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Starting its Third Chapter: The Hong Kong Maritime Museum Fusing History, Art, and Science

Joost C.A. Schokkenbroek

Museum Director, Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM)

■ ABSTRACT

The generous request to write an article (again!) for Drassana – this time about the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) – was a very timely one. The museum is re-inventing itself by expanding its mandate to combine the two more traditional fields of interest, study, and display – history and art – with a third one that is one the minds of so many visitors – the (marine) environment. In the following pages I take the reader through a bit of history (how did the HKMM come about?), a bit of the present (what has the museum turned into, what are the major priorities) and a bit of the future (how will the museum expand into this institution where history, art and (marine) science are represented in a cohesive manner).

Keywords: Maritime Museum, Hong Kong Maritime Museum, History, Art, Science

Comença el seu tercer capítol: el Museu Marítim de Hong Kong que fusiona història, art i ciència

■ RESUM

La generosa invitació a escriure un article (de nou!) per a Drassana, aquesta vegada sobre el Museu Marítim de Hong Kong (HKMM), va ser molt oportuna. El museu s'està reinventant ampliant els seus objectius per combinar els dos camps més tradicionals d'interès, l’estudi i l’exposició –història i art– amb un tercer que tenen al pensament molts visitants: el medi ambient (marí). A les pàgines següents explico al lector una mica d'història (com va néixer el HKMM?), una mica del present (en què s'ha convertit el museu, quines són les seves principals prioritats) i una mica de futur (com es transformarà el museu en aquesta institució on la història, l'art i la ciència (marina) estan presents de manera cohesionada).

Paraules clau: Museu Marítim, Museu Marítim de Hong Kong, Història, Art, Ciència

Comenzando su tercer capítulo: El Museo Marítimo de Hong Kong fusionando historia, arte y ciencia

■ RESUMEN

La generosa invitación a escribir un artículo (¡de nuevo!) para Drassana -esta vez sobre el Museo Marítimo de Hong Kong (HKMM)- fue muy oportuna. El museo se está reinventando ampliando sus objetivos para integrar los dos campos más tradicionales de interés, estudio y exposición -la historia y el arte- con un tercero que tienen en mente muchos visitantes: el medio ambiente (marino). En las páginas siguientes explico al lector un poco de historia (¿ cómo se creó el HKMM?), un poco del presente (en qué se ha convertido el museo, cuáles son sus principales prioridades) y un poco del futuro (cómo se transformará el museo en esa institución en la que la historia, el arte y la ciencia (marina) están presentes de manera cohesionada).

Palabras clave: Museo Marítimo, Museo Marítimo de Hong Kong, Historia, Arte, Ciencia

■ INTRODUCTION

The generous request to write an article (again!) for Drassana – this time about the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) – was a very timely one. The museum is re-inventing itself by expanding its mandate to combine the two more traditional fields of interest, study, and display – history and art – with a third one that is one the minds of so many visitors – the (marine) environment. In the following pages I take the reader through a bit of history (how did the HKMM come about?), a bit of the present (what has the museum turned into, what are the major priorities) and a bit of the future (how will the museum expand into this institution where history, art and (marine) science are represented in a cohesive manner).

■ THE FIRST CHAPTER: BOLD BEGINNINGS, MODEST MEANS

The Hong Kong Maritime Museum is the result of a visionary initiative from a group of shipowners. In 2003, these founding fathers convened to agree on the establishment of a private maritime museum to celebrate the city’s thrilling, rich, adventurous, and dramatic maritime past and present. The founders’ objectives were ambitious and bold, but the museum’s beginnings were modest. Negotiations with the city government lead to the assignment of the ground floor of the historic nineteenth-century Murray House on Hong Kong’s south shore as dedicated space for this private museum – encompassing two small galleries, a front desk area and small museum shop covering circa 500 square metres in total. A collection needed to be built and private collections were brought in as long-term loans and donations. The museum opened its doors in September 2005, and remained in operation in quaint, touristy but remote Stanley until 2012.

Figure 1. HKMM Exterior

■ THE SECOND CHAPTER: FROM ECCENTRIC TO CENTRAL LOCATION

Moving into Pier 8

In 2013, the HKMM moved to its current specially designed and reconstructed location at Central Pier 8 – formerly a ferry terminal. With much larger gallery and exhibition spaces (with 15 galleries approximately ninefold the previous footprint), drastically expanded staff, a fabulous premier location right at the waterfront of famous and buzzling Victoria Harbour, and a much more substantial proximate footfall, the museum was able to grow rapidly within eight years.

The HKMM’s visitation, international reputation, community links and the quality of its offerings all greatly improved. This enabled the museum to attract increased government support and to become an outstanding example of a successful public-private cultural partnership in Hong Kong. Having started as a museum to attest to the importance of the Hong Kong shipping sector (the seafarers, shipowners, shipping agents, ship brokers, maritime lawyers, ship managers etc.) we increasingly aim to be a wonderful place for the Hong Kong community at large. At a later stage I will discuss how we envision to achieve that goal. For the readership of Drassana it might be of interest to first learn more about the museum’s entrepreneurial mindset and its governance structure, programming, and audiences.

