Singapore is full of little surprises, and it’s a delight to stumble on the island’s unexpected places. One of these is the Singapore Musical Box Museum in Telok Ayer.
What makes this museum so wonderful? Well, the building itself is fascinating (more on that later). Then there is curator and executive officer Takumi Minami, whose extensive knowledge and evident passion make for a lively and informative one-hour tour.
And this isn’t just a tour — it’s an experience. Because yes, while you see plenty of big wooden boxes …
… you also get to hear them play.
The museum is arranged chronologically. So you first get an introduction to cylinder music boxes, which were invented in Switzerland in the late 1700s. These are a far cry from the tiny music boxes of today; these things are enormous, handmade, and expensively decorated.
Most music boxes were made in Switzerland and Germany, but the Americans got in on the action, too …
… though sometimes a bit more rustically (in this case, with wooden cylinders rather than metal):
The next section of the museum features disc music boxes, which came along 19th century. This new design made songs both easier to change and cheaper to produce.
Disc players came in a range of sizes, from large tabletop versions to small boxes that you could take on your travels.
You could also have, in effect, a jukebox! Insert a shiny brass coin, and this German wonder would play the disc of your choice:
And it wasn’t just discs anymore — by the early twentieth century, music box makers were incorporating all sorts of instruments into their designs.
These new additions allowed for a whole new range of sounds:
Eventually, the gramophone came along and put the large music box industry out of business. The museum showcases the smaller musical novelties that came next, such as jewelry boxes, mechanical dolls …
… birds in boxes and cages …
… and this ingenious cigarette holder:
If you want to learn how music boxes work, all you need to do is ask your tour guide (visits here are in small tour groups by appointment only). There are also plenty of visual aids:
Since music boxes evolved from the clockmaking industry, the museum features a few clocks as well — several of which were made right here in Southeast Asia (note the Chinese characters at the top and the bat imagery in the woodwork).
As for the space, the museum is housed in an old school that sits adjacent to one of the oldest Chinese temples in Singapore: Thian Hock Keng. So when you exit the museum’s second-floor gallery, you are treated to a view across the rooftops of the temple all the way to downtown:
The grounds of the old school have temple components all their own, including this impressive entry pavilion …
… and a beautifully restored mid-19th century pagoda:
The detailing of the pagoda is worth a trip all in itself!
Last but not least, it’s worth noting that there’s a cute little cafe and gallery space on the museum’s first floor. Stop by for some very good kueh!