National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed

It’s a pretty well-known fact that our former Supreme Court is now Singapore’s largest museum. That’s right – back in 2015, this neoclassical monument was merged with the former City Hall Building to form the National Gallery Singapore we know today.

Chances are that you’ve visited the Gallery for one of its free IG-worthy exhibits or know a couple that has gotten their wedding photoshoot done at this iconic location. But beyond being an art gallery, National Gallery Singapore is the custodian of many secrets; after all, its 2 buildings date back to the colonial era and are brimming with history.

Without further ado, here are some lesser-known National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed.

1. There are several hidden passageways & trapdoors in the building

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - hidden trapdoors
Image credit: Visit Singapore

The former Court of Appeal was where criminal appeals were made against the verdicts passed by judges in the General Division of the High Court. In classic courtroom fashion, the prisoner’s dock is directly connected to the prisoners’ holding cells via a pair of steep, narrow stairs.

Ominous trapdoors served as the entrances to these stairs. Open them to reveal a yawning labyrinth of passageways within, which will lead you to the holding cells where the accused once awaited trial.

Btw, if you’re keen to explore the hidden passageway yourself, you can sign up for a guided tour at the Gallery

2. The preserved jail cells once held several notorious murderers

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - preserved jail cells
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

Step through the trapdoors and make your way through the passageways to reach the holding cells where notorious criminals were once held on the day of their trials. Infamous figures like Adrian Lim and the 10 men responsible for the 1972 Gold Bar Murders once paced the floors of these cells.

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - old jail cell toilet
There were 10 cells in a row for men and 2 for women, located where the female toilet is now.
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

Of the 12 cells that were originally built here, only 2 were preserved. Each cell housed a single squat toilet and a long concrete bench. If you observe carefully, you’ll notice that the toilet cisterns were positioned outside the cells. It was deliberately designed this way to prevent the prisoners from harming themselves with the flush equipment.

3. There’s an enormous secret elevator in the building

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - truck lift
Image adapted from: Epigram Books via YouTube

To handle the many intricate and precious pieces of artwork in its collection, National Gallery Singapore built a massive truck lift into its premises. You read that right – an elevator that can fit trucks of up to 4.7m in height. In fact, this is the very first of such truck lifts to have been built in Singapore.

This big boy has a staggering loading capacity of 40,000kg and shuttles between the ground and basement levels, allowing artwork to be unloaded safely and securely.

4. The Rotunda Dome used to be a hidden library

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - rotunda dome
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

Sequestered in the Rotunda Dome of the former Supreme Court is a quaint library. Originally the Law Library of the Supreme Court, it was where lawyers would pore over its 20,000-strong collection to build their cases. The entrances conveniently opened up to the courtrooms, giving the lawyers easy access to their hearings.

Today, the library has evolved into a research hub for Southeast Asian art history. You’re free to enter the library, all save for the upper level, which is used for storage. Among the items kept here are cabinets with curved glass imported from England, which have been fixed in place to the walls since they were installed.

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - rotunda dome exterior
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

The Rotunda Dome itself is gorgeous on the outside, looking like it was lifted directly from a fairy tale about a winter wonderland. To view the dome’s exterior, head to the Level 4 Mezzanine, where it serves as the pièce de résistance of the entire floor.

5. The former Supreme Court was inspired by London’s Old Bailey

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - supreme court design
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore Facebook

With all the attention we’ve been giving to the interior, let’s step outside to appreciate the facade of the former Supreme Court. 

Dating all the way back to 1939, the building was designed by Frank Dorrington Ward, chief architect of the Straits Settlements Public Works Department. It is believed he took inspiration from London’s Old Bailey Courthouse, particularly the central dome acting as the backdrop of the classical facade.

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - tympanum
Image credit: Pro Bono SG Facebook

Don’t forget the tympanum – AKA the triangular piece that sits over the columns. Here, the figures of Lady Justice, Law, Gratitude, Prosperity, Abundance, and the Lost Soul were painstakingly carved out of gypsum plaster by Singapore-based Milanese sculptor Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli.