Figure 2. HKMM at Pier 8

Entrepreneurial mindset: revenue streams

What stereotypically seems to apply for New York (“a city that ever sleeps”, “if you can make it here you can make it everywhere”, and the living of the American Dream – the opportunity to undergo the transition from newspaper seller to millionaire) can be said about Hong Kong as well. Hong Kongers have proven to be ingenious, creative, making the best of circumstances whilst displaying a keen sense of entrepreneurship. The HKMM is organized in a similar fashion – with several types of revenue-streams next to the more conventional entrance fees. These types are venue hire, museum shop, and museum café.

The impact of the pandemic required the museum to adopt a prudent and flexible approach for venue hire. The museum currently provides five spaces for rentals/events. Due to Covid, confirmed events were sometimes postponed or reformatted into virtual or hybrid experiences. The environment improved in the second half of 2021 when both clients and the museum felt more confident in attending events with appropriate public health and safety measures in place.

In the Summer of 2022, we anticipate the completion of construction works to install the so-called Swire Marine Discovery Centre. This Centre includes a 100-seat multi-purpose theatre, an expansion of the exhibition galleries and a learning centre for environmental studies. As of next year, the HKMM will have an even more versatile range of venues available for client events.

The museum shop has continued to offer a successful retail element to the HKMM, contributing to its funding effort. The items on sale remain highly focused on maritime themes, though items reflecting general local history and culture are still very popular too. The shop offers home decorations, handmade classic ship models, Qing Dynasty wood carvings, vintage silver ware, antique China, collectible stamps, coins and bonds, vintage jewelry, 20th century tableware, contemporary artwork as well as a wide selection of overseas and local souvenirs. A book corner can also be found, providing customers a quiet space to browse a wide range of maritime, local history and culture titles including those published by the museum.

Figure 3. Swire Marine Discovery Centre, learning centre for environmental studies

Figure 4. Swire Marine Discovery Centre, multi-purpose theatre

The Museum Café is a highly regarded social enterprise which offers employment opportunities to people with learning disabilities. It is a well-established and popular venue for locals and visitors to meet, and for organisations to stage events. Revenues are shared with the museum as the landlord.

Entrepreneurial mindset: collaboration through partnerships

As the saying goes, money keeps the world go round. However, the entrepreneurial mindset at the HKMM is not ‘just’ about creating revenue streams. It is also (arguably maybe even primarily) about developing and improving contents by research and by seeing and seizing opportunities for collaboration with other local, national, and international institutions. These institutions are museums, universities and -increasingly- NGO’s.

The museum forges partnerships with museums and institutions, both locally and internationally, to facilitate cultural exchange and research opportunities. Locally, the HKMM is collaborating with the Hong Kong Palace Museum on one of their first permanent exhibitions. Hong Kong History of Collecting Chinese Arts is scheduled to open in 2022 and will feature some of the HKMM China trade collections within a section dedicated to Hong Kong private museums. Nationally the maritime museum has built a partnership with the Maritime Silk Road Museum in Yangjiang (China) since the East Meets West exhibition in 2017, featuring some of the Nanhai No. 1 Shipwreck exhibits. This year, the museum’s first travelling exhibition The Silver Age: Origins and Trades of Chinese Export Silver was sent as a graphic exhibition to the Maritime Silk Road Museum.

On an international level, the museum has been active as well – and will continue to do so. In early 2021, we collaborated with the National Museum of Korea in producing an interactive animation, using a set of 18th-century China trade paintings from the HKMM collection. This rare series of 34 watercolours is currently on display in their newly opened Permanent Gallery of World Ceramics.

Furthermore, the museum has recently signed a MoU with the Gwangju National Museum of Korea, a branch of the National Museum of Korea, to facilitate exchanges on exhibitions, research, and collections.

To prepare for the 2021 Summer exhibition Maritime Crossroads: Millennia of Global Trade in Hong Kong, the museum communicated with several prestigious international institutions such as Lisbon’s Museu do Oriente and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for digital loans and collaboration.

Along similar principles of mutual beneficiary collaboration, the HKMM recognises the common ground it shares with universities in terms of educational values and objectives. Therefore, the museum has established solid collaboration with several universities to offer educational programs, leveraging their wealth of resources in teaching and research. I briefly highlight three successful programs to illustrate the importance and impact of such partnerships.

■ 1. LIGHTHOUSE PROJECT

We work with City University of Hong Kong on the Lighthouse Heritage Research Connections (LHRC) project. Through the collaboration, since 2018, with the LHRC the museum has been engaging in an ongoing joint research project focusing on the history of lighthouses in the Hong Kong area. Part of the project outcomes were presented in a special exhibition and video documentary to mark International Museum Day 2020. The program was co-organised with the Hong Kong Society for the Blind to promote inclusivity and diversity. Building strategic alliances enables the museum to create synergy and be better positioned to apply for sources of funding.

