New exhibition, ‘On paper Singapore before 1876’, will showcase over 50 materials from overseas institutions

Rare maps, books, illustrations and manuscripts which capture the earliest records of Singapore will be on display in a new exhibition starting on 28 September this bicentennial year. More than 100 materials from the National Library and National Archives of Singapore, and over 50 materials from overseas institutions will be showcased – many on public display for the first time. They trace the history of Singapore from as early as the 17th century to 1867, when the Straits Settlements was made a British Crown Colony with Singapore as its capital.

The exhibition is titled On Paper: Singapore before 1867, and is jointly organised by the National Library and the National Archives of Singapore. It will run for six months from 28 September 2019 till 22 March 2020, at the Level 10 Gallery, National Library Building. Exhibition highlights include:

  • The Bute Map, c.1819 – The Bute Archive at Mount Stuart, Scotland, United Kingdom. This map is the earliest existing landward map of the British trading post which marks out remnants of ancient Singapore. It will be shown in Singapore for the first time. The map is in English.
  • The Will and Codicil of Tan Kim Seng, 13 April 1862, 17 December 1863 – National Library, Singapore. Tan Kim Seng (1805–1864) was a prominent trader, property owner and community leader. Considered unusual at the time, his will specifies that the money to his daughters was to be for their sole use and free from marital control. The will is written in English.
  • Syair Dagang Berjual Beli (Poem on Buying and Selling), c. 1830 – Bibliothèque Nationale de France. This rare narrative poem (syair) portrays working and social life in early Singapore from the perspective of local writer Tuan Siami. It will be shown in Singapore for the first time. The syair is written in Malay, Jawi script.
  • Hindoo Pagoda and (Chulia) Mosque, 1846 – Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago, New Zealand. This painting by John Turnbull Thomson of Sri Mariamman Temple and Masjid Jamae provides a rare glimpse of the structural revamps from the original wood-and-attap materials used by Tamil pioneer Naraina Pillai in 1827 and Tamil Muslim community leader Ansar Saib in the late 1820s.


Refer to Annex A for a list of exhibition highlights.

On Paper: Singapore Before 1867 comprises four sections:                       

  1. Singapore before 1800s – The first section traces depictions and mentions of Singapore in historical texts and maps. It also shows the significance of Singapore’s waterways for shipping and trade prior to the establishment of a British factory on the island.
  2. Singapura/Singapore: 1819 – 1824 – The second section explores the context behind the arrival of the British in 1819, the background to the signing of the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, as well as the 1824 treaty where the Sultan and the Temenggong ceded Singapore to the British.
  3. Documenting Early Singapore – The third and largest section of the exhibition features a variety of documents, photographs, and artworks which provide a glimpse of the lives of various communities living in Singapore before 1867. While documentation regarding non-European communities is scarce, records such as letters and petitions found in the National Archives’ Straits Settlement Records collection provide us with unique insight into issues these communities faced in early Singapore.
  4. 1867 – The exhibition ends with a section on the Straits Settlements, of which Singapore was the capital, becoming a crown colony in April 1867. Key documents such as the Letters Patent, confirming the transfer of the Straits Settlements from British India to the Colonial Office, illustrate the drawn out campaign to turn The Straits Settlements into a colony in its own right.

Through this exhibition, the National Library and National Archives of Singapore hope to encourage research and deepen public understanding of Singapore’s history

Exhibition programmes
Monthly guided tours of the exhibition by curators, as well as a children’s workshop by students from Singapore Polytechnic will accompany the exhibition. Members of the public can sign up for these activities via the GoLibrary portal ( Admission is free. Refer to Annex B for more information on the exhibition programmes.

Exhibition publication
On Paper: Singapore Before 1867 – the exhibition’s accompanying publication –  features articles on selected materials from the exhibition and the history of early Singapore. Contributors to the publication include librarians, archivists and subject experts. The book will be launched with the official opening of the exhibition, on 27 September. It will also be available via BookSG (

Roving display – An Island By Any Other Name
A roving exhibition of a smaller scale which explores old names of Singapore on early maps is also available at eight public libraries. The schedule of the roving exhibition is listed below.

  • Central Public Library – 21 August to 29 October 2019
  • Tampines Regional Library – 22 August to 30 October 2019
  • Ang Mo Kio Public Library – 30 October to 16 December 2019
  • Geylang Public Library – 21 October to 17 December 2019
  • Woodlands Regional Library – 17 December 2019 to 29 January 2020
  • Queenstown Public Library – 18 December 2019 to 30 January 2020
  • Bedok Public Library – 30 January 2020 to 23 March 2020
  • Jurong Regional Library – 31 January 2020 to 24 March 2020

Display at NL Building lobby – Curiocity: Raffles Place
The lobby display at Level 1 of the National Library Building traces the evolution and memories of Raffles Place through photographs, books, building plans archival footage and oral histories. It also features the National Library’s new digital project, Curiocity (, which is an online portal with curated digital resources on various historical locations in Singapore. It will run till March 2020.


About National Library Board

The National Library Board (NLB) nurtures Readers for Life, Learning Communities and a Knowledgeable Nation by promoting reading, learning and history through its network of 26 public libraries, the National Library and the National Archives of Singapore. NLB also forges strategic partnerships that encourage awareness, appreciation and greater discovery of Singapore’s history through its rich collections on Singapore and the region.

NLB achieves excellence through innovation, focusing on citizen engagement and co-creation, resource and digital innovation. This creates learning opportunities, greater access to library resources, services and archival collections, as well as a continual development of innovative library spaces. Established on 1 September 1995 as a statutory board, NLB is under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

For more information, please visit the NLB website, Facebook and YouTube.

For media enquiries, please contact:

Ms Hannah Yeo
National Library Board
Tel: 6718 3662 / 8322 4965

Ms Cheryl Tan
National Library Board
Tel : 6718 3698 / 9060 6659
Email :