Rediscovering World War 2: Witness to War

The Future of Our Pasts intern Teo Zi Qing explores another dimension of World War 2 at Witness to War: Remembering 1942, an exhibtion by the National Museum of Singapore.

Photography by Alyssa Siow and Teo Ziqing

Singapore’s fall to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 is an event remembered by our grandparents, war veterans and survivors as a time of vivid horror and fear, with numerous lives lost and families separated. Often however, the history and events of World War II are told through the lenses of key figures such as politicians, state leaders, or the military, leaving out the stories of ordinary people who went through the war.

To mark the 75th anniversary after the surrender to Japanese forces in 1942, the National Museum of Singapore presented Witness to War: Remembering 1942, an exhibition featuring over 130 artefacts from 10 overseas museums, and personal stories from war veterans and survivors that offer us new insights into the war. Ranging from installations and never before seen artefacts in Southeast Asia, to story pods featuring stories of different individuals during the war, this exhibition showcased a multifaceted narrative and made our experience both engaging and memorable. Some highlights of the exhibition included:

Star artefacts never before exhibited in Southeast Asia

Major-General Lim Bo Seng’s diary

In his diary entries, Lim Bo Seng revealed his thoughts and feelings as a husband and father who had to leave his family behind in Singapore to evade the Japanese and continue his war efforts. Revealed to the public for the first time, its contents have been entirely transcribed to be read in an audio-visual kiosk with accompanying narration. More commonly remembered by Singaporeans as a war hero, his diary entries showed us a glimpse of a different, softer side of him as a family man.


25-Pounder Field Gun used by the British and Commonwealth armies

Used by the British and Commonwealth armies during the war, another star artifact of the exhibition was the 25-Pounder Field Gun, presented alongside a 2.5-minute light and sound installation. Blinding beams of light flashed while explosive sounds of cannons, soldiers marching, and popular World War II songs played in the background. The air also smelled of gunpowder, creating a multi-sensory experience of wartime and moments of battle.

Story pods with a collection of personal narratives

Split into 4 story pods titled “Destruction”, “Displacement”, “Love and Loss” and “Fortitude”, the personal stories of survivors during the war were presented through audio-narrations and video illustrations. From the anxiety and uncertainty of being displaced from one’s home as told by ‘Ubin Pakcik’ Ahmad bin Kassim, to the joy and relief of reunion with a loved one as told by New Zealander Kathleen Pether, we were able to hear about intimate, rich wartime experiences of ordinary civilians.


Interactive Activities


The exhibition also featured a family activity space titled “A Child’s Perspective”, which highlights what war had been like for young children. These stations showed reflections and recollections of children at the time, and even interactive installations like a makeshift air raid shelter children could enter to explore. It captures the experience of what many of our grandparents went through back when they were children, giving us a little more insight and understanding of what life was like for them in a time of chaos and disarray.

While most of us would have learnt about World War II and the fall of Singapore in our school History lessons, this interactive exhibition offered an eye-opening experience that added to our understanding of the war. Through narratives from civilian war survivors, it offers a more nuanced, holistic narrative of the war and ensures that their stories are not forgotten.

 Makeshift air-raid shelter for visitors to explore

Makeshift air-raid shelter for visitors to explore