My Take

Museum ivory protest misses the mark

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 4:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 7:20am

Copies of some literary classics now carry what is called a "trigger warning" in some US universities, to alert readers their sensibilities may be offended by racist and sexist references. Perhaps government organisers of an exhibition of antiques made from rhinoceros and elephant parts at the Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui should issue similar warnings.

More than 270 artefacts dating back to the Qing and Ming dynasties made from rhino horn and elephant ivory are on display. Leisure and Cultural Services Department officials said the C. P. Lin collection, named after a local collector, helped celebrate and educate the public about the past. It includes two rare 20cm elephant ivory carvings and more than a dozen rhino horn cups.

But a small group of activists disagreed, saying the show might help promote the underground smuggling trade. They want the items removed immediately.

The activists are going overboard. The centuries-old artefacts should not be censored; they need to be judged and appreciated in their contexts. Their artistry and craftsmanship certainly offer a window into the high life of the imperial court during two dynasties, as they were made exclusively for high officials.

It's perfectly justified to display them in a publicly funded museum. Most people, including some activists, would exempt such collections from current sanctions against the illegal underground trade, which is a very different issue and should not be conflated. As for the argument that exhibiting the items would encourage people to imitate the decadent lifestyle and buy from the black market, that's a bit like anti-porn crusaders claiming watching porn would turn people into rapists.

Should we ban the study of Confucianism because of its past misogyny and promotion of foot-binding? Perhaps the museum should have prepared educational material about the illegal trade before the exhibition started. They have gone some way to rectify the situation by agreeing to distribute material provided by the charity Hong Kong for Elephants.

The activists should be commended for fighting against a horrendous illegal underground trade and raising awareness among young people about it. But they are barking up the wrong tree with the museum.