SINGAPORE – To keep his six full-time employees, Mr. Takumi Minami had to sell his shares in a restaurant and gym.
The owner of the Singapore Musical Box Museum is Japanese but believes passionately in his work to highlight Singapore’s important role in the development of music boxes in the region.
With no tourists during the Covid-19 pandemic, its small museum at the Thian Hock Keng Temple on Telok Ayer Street has seen the number of visitors drop by more than half.
Even with Singapore’s rediscovering voucher bookings by locals, its sales last year made a meager $ 6,800, up from $ 22,000 in 2019.
“It’s not enough to run the place,” he said. “We have significantly reduced costs, for example by reducing unnecessary air conditioning. Private museums are either understaffed or underfunded, or both. We are no exception.
Mr. Takumi finds things so difficult that he sees the need to draw inspiration from history.
“I have the experience of the Japanese people who found a way to resuscitate after the Fukushima earthquake. History and culture can give courage and dignity to people in difficult circumstances,” he said. he declares.
Singapore’s heightened alert following the resurgence of community Covid-19 cases adds to the pain of a cultural sector trying to find a way to balance without tourists.
Private museums have the hardest part. Unlike their publicly funded counterparts, their survival depends to a greater extent on ticket sales. As their sites are typically smaller and more cramped, safe distancing measures also disproportionately reduce their capacity.
For some, that means the only way to go is to arrange private tours. It is normal for the number of visitors to drop by about half of the pre-Covid-19 figures and for revenues to fall even more.
Last month, the limited liability company operating the Chinatown Heritage Center (CHC) decided to hand it over to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), saying “the business model was no longer viable.”
Prior to Covid-19, he had paid STB for the rights to run the center, charging visitors around $ 18 each for admission.
Under his leadership, CHC rose to third place among Singapore museums on TripAdvisor, but even that was not enough to keep it commercially viable.
The company that runs CHC, which was dissolved, said: “When Covid-19 hit, we lost 80% of our customers due to the air travel shutdown. Given the drastic change in the economic environment and the existing commercial and revenue bidding model, it was no longer viable to run the center in the same way.
“The decision to send the center back to STB is difficult and painful, but it is the right thing to do.”
The museum has been closed indefinitely as STB is considering how best to run it.
Like many other businesses, the museum sector received financial support from the government last year.
The employment support program has helped pay the salaries of some museum workers, while an arts and culture resilience program has provided grants to help museums find ways to digitize their offerings.
The National Heritage Council (NHB) approved 10 grant applications to six private museums last year, hoping that through digitization efforts, they can reduce their reliance on physical visitors.
Intan, a house museum dedicated to Peranakan culture in Joo Chiat, used the money to produce a series of subscription videos on different Peranakan topics, each lasting 10 to 15 minutes.
He also created a digital Peranakan game, which is free but requires players to pay a nominal fee to buy new lives or items.
Mr Alvin Yapp, owner of The Intan, said these were nowhere near enough for the museum to recoup pre-Covid-19 revenue, which he said was also halved.
He had to find other ways to make money. Mr. Yapp was successful in putting The Intan’s products, such as the Peranakan pearl slippers, up for sale at the Raffles Hotel.
By partnering with educational institutions like Singapore Management University or retirement homes for the elderly, he has also benefited from tailor-made live video tours of The Intan, in which he talks about Peranakan kueh in eating them and playing the piano for his audience. .
The NHB said private museums contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of Singapore’s museum landscape, often featuring niche interests or aspects of national heritage. It will continue to involve private museums to promote public awareness, boost attendance and share digitization practices, he said.
Mr Yapp said: “Private museums are in a unique position today. Even though we don’t get the funding and support like public museums do, we also have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, work hard and rely on our own efforts to keep us afloat, and, most importantly, remain relevant to the community.
“With less hierarchy and paperwork, we only have ourselves to rely on to survive this pandemic.”