Where prisoners, judges and guardians of culture tread
Photos by Claudio Chock

Where prisoners, judges and guardians of culture tread

The National Gallery Singapore has so much art and history on its walls, it might seem counterintuitive, at first, for the museum to hold public tours of its back-of-house.

But the institution, occupying two historic buildings, the former Supreme Court and City Hall, is more than the sum of the art on its walls. Its unseen corners and unspoken memories hold many stories of historical intrigue, and they attract even non-arts aficionados to the museum.

I had the chance to go on one such tour recently, which ventured into areas of the former Supreme Court that are usually out of bounds to the public. The guide, Patrick, was key to breathing life into the stories and memories of the place with his anecdotes and charm.

He pointed out, for example, that the foundation stone in the Supreme Court Foyer was narrowly saved from defacement during the Japanese Occupation. A shrewd Eurasian caretaker had the foresight to remove the lettering on the stone, mentioning British colonial rule. The stone was reinstated after World War II.

Patrick also drew attention to the thinking behind the artistic filigreed veil which hangs over the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings at roof level. He likened the new addition to the buildings when they were converted into a museum, to finely woven rattan, an artisanal craft in Southeast Asia, or silken ikat draped over two “ladies” facing the sea.

On the prisoner holding cells in the former Supreme Court – two of the 12 remain as public exhibits — Patrick served up a dark detail. The plumbing and cistern were located outside the cells to prevent prisoners from taking them apart and using the pieces as weapons to harm the guards or fellow inmates.

Those on the tour were also led on hidden passageways and through a trapdoor, which directly connect the cells to the defendant’s dock in the courtroom. The cloak-and-dagger nature of moving the prisoner from cell to courtroom was to keep them away from prying public eyes.

We walked the same path that prisoners once trod, over original floor tiles, the same narrow stairs, and the walkway that increasingly tapers. For prisoners, the absence of handrails and the shackles around their feet would have made ascending the steps drudgery, and even more so when the light at the end was a trapdoor opening into a courtroom where an unknown verdict awaited. As I walked the passageway and felt the walls close in, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people have had this dreaded path etched into their minds.

Stepping into the courtroom, where the acoustics are amazing, Patrick deftly unearths memories of the place. He offers riveting accounts of the trials that took place there, including one that hit painfully close to home; his brother was the victim of a robbery that turned awry. Overhead, four stately portraits of kings and queens, which originally hung in the Parliament House, a street away, preside over the room.

I went away from the former Supreme Court tour, having had an up close and personal encounter with the lives that passed through its doors, with newfound respect for the heritage of the place.

Details about the National Gallery Singapore’s back-of-house tour, Former Supreme Court: Unseen, Unheard here.

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