The Beijing Palace Museum, located in the heart of the Forbidden City, houses the world’s largest collection of Chinese art spanning nearly 5,000 years of history. Now more than 900 of these treasures are on display at Hong Kong’s new Palace Museum, a “gift” from the central government on the 25th anniversary of the handover of the city from the British to Chinese rule.
While there is nothing overtly political in its collection—by modern standards, at least—the museum sparked controversy when it was first announced by outgoing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in late 2016, due in part to an apparent lack of public consultation ahead of the project. there was a green light.
The Palace Museum’s long-term loan, which includes rare paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, jade and more from its 1.8 million collection, is “unprecedented on all levels,” says Hong Kong museum chairman Bernard Chan.
“This is the first time that a large amount of these national treasures have been taken… to another cultural institution, so you can imagine the complexity behind this,” he adds, citing issues related to transportation, security and insurance. which required a conglomerate of about 100 insurance companies from around the world.
Doors with red spikes at the entrance to the museum. The construction of the building was financed by a HK$3.5 billion ($450 million) donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Credit: Hong Kong Palace Museum
Curating exhibitions in the midst of the pandemic has also proven challenging — as has the accelerated timeline to ensure that the museum, which is funded by a HK$3.5 billion ($450 million) donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, opens just in time for the anniversary on this week. .
“When I was a curator in the US, I worked on one exhibition for three years. I now have three years to work on nine exhibitions,” says deputy director Daisy Wang Yiyu, referring to the museum’s ambitious reopening program.
The stunning exhibits, 166 of which are considered “Tier 1 National Treasures”, are featured in themed exhibitions, including one exploring aspects of imperial life in the Forbidden City and another focusing on innovative design and manufacturing techniques. Elsewhere, an exhibition of horse-inspired art juxtaposes works from the Forbidden City with works on loan from the Louvre in Paris. Some of the objects have never been shown to the public before, including two recently restored sketches of empresses.
The glass vase, which looks amazingly modern with its spiral pattern, shows the innovative technology used during the Qing Dynasty. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Wang expects the museum’s ever-changing exhibition of Chinese painting and calligraphy from the Jin, Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties to be a “blockbuster”.
“(These works) are extremely fragile and extremely rare, so after 30 days in Hong Kong they will be sent back to the Forbidden City vault… (to) rest for a few years,” she explains.
166 exhibits of the loan are considered national treasures, including this “Ten Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains”, written in ink on paper from the 12th century by Zhao Fu. Credit: Palace Museum
The city’s changing environment for art
One of the museum’s nine galleries is dedicated to the history of Chinese ceramics, especially the imperial porcelain of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Credit: Hong Kong Palace Museum
The Hong Kong Palace Museum was not part of the original plans for the sprawling arts district, which sits on a stretch of reclaimed land and has been under development since the early 2000s. Lam’s surprise disclosure of plans in December 2016 was seen by some critics as a means to win the political favor of China’s central government (she held the second-highest position in Hong Kong at the time). Others have argued that Beijing has been applying pressure to approve the museum.
Lam denied accusations that the project was being pushed forward for political reasons.
“I know that our society today is full of this kind of mistrust. But in this project, we are not really driven by self-interest,” she said in 2017. “We really just hope to build a Hong Kong Palace Museum for Hong Kong that we can all be proud of.”
Nevertheless, the museum’s announcement came as “a surprise to everyone, including me,” Chan recalls. “No one knew about it,” he says. “But you can imagine why it was kept secret. This discussion is at a very high level.”
Festive clothing from the Qianlong period (1736 to 1795) is on display during a preview of the Hong Kong Palace Museum in Hong Kong on June 22, 2022. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
While the extent of Beijing’s role remains unknown, the museum is in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of the “Chinese dream” or “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” in which China’s economic future and international influence are intertwined with glory. the past of the nation. Xi has repeatedly spoken about the role of artists in promoting patriotism and spreading Chinese and “socialist core” values. Traditional Chinese culture, in his opinion, should be seen as a source of inspiration for contemporary literary and artistic innovation.
The Hong Kong Palace Museum, designed by Rocco Design Architects Associates, is located in the cultural area of West Kowloon overlooking Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong is positioning itself as a cultural hub where East meets West through the development of new art spaces in the area. Credit: ROCCO Design Associates Architects Limited
But the museum opens in a completely different Hong Kong. Beijing’s push for soft power comes at a time when freedom of expression is being curtailed following massive pro-democracy protests and a sweeping National Security Law that effectively halted them in 2020.
Over 600,000 items from the Forbidden City were taken to the island by retreating Nationalist forces in the 1940s. As tensions between Beijing and Taipei have reached an all-time high, the museum is planning exercises to evacuate artifacts in the event of a war.
“I hope that one day real cooperation can start between the three museums because we are all showcasing Chinese civilization,” Chan says, expressing hope that the new city museum and its hoard of treasures will be able to go beyond politics.
Where did Chinese civilization come from? And how is Chinese civilization related to other civilizations? Because we are not alone, right? I think it’s important, especially at a time when the world is so polarized and divided.”
Portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in court attire. Credit: Palace Museum
Meanwhile, for the people of Hong Kong, the museum has become a hot summer spot, with 100,000 tickets already sold for July. In addition to providing an opportunity to see famous objects up close, Wang says, the mission of the museum is to make their stories relevant to local audiences.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a historian or a driver,” she says. “You (can) relate to these fantastic treasures and the stories we tell. Objects can emotionally touch you.”
CNN’s Kevin Broad, Momo Moussa, Tom Booth, Dan Hodge and Ziya Zhang contributed to this report.