Cover Photo: Courtesy of Dr Jiao Tianlong

From analysing jade to curating exhibitions about horses, here’s how Jiao Tianlong, the new Hong Kong Palace Museum’s head curator, prepares for the landmark museum’s opening next summer.

The Hong Kong Palace Museum, set to open in July 2022, is the third Palace Museum in the world after Beijing and Taiwan. Building a major museum created to exhibit artefacts borrowed from Beijing alongside art from Hong Kong is no easy feat, but Jiao Tianlong is the man for the job.

Prior to his appointment as the head curator at the Hong Kong Palace Museum this March, Jiao worked at major museums in the US for more than 20 years. Most recently, he held a post at the Denver Art Museum, where he renewed the Asian art galleries using a new interpretive approach to the curation. The New York Times credited the result as “what a 21st-century museum should be”.

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Now Jiao is in Hong Kong to oversee the completion of the building and organise a series of events and online lectures on the museum, Chinese history and highlighted exhibits. The upcoming lecture will take place on December 11, 2021.

Here, Jiao shares a typical day in his life as a head curator.

6am

I like starting my day early by exercising first thing in the morning, a habit I picked up in high school. The neighbourhood I live in has lots of tropical birds, and I really enjoy listening to their musical sounds.

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9am

After a simple breakfast, which usually consists of bread or noodles and hot coffee, I return to the office. With the museum set to open next summer, there’s a long list of things that I have to attend to as the head curator. In daily meetings, I go through the content, concept and logistics involved in running a museum.

Currently, planning the opening exhibitions for the nine galleries is the top priority. Every gallery is different. One of them is about the Forbidden City and how it changes over time. We even have a gallery where visitors can experience an emperor’s life in the Forbidden City. There are also exhibition halls showcasing Chinese ceramics from the Imperial collection in Beijing, ink and calligraphy art, royal portraits, contemporary art from local museums, and newly commissioned works by designers who experiment with ancient crafts. Now I’m also busy working with the Louvre in Paris to bring horse-themed artworks to Hong Kong.

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12.30pm

I try to have lunch with my colleagues as often as possible. Most of us came to Hong Kong during the pandemic, and some have been separated from families for a long time, which is tough. These gatherings help us feel like we have a family here, and I can also learn more about the city. I grew up in northern China, but now I’ve grown fond of southern dim sum cuisine here.

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3pm

As head curator, I don’t just curate exhibitions. Public education is very important, so I meet educators to make sure whatever we present in the museum meets our educational goals. We have a series of public online lectures from now until the museum’s opening. I’ve recently hosted one of them, where I talked about ritual jades in China 9,000 years ago and how they changed from being a symbol of wealth to impacting the early civilisation’s politics. Because of Covid, I cannot travel to Beijing to examine the jade exhibits, but I have examined a number of pieces that will come to Hong Kong, and I also present lectures based on my own archaeological discoveries.

Sometimes after the meetings and seminars, I like walking around the museum site to get some fresh air. The building is a combination of both modern design and Chinese culture. Apart from the 900 artefacts that will come in soon, I also recommend that visitors take time to enjoy the space, including the harbour view.

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7pm

Reading books or articles before bedtime is a great way to wind down. Most of the books I’m reading are related to Chinese art and archaeology. Recently, I read Wu Hung’s Contemporary Chinese Art, a fascinating read about sanctioned art in the public sphere after the Cultural Revolution. But I’m also reading about Hong Kong to learn more about this amazing city.

A Day In The Life’ is a Tatler weekly cultural series, which delves into lives of the tastemakers in Hong Kong’s arts scene.

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