A nostalgic collector’s dream

What do a Big Mac styrofoam container and a sleek metal tiffin carrier have in common? They both dutifully kept your food unsoiled and warm back in the day—and, surprisingly, are both actual artefacts preserved in the country’s National Collection. Sure it’s easy to discount the former as a gag, but it’s nonetheless part of a long history of food packaging technologies that make up the Singapore story. Presenting another side to our nation’s avid food heritage is new exhibition Packaging Matters: Singapore’s Food Packaging Story from the Early 20th Century, running at the National Museum of Singapore from Apr 6-Sep 15.

If you liked the blockbuster exhibition on print advertising that ran through February at the National Library, you’ll definitely enjoy this. Packaging Matters curator Vidya Murthy acknowledged that there might be overlaps in the storytelling in this exhibition, where advertising and the food industry meet—but the overarching story here is vastly different.

For one, Packaging Matters uses packaging as a jumping point to talk about industrialisation, evolution of the food industries, advertising, and even Singapore’s lesser-spotlighted design history. Through a mix of mediums spanning video to print, get to learn more about Singapore’s early bottling and canning factories in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the advent of family-run businesses like Amoy Canning Corporation (which still exists today), and how supermarkets like Cold Storage later burst onto the scene.

For another, the National Collection here shines, with more than 150 original artefacts from the folklife collection packed into the cosy space. You’ll see biscuit tins (purportedly once used by a hawker and modified to steam food), old glass bottles including original designs of the first Coca Cola bottle, bygone print ads and vintage tiffin carriers. It’s a thrift shop-loving, pro-hoarding collector’s dream.

There’s also an interactive area at the back designed for children; but no less captivating. There you’ll find large hanging installations of our iconic bagged kopi and bandung, as well as a series of art pieces upcycled from packaging materials—made by seniors with dementia who were brought through workshops to recall and recreate their favourite foods of the past. Next door, a section on sustainability brings to light emerging environmental issues surrounding packaging, with a neat line-up of tingkat carriers and straw baskets to highlight how we were more environmentally friendly in the past—even if it was an unconscious move.

The festivities kick off this opening weekend (Apr 6-7), with a food and eco-craft market, free film screenings, craft activities and live music performances. Or you could drop by another day, to browse the rich stories on display in children-less peace. 

Packaging Matters: Singapore’s Food Packaging Story from the Early 20th Century runs from Apr 6-Sep 15 at the Stamford Gallery, National Museum of Singapore.