National Gallery Singapore stairs

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli is also the artisan behind the handcrafted Corinthian and Ionic columns fronting the entrance to the former Supreme Court. These columns become especially mesmerising at night when the museum turns on the backlights – it’s like you’ve stepped into an otherworldly space in an instant.

6. 121 ceiling panels had to be taken apart & restored

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - chocolate ceiling
This is the original teak wood found in the former Supreme Court’s lobby.
Image credit: Jacklee via Wikimedia

When the former Supreme Court underwent restoration and renovation works between 2011 and 2017, 121 panels of the coffered teak wood ceiling had to be removed and numbered one by one. The panels were then spruced up before being painstakingly put together to reconstruct the ceiling in their correct numbered order.

Here’s a little fun fact: The ceiling was affectionately known as the “chocolate ceiling” by the construction workers for its uncanny resemblance to a chocolate bar.

7. A time capsule was buried here, only to be opened in the year 3000

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - time capsule
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

The year was 1937, and the date 1st April. To mark the 70th anniversary of the Straits Settlements, a time capsule containing 6 newspapers and a handful of coins was put together by the British. 

Sir Thomas Shenton Whitelegge Thomas then laid the capsule beneath the foundation stone of the former Supreme Court and sealed it with the plaque above. The capsule is set to be opened in the year 3000.

Visit National Gallery Singapore to uncover more secrets

This list of secrets is by no means exhaustive, with many more waiting to be discovered. Plan your next family outing or meetup with your long-lost BFFs to the National Gallery Singapore to discover the gems hidden within.

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - free galleries
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore Facebook

Right now, there are 2 galleries you can visit to explore Singapore and Southeast Asia’s illustrious art history – completely FOC if you’re a Singaporean or PR.

Siapa Nama Kamu? has over 300 artworks from the National Collection of Singapore on display. Each of these works offers a different answer to the question in the gallery’s name which translates to “What’s Your Name?” in Malay, giving you different perspectives of Singapore from the 1800s to the modern age.

Between Declarations and Dreams tracks the art history of Southeast Asia from the mid-19th century. Not for the faint of heart, this exhibition will take you through the volatile political and social history of different Southeast Asian countries through 300 artworks. 


That’s not all, as National Gallery Singapore also has 2 guided tours for you to check out.

Happening every Saturday and Sunday at 4pm, the Art x Cocktail tour ($55/pax) is every bit as its name suggests. You’ll be treated to craft cocktails from the National Gallery Singapore’s rooftop bar Smoke & Mirrors while walking through a gallery of artworks that inspired the drinks you hold in your hands.

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - back of the house tour
Image credit: Visit Singapore

The Back-of-House Tour is the 75-minute session that takes you through the former Supreme Court’s restricted zones. These include the labyrinth of passageways beneath the prisoner’s dock mentioned earlier in this article, alongside the Viewing Gallery where members of the public used to sit to witness court hearings. 

You’ll also learn about some of Singapore’s highest-profile cases that were heard in the Court of Appeal since 1939. This tour is free for Singaporeans and PRs, $20 for tourists, and happens every Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm and 4.30pm.

National Gallery Singapore secrets revealed - membership
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

If you’re interested, you can also sign up to become a member of the National Gallery Singapore. There are 2 tiers of membership available:

  • Explorer: This FOC tier grants you 1 hour of complimentary parking and gives you first dibs over the gallery’s latest seasonal offerings via newsletters.
  • Insider: From $20, you get to enjoy a slew of benefits such as free unlimited access to all exhibitions, up to 20% discount on dining and shopping, and after-hours exhibition viewings. You’ll also get invites to private film screenings, events, and workshops.

Whether you’re an art history buff or simply want to take IG-worthy photos with intricate architecture, National Gallery Singapore is worth multiple visits. Keep up with their socials to find out when new exhibitions roll around.

Find out more about National Gallery Singapore

Address: 1 Saint Andrew’s Road, Singapore 178957
Opening hours: 10am-7pm, Daily

This post was brought to you by National Gallery Singapore.
Cover image adapted from: Visit Singapore, Jacklee via Wikimedia

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