Cover From left: Stanley Wong, Dr Daisy Wang and Dr Louis Ng (Photo: Simon Schilling)

The third outpost of Beijing’s Forbidden City museum will show never-before-seen treasures from China and the Louvre, with the latest technology that brings life to ancient dynasties.

As the deputy director of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, Dr Daisy Wang’s daily tasks might involve finding the perfect crate for a five-metre-long 17th-century Parisian tapestry to be shipped from the Louvre, or sourcing a glass case designed to keep centuries-old paintings at the optimal humidity. Add to this back-to-back morning meetings—sometimes three by 10am—and Wang, a small woman with a signature bob haircut, would be forgiven for showing sign of weariness; there are none. She tells Tatler enthusiastically: “We’re just so excited about the opening as we have all the good museum ingredients: a beautiful building, expensive cases and beautiful artworks.”

There are certainly reasons to be enthusiastic. When it opens in July, the HK$3.5 billion museum, funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, will be the new home to a total of 914 artefacts from the Beijing Palace Museum, 166 of which are grade I items. Dr Louis Ng, director of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, explains that the Chinese government rates the 64 million items in the collections of China’s 8,000 museums into three categories based on their historical significance; only 200,000 of them are grade I.

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Among the pieces are two portrait sketches of a Qing dynasty empress, which have been restored and will be shown for the first time to the public. They had been kept in storage at the Beijing Palace Museum and only recently caught the attention of Wang—who is a specialist in Qing dynasty imperial portraits—during her research for the museum’s exhibitions.

“The scale of the loan is quite unusual,” says Ng who, before taking the top job at this museum, was deputy director of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. “Previously the other palace museums in Taipei and Beijing would from time to time lend their collections to other cities, including Hong Kong, but they were all limited to around a hundred exhibits.” This is the first time that the Palace Museum in Beijing—which is housed in the Forbidden City palace complex—has lent out more than so many items: calligraphy, paintings, ceramics, decorative art, lacquer, jade, bronze and many more. “This makes a comprehensive demonstration of the entire record of the Palace Museum, its history and culture,” Ng says.

Wang works with the Beijing Palace Museum to select the pieces for display in Hong Kong based on their aesthetic quality, visual impact and relevance to the city. She names Gallery 2 as an example of how to make the museum relevant to Hong Kong. With the help of technology that animates ancient paintings, visitors can experience the birthday party of Emperor Qinglong’s mother in the Forbidden City, something that should appeal to the city’s gastronomes. “Hong Kong people love good food. While we have longevity peaches on birthdays, in this hall we’ve included some of the things related to food culture and birthday celebration in the Forbidden City to make it more relevant for the local audience.”

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Both Wang and Ng have been to the other palace museums and say the Hong Kong version will offer a completely different experience. Ng says the one in Beijing is more a great heritage site than a museum. He explains, “There’s so much history, and the [vastness] of the area is a powerful sight. But there’s a limitation to using the palace building as the exhibition hall, as there are a lot of columns. You cannot change the site’s structure.

“The site is also so big that visitors may not have sufficient time to appreciate the relics. While putting the objects in their historical context is very effective, sometimes we need galleries or a space like the Hong Kong Palace Museum, where we can control the lighting and everything. Our space offers an entirely different set of facilities and interpretations [of the exhibits].”

Ng’s interpretation is that his museum isn’t just another expo displaying ancient treasures, but a point of convergence between the past, present and future. This can be clearly seen in the curatorial directions of the nine galleries: two of them focus on the evolution of the Forbidden City; Gallery 3 presents the imperial collection of Chinese ceramics; Gallery 4, with multimedia technology installed, showcases royal portraits; Gallery 5 features Hong Kong craftsmen today analysing ancient crafts; Gallery 6 houses Chinese art from public and private collections in Hong Kong; Gallery 7 is dedicated to contemporary Hong Kong art, where six local artists have been invited to create multimedia artworks inspired by the artefacts; Gallery 8 shows more masterpieces of Chinese painting and calligraphy from the Palace Museum; and Gallery 9 places Chinese and western art with similar themes in the same space for comparison.

Gallery 5 can be seen as the bridge linking the past to the present and future. Hong Kong artist and designer Stanley Wong says he was surprised when Ng approached him in 2019 to be this gallery’s artistic director. “I’m no historian or curator, but through our conversation, I began to understand that Louis wants to go beyond looking back at the past,” says Wong. “He wants me to explore the possibilities of these Qing dynasty crafts in contemporary Hong Kong, and what the future holds for them.”

As well as displaying about 100 historic items which showcase craftsmanship directly related to our lives, Wong also invited three artisans based in Hong Kong who have spent their lives in wood, elephant tusk and glass to create documentaries where they and Wong, a craftsman of wood, trace the roots of their respective trades to ancient southeastern China. Wong says, “I want to bring these sunset trades to the current generation’s attention. In the past 50 years, the mainstream movements and aesthetics of product design have been dominated by the west. But these local artisans and I strive to stick with traditional Chinese aesthetics and culture in our work; there’s a lot to explore about Chinese history.

“I’m Chinese, and I think we should value and pass on our legacy. What we do at the gallery here goes beyond the function of a piece of furniture, but examines the cultural value that makes people keep this furniture beyond our times.”

As visitors move on to the galleries focused on new and western art, Wang hopes the museum will further cross-cultural dialogues. In Gallery 9, 13 horse paintings loaned from the Louvre will be displayed alongside 100 pieces of Chinese art featuring horses. “This creates both a contrast and a connection,” Wang says. “This is a museum dedicated to Chinese art and culture mainly, but we hope that it can also be a wonderful platform for cultural exchanges between China and the rest of the world.” The team is also in discussion with museums in the Israel, Abu Dhabi and India, and plans to showcase Southeast Asian, Persian and Islamic cultures in the future.

“Our building and treasures make this a good museum,” Wang says. “But what makes a great museum is when you have engaged and enthusiastic audiences. To that end, the Hong Kong Palace Museum will launch weekly art film screenings, lectures, workshops offering students hands-on artefact-restoration experiences, and classes for artists and professionals interested in southeastern Chinese culture.

With their unique Hong Kong perspective of showing Chinese art and history, rich education programmes and innovative technology, the team believe that the Hong Kong Palace Museum will be another milestone for the city’s cultural development. To Ng, who oversaw the renovation of the Cultural Centre, the Space Museum, the Science Museum and even the Avenue of Stars (which he jokingly refers to as “South Kowloon Cultural District”), he thinks this new museum is the key to making West Kowloon and its neighbourhood “the most important cultural area in the world”.

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