Figure 5. Lighthouse Project with CityU

Figure 6 Lighthouse Project with CityU

■ 2. SHORT COURSE IN MARITIME HISTORY AND MUSEOLOGY.

This was a first-of-its-kind museum education program on maritime history and museology open to the public. The program was led by museum professionals, advisors, university professors, historians, and experts from a wide range of leading institutions. A total of 46 students were engaged in lectures, discussions, and a heritage field trip.

■ 3. GIFTED EDUCATION PROGRAM: MARITIME HISTORY AND CURATING:

Organized by a group of museum experts, university professors, EDB curriculum development officers, and former secondary school principals, students were taught knowledge and skills for research, curating and installing exhibitions. Launched in the first half of 2021, the learning outcomes will be showcased in an exhibition, a book with students’ essays and a competition by the end of 2021.

Governance

Like the impressive Museu Marítim in Barcelona, lots of projects and day-to-day activities are being organized by the HKMM. These activities need to be imbedded in structures and policies, although I firmly believe that there must always be some room for spontaneity and ad hoc creativity. To channel initiatives, governance structures have been put in place. As a mid-size maritime museum with circa 30 FTE, the HKMM has a relatively extensive governance-structure, consisting of three entities with clearly defined responsibilities.

Figure 7. A Deck Simulator

Figure 8. Museu B Deck. A safe, clean and welcoming meeting place for the community

The Hong Kong Maritime Museum Trust, a registered charity and controlled by a board of trustees, is the legal owner of all assets of the museum (except office equipment, fixtures, and fittings) and is a policy development body. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum Endowment Trust is a registered charity that oversees the museum’s treasury function, investments, and disbursements. The Endowment Trust annually contributes to the museum, funds proportional amounts for major exhibitions and seeks to grow the principal amount through fundraising, donor support and other initiatives. Finally, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum Limited is a registered limited company for the purpose of managing and operating the museum on a day-to-day basis, including the employment of professional and other staff. Here, management and Board members work together and finetune responsibilities related to the development of strategy and operational activities.

■ THE THIRD CHAPTER: THE MUSEUM AS A MEETING PLACE

To plan and continue to develop exciting opportunities for partnerships, revenue streams, exhibitions and contents, the more traditional overall concept of the HKMM as a ‘museum pur sang’ will be challenged. Instead, we will promote the museum as a meeting place where communities and ideas are fused, and cultural exchange is facilitated.

Figure 9. A meeting place

This objective ties in beautifully with recent developments that will create fabulous opportunities for the museum to become that meeting place for varied communities. Late Summer of 2020, the Swire Group Charitable Trust agreed to invest HK$15m in the museum to establish the Swire Marine Discovery Centre for maritime heritage and ecology within its walls – commensurate with the Trust’s three basic fields of focus: art, education, and marine conservation. The museum will thus broaden its horizon and add ecological and environmental education to its mandate, bringing new audiences to the institution.

Figure 10. New audiences

By enabling our visitors to explore how the past, present, and future are shaped by the fusion of these three fields of study we hope to become the space for different groups to gather, engage in dialogue and generate ideas and solutions for societal issues.

Turning the museum into a great museum

In April 2021, whilst being introduced to Hong Kong media, I was asked by the assembled journalists to define what makes a museum the best of its kind. I don’t think there is a universal standard here. However, I like to think that a great museum should not merely be measured by the exceptional quality of its exhibitions’ contents and design or judged by the number of visitors alone. In the current difficult times for cultural institutions, a great museum is first and foremost about principles, values, and the quality of its connection to its current and potential audiences.

Figure 11. A safe place for all

In conclusion, I would like to suggest five principles (in random order) that I feel should echo our values and should aim at bringing the museum to the next level of excellence:

1. Be credible and accurate when presenting history. The difference between fact and fiction is not always clearly discerned by our audiences. Museums should remain or become authoritative institutions.

2. Provide information that is accessible to all. I like to interpret ‘accessibility’ here in the broadest sense of the word – both intellectually as well as physically (hence my example about the Lighthouse project and working with the Hong Kong Society for the Blind).

3. Champion inclusiveness and community engagement. Avoid excluding certain groups in society through the stories the institution shares. Address societal issues that affect local and international communities.

4. Strive for diversity in exhibitions, programming, education, and publications.

5. Be a safe, clean, and welcoming meeting place for the community. Due to the pandemic arguably more than ever before, museums can and should be safe havens and heavens of knowledge and distraction.

The HKMM is ideally located and well-positioned to achieve its goals and deliver on its mission in the coming one to two years whilst working on its footprint, contents, governance, and networks. Collaboration with our brothers and sisters in Barcelona will undoubtedly contribute importantly to our collective understanding of maritime history and heritage, of art, and of the future of our planet’s marine ecosystems.