope that we can facilitate the building of bonds between different generations of Rafflesians.”

This motivation inspired the conversion of the previous Heritage Centre—which had not been more than a modest gallery of artefacts—to the Archives and Museum we know today.

Through the RAM, past generations of students can reconnect with the time they spent in the school, reliving their best memories. 

Those who have had the experience of meeting former Rafflesians asking for directions to the museum as they jovially reminisce about their time in the previous campuses can attest to how RAM has almost become the unofficial alumni center in the school. Alumni through the years refer to the museum for organisational and informational support when embarking on projects to immortalise their memories in the school.  Just last year, Mr Siu Kang Fook from the class of 1965-68, together with 10 other alumni from the 1960s, published a pictorial book titled “Back to Raffles @ Bras Basah” documenting the history of RI from 1823 to 1972. The book was launched during the institution’s 196th Founder’s Day on 27 July 2019, and the first copy was gifted to the Guest of Honour, Mr Ong Ye Kung, the then Minister of Education. 

This mandate to reconnect alumni to their days at the school stretches beyond international boundaries. Recently, an Australian family, seeking to trace their family history, sent a request to the school for any information it has on Mr. T. W. Stubbs, who they remember to be a former Raffles student. An edition of The Rafflesian Times from April 1927 shed first light on his role, covering his presidency and treasurership of the Old Rafflesian Association, an alumni group still enduring to this day. Further research through NewspaperSG, an online repository of Singapore and Malaya newspapers, revealed more information on his life in Singapore. Articles detailing everything from the workings of the association to Mr. Stubb’s passing were tirelessly sourced from various archival material before being received with gratitude by the family. With the connections of ex-Rafflesians through the centuries stretching around the world, the museum acts as an information hub, not only for alumni, but also for their relations rediscovering the stories of those linked to the school in one way or another. 

The Old Rafflesian Association (ORA) president Mr. Stubbs (front row, center), with the ORA executive committee. Photograph taken from The Rafflesian, April 1927 Vol. 3 No.1.

The groundbreaking work at RAM extends beyond acting as the bridge between the institution and its alumni. As the first school museum to conduct archival work in the nation, RAM is pioneering ways to effectively store the institution’s memories. Following the example of the National Archives, the team is working to digitise all the historical documents and compile them into a singular database, complete with accession numbers and a search feature for easy access. Given the sheer abundance of material, this is far from an easy task. With no context inherent in the source itself, RAM staff have to find ways to identify and describe specific events and the names of the people involved. This process even includes the documentation of school life in the present, where photographs taken here and there are actively catalogued in the archives. Due to this wealth of information that cannot be found anywhere else, Mrs Yap encourages students who are interested in conducting research about any aspect of the school or even the nation’s history to consult RAM for reference material. From the period when advertisements were appended in early student magazines, to Emeritus Minister Goh Chok Tong’s report cards and compiled essays on the school’s history, the extent of primary and secondary information available at RAM simply cannot be measured. She also mentions that due to the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) limiting the release of personal images online, the database cannot be uploaded online and anyone needing to collect information should make a physical visit or contact the museum by calling them or sending them an email. General information about the school and its traditions can be found on the RAM website. Additionally, any ideas or initiatives relating to the upcoming institution bicentennial can also be relayed to the above contact points.

The museum hopes that more students can develop an interest in learning about the school’s history and preserving our shared legacies for future generations. Although certain restrictions of movement are currently in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum will be returning to its usual practice of welcoming visitors from 8.30am-4.30pm, Monday to Friday as soon as measures ease. As Mrs Yap poignantly puts it, “[You] cannot have school spirit without understanding your history.” This noble enterprise of safeguarding the school’s identity should be one shared by all, for the hope of a better age.

Call RAM at 66726428 or email the museum at museum@ri.edu.sg

Their WordPress page can be found here.

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