Private museum in touch with the public

Lynn Fung wants visitors to get tactile with displays at Liang Yi Museum, writes Madeline Gressel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 12:36pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 12:36pm

Lynn Fung is the ideal ambassador for her family's new private museum, the Liang Yi, which opened in February in a monochromatic 25,000-square-foot space on Hollywood Road.

Like the museum, Fung is elegant, exacting and chic yet understated. The space is painted white and sparsely dotted with pieces, none of which are accompanied by captions, but Fung wears all black, with subtle scarlet accents. The juxtaposition between museum and managing director is striking and visually pleasant.

It's when you sit in this chair, with your feet dangling above the floor ... that you begin to understand it in a more intimate way 
Lynn Fung

The museum houses two exhibitions: one of Ming and Qing dynasty furniture in rare hardwoods, valued well above HK$1 million each, and the other of jewelled early 20th-century vanity boxes from storied European jewellers such as Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Both displays come from the private collection of Fung's father, Peter Fung Yiu-fai, who began collecting while she was growing up in the 1980s. On Saturdays, after a dim sum brunch, Peter Fung would saunter over to Hollywood Road to build his collection, piece by piece.

"The borders of China were just opening, so a lot of these antiques were coming straight to Hollywood Road," Lynn Fung recalls. "Pieces started appearing in our home. At first it was just a small footstool, fairly innocuous. Then they started getting larger and larger. My school desk was replaced by a huge antique. As a child I thought, 'What is this monstrosity? What will my friends think?' We lived with these pieces in our day-to-day life, which was quite an education."

Fung was initially indifferent to the furniture. After studying literature at Northwestern University and then King's College London, she attended culinary school in the US; she returned to Hong Kong to write about food and, later, luxury watches and jewellery. "I really gained an appreciation for those arts - the precise and detailed craftsmanship that, frankly speaking, I think only the Swiss are truly amazing at."

Five years ago, Peter Fung began buying warehouse lots built in the 1960s above the antiques shops on Hollywood Road. He accumulated them one by one, eventually creating the enormous space now home to the museum. At first, he considered converting it into an antiques-filled clubhouse but his daughter told him: "That's crazy. First of all, you don't have enough friends to fill 25,000 square feet. Also, I think Hong Kong is ready for a place where the public can really gain some awareness of this lost craftsmanship, which is such a big part of our collective culture and history."

Moreover, "people who love this type of furniture are usually my father's age and older. If we don't share this knowledge, appreciation will be lost entirely."

They decided to build a private museum, and one year ago, Fung came aboard as managing director. "I began by thinking about what makes a great private museum. For me, it's the quality of the exhibits and how you show them."

She decided on an "open access" policy, which means guests are invited to touch and experience the furniture on display. "The policy stemmed directly from our relationship with the pieces growing up. Because their value is quite high, people see them as venerable art pieces, and are a bit scared. We are really trying to overcome that mindset. Yes, these are beautiful pieces, but they are not fragile, and a large part of their beauty comes from their functionality.

"You should use as many senses as possible to acquaint yourself with them. Just looking at a piece of furniture doesn't tell you very much. You have to sit for the story to reveal itself," she says.

With great care and passion, Fung described the history of a Ming chair, used not for domestic purposes, but as status symbol for the upper class. "When entertaining at home, you had to sit in as much of a throne-like chair as possible, to let people know how powerful you were," she says. "One can read about these things, but it's all a bit dry. It's when you sit in this chair, with your feet dangling above the floor, your back pushed forward, and nowhere to put your neck, that you begin to understand it in a more intimate way."

Narrative is a fundamental part of Fung's vision for Liang Yi. She says each docent memorises a script, but is also urged to read the body language of visitors and tailor the tour accordingly. "Visitors might not remember everything, but they leave with a gist of the narrative as a whole," she says.

The collections are shown on appointment only, with a maximum of five guests at a time. Exhibitions will rotate every six months, and will include visiting works from international museums. "People will queue for a single Caravaggio, so obviously the interest is there. Why isn't it happening more?" asks Fung.

"That's what we're working towards. By leveraging our collection, we will be able to bring world-class shows to Hong Kong. Not just antiques, but shows with a focus on what we think is important: design, craftsmanship and heritage. Hong Kong has such a dynamic arts scene, but there's such emphasis on contemporary art and on the commercial aspects of buying and investing. That is what keeps the market alive, but at the same time I think there is room for antiques and heritage."

Fung is struck by how many local people find the idea of a private museum novel. "As if we came up with the idea," she says, laughing.

"It comes as a surprise to many that museums like the Getty, the Guggenheim and the Frick started as private collections and grew into something much more spectacular. Those are role models we would like to emulate."

Fung hopes to expand the museum's mission too. She is working on an educational seminar series to run the first Tuesday of each month. "I'm surprised by how much I continue to learn everyday."

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