MURRAY HOUSE IS a something of a museum piece in itself. But the 151- year-old building at Stanley has just taken on even greater historical significance, becoming home to the city's fourth private museum.
The Hong Kong Maritime Museum, which opened on Friday on the ground floor of Murray House, is expected to bolster the standing of Hong Kong's private museums. The other three - the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences in Mid-Levels, the Museum of Ethnology in Tai Po Kau and the Hong Kong Racing Museum in Happy Valley - have long struggled to attract the sort of support on which counterparts in cities such as New York and London rely.
Inside the 5,000sqft museum, models of junks and ships, paintings, maps and other maritime artefacts are packed into air-conditioned, softly lit galleries.
The museum focuses on the development of shipping in ancient China and in Hong Kong from the mid-19th century onwards. According to director Stephen Davies, the reason it confines itself to commercial shipping and doesn't encompass naval history (a subject touched on by the Museum of Coastal Defence) is to 'stay ideologically correct'.
'We move from the story of China, about their building of junks before the 20th century, to commercial shipping to avoid the period where the coming of western fleets posed threats and humiliation to the Chinese nation,' says Davies.
The museum is divided into two exhibition halls: the Ancient Gallery, which details early sea voyages in China; and the Modern Gallery, which showcases vessels used by shipping companies operating in Hong Kong. Models on display range from a pottery boat made in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD25 to 220) to a 564,763 tonne crude oil carrier, the ocean-going version of which is 458 metres long.
The mastermind behind the project is 66-year-old Anthony Hardy, a former chairman of Wallem Shipping and a Hong Kong resident for 22 years. 'Hong Kong definitely deserves its own maritime museum because it's such a prominent shipping port,' he says. 'When you look at the origin and history of Hong Kong it always revolves around the sea.'
Davies, who grew up near the sea in England and had 15 years of sailing experience before setting foot in Hong Kong, says the museum will preserve the collective memory of Hong Kong. 'You can't separate Hong Kong's history from the sea, he says. 'Even now, more than 95 per cent of the trade in Hong Kong goes by sea. People know little about Victoria Harbour - although they know how to pass under it.'
Hardy's dream of educating people about the affairs of the sea was easier than many had expected. Two years ago, he and some like-minded allies managed to raise $25 million within a few weeks from 65 donors. Most were shipping enterprises with operations in Hong Kong.
Hardy then applied to base the museum in Murray House, which belongs to the Housing Authority. Approval was quickly obtained - the government 'loves the idea', says Hardy - and rent was set at a nominal value under a six-year contract.
Hong Kong tycoons tend to lavish donations on schools and universities, so it was a surprise to see them get behind a cultural project such as this. The donors' list includes Cosco Shipping, Hutchison Port Holdings and Orient Overseas (International) (OOIL), which is run by the family of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.
Hardy says it wasn't hard to secure funds for the museum. When he approached shipping companies with the idea, 'nobody said it was a bad one', he says. 'I guess everyone has their pet when it comes to donations. Some may like doing charity in this way or that, but some like the idea of sponsoring a museum. And our museum is one that tells their story.'
OOIL spokesman Stanley Shen says the company donated a substantial amount of money and some exhibits, including a model of a typical Hong Kong port. 'The museum is long overdue because the development of Hong Kong trade and commerce is totally inseparable from maritime affairs,' he says. 'As a major maritime company in Hong Kong, we feel it's right for us to show our support.
'The responsibility of sustaining the museum rests with society as a whole, but our company would definitely be present if there were any need to organise a fund-raising campaign.'
Gaining public exposure may be sufficient motivation for major companies to continue supporting the museum, but the city's other private museums can't rely on such generous support from the private sector.
PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Florence Yip Kwai-fong says that, although donating to a private museum with a recognised trust is regarded as charity under Hong Kong tax laws (allowing donors a tax write-off), few Hongkongers choose to do so.
'In western countries, museum culture has reached a more sophisticated stage where there's a respect for those who have taste and knowledge of fine and precious things,' she says. 'It's not only about whether you're rich enough to support the museum. In those countries, curators earn as much respect from the people as university heads do. But in Hong Kong, people don't tend to appreciate local museums or their curators in this way.'
Yip says that, although some tycoons have personal collections of antiques or other valuable objects, they'd rather display them at overseas museums than fund a private one here.
'When you're talking about setting up a museum and showing collections, it means you need to pay people to maintain, catalogue and arrange them. And security costs have to be covered as well. That all adds up to a lot of money - but it's very likely, in the end, that you won't gain much appreciation from people [in Hong Kong],' she says.
'But I know that some people who own priceless pieces show them in museums in Europe, or even Shanghai, because they think the audiences there are of a better class.'
Given how other private museums are faring financially, Hardy is fully aware of the potentially choppy waters ahead. He hopes to keep people coming back by changing displays regularly and securing worthy items, even if the cost is high.
'The advantage of working in a private museum is that you can act promptly,' he says. 'In government-sponsored ones, the treasure goes into someone else's hands while you're filling in the forms. But we have total flexibility. Our acquisition team can exercise discretion to buy an item within one hour, even if it means the price may exceed our expectation.'
But Davies and Hardy aren't worried at this stage. 'We're fascinated by the sea and it will continue to be a fascinating subject,' says Davies. 'Our museum will try its best to grasp the imagination of children and adults alike.'
Maritime Museum, G/F Murray House, Stanley Plaza, Stanley, $20 ($10), Sun and public holidays, Tue to Fri 10am to 6pm, Sat 10am to 7pm (closed Mon). Inquiries: 2813 2822