University Museum well-positioned to connect internationally, says new director

Florian Knothe's heart might belong to 17th-century arts. But as Kylie Knott learns, the new director of the University Museum also has a head for science

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 11:09am

Florian Knothe has an hour before he hosts the official opening of an exhibition featuring the works of famed Swiss photographer René Burri. But despite the artist’s early arrival, a mix-up with the ice (12 large bags seems excessive for such an event) and a thunderstorm crackling outside, the new director of the University Museum and Art Gallery at University of Hong Kong shows no signs of stress.

Sipping tea at the museum’s Tea Gallery that’s decorated with an assortment of beautiful wooden and bronze carvings, silk paintings and glass art deco screens, Knothe stays cool. It feels like being in a time machine that’s zipped back through the centuries, if it wasn’t for a giant Alice in Wonderland-like teapot on an adjacent table.

German-born Knothe is “very, very excited” about the exhibition. And while his love for the arts covers many mediums – the powerful architectural images of Burri included – his real passion is Western European and Chinese decorative arts and how they have influenced each other.

“I started out in European decorative arts, but over the years have become more interested in the Chinese stylistic influences in Europe – Chinoiserie and the West’s fascination with the East,” says Knothe, who has been at his post for four months since moving from the US.

Knothe brings a wealth of knowledge to the museum. He has a doctorate with a thesis on the royal manufacture of art and propaganda in 17th-century France, an area of expertise that has opened many doors. He’s worked as a research fellow and associate in European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The university’s unique geographic and cultural position between East and West gives it a huge advantage
Florian Knothe, University Museum

“My dream would be to send an intern from [the university museum] to the Met. I did an internship there in 2003 … it changed my life,” he says.

He was also curator of European glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, overseeing the European and East Asian departments, a role that allowed him to explore his curiosity of the cross-cultural influences in art and workshop practices in Western Europe and East Asia.

“At Corning I was in charge of the European and East Asian collections so I really got to look at the two together. It was a rare opportunity because in most museums these collections are divided … with very little integration. Even at the Met, where I was for 3 ½ years, there was no interaction between the two areas.”

His love in this area culminated in his “East Meets West” exhibition at Corning in 2010, followed by a string of lectures and papers presented in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa.

It’s fair to say that Knothe loves glass. Not the finished objects of, say, a plate, bowl or vase, but the science behind it, in particular the technology used in European glassmaking in China during the early 18th century and their significance as “cultural translators”.

“I’ve done a lot of research into glass-making and while much has been done in Europe there has been little research on this in China. Tracing a piece back to a time and place based on the glasses’ colour and chemical compositions – like the way ruby-red glass can be traced back to Germany – appeals to the things I love most: history, art history and chemistry.

“Here, and in China, we know what we know from surviving objects, archaeological digs and anthropological studies, but I think one area that will give us more information, maybe even a different perspective, is if we look at the chemical make-up of the pieces.”

A love for laquer and ceramics also makes the University Museum and Art Gallery an ideal base for Knothe. Established in 1953, it is Hong Kong’s oldest museum and houses more than 1,000 items of Chinese antiquities, ceramics, bronzes and paintings. But beautiful objects aside, Knothe is also on a mission to nurture the students’ love for the arts, while feeding the museum’s vision to connect it internationally.

“The university’s unique geographic and cultural position between East and West gives it a huge advantage. The collections are mostly Chinese items, a few Korean and Japanese pieces, but 99 per cent Chinese, and we have a very good study collection.” He also has a few surprises up his sleeve. “I have plans to bring a very rare and important Italian painting to the campus. But more on that later.”

While funding for the university museum is a sensitive subject, Knothe is full of praise for the city’s deep-pocketed citizens who support the sector.

“The nice thing about Hong Kong is there is a growing awareness and appreciation of the arts. It also has a wealthy population that’s interested in arts and sciences and people give generously here. HKU is good for giving the basics, but to do more – more programmes, greater outreach and more acquisitions of pieces of art – you must go beyond the norm. You need to convince people to support you and that’s very high on my agenda.”

And it’s a vision that’s not suffering from short-sightedness. “I have a three-year contract but I want to stay longer – things take time but I hope I’m already starting to make an impact.”

As for Hong Kong, he has only praise. “Every day I’m learning more about the galleries, dealers, private galleries and museums. And also more about the private collections – some are just stunning and, to my surprise, fairly accessible.

“I’m so impressed with Hong Kong society – it’s so open. I got an incredibly warm-hearted welcome and have met so many people in the past few months. People are genuinely interested in what we do here. My days are full and that also means a lot of connecting with people and socialising … and maybe a little too much dim sum.”

[email protected]