Hong Kong Palace Museum: Treasures of Beijing’s Forbidden City found a new $450 million home

Written Stephie Chang, CNNChristy Lou Stout, CNNHong Kong

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.

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 loan artifacts are considered national treasures, including this one, "Ten thousand li rivers and mountains" work by Zhao Fu, written in ink on paper from the 12th century.

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

With an 84,000-square-foot gallery space and a modern design reminiscent of the famous architecture of the Forbidden City, it took the museum just five years to realize. Neighboring institutions such as the M+ Museum of Contemporary Visual Culture, which also overlooks Victoria Harbor from the West Kowloon Cultural District, took almost twice as long.
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.

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.

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.

During a three-day visit to Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the transfer in 2017, Xi attended the signing ceremony at the museum. speaking he hoped that Hong Kong could promote traditional Chinese culture and exchanges between China and the West.
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.

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.

Art in the city was also under threat, with politically sensitive works apparently being censored and artists being sent into self-imposed exile. Several high-profile works of art commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre, including the famous Pillar of Shame, were filmed in Hong Kong, which was once the only place on Chinese soil where people could freely commemorate the victims of the massacre. Earlier this year, The New Beijing, a thinly veiled allusion to the deaths of democratic protesters during the 1989 massacre, was remote from the display on M+, although the museum stated that this was part of normal rotation plans related to the “state of the art and conservation needs”.

General stories

While the latter credit is the first, in terms of size, the Hong Kong Palace Museum is not the only place where treasures from the Forbidden City are on display. In Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, many of the imperial palace’s most prized treasures are currently housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

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.

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.”

Museum opens to the public on Sunday, July 3, one day later than scheduled due to adverse weather conditions. Watch the video above for an inside look at the museum.

CNN’s Kevin Broad, Momo Moussa, Tom Booth, Dan Hodge and Ziya Zhang contributed to this report.

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