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What’s so special about Hong Kong’s Palace Museum? | Louis Ng on Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo

What’s so special about Hong Kong’s Palace Museum? | Louis Ng on Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo

Hong Kong Palace Museum to support repatriating cultural heritage in line with central government’s efforts, director says

  • Louis Ng’s first public statement on the museum’s position regarding restitution comes as he takes the Post on a behind-the-scenes tour of the institution
  • He does not rule out the potential for collaboration with Taipei’s National Palace Museum, referencing a past partnership between Beijing and Taipei

The Hong Kong Palace Museum (HKPM) will support the central government’s efforts to seek the repatriation of cultural heritage, its director says.

Louis Ng Chi-wa’s first public statement regarding the institution’s position on restitution comes as he takes the Post on an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of some of the museum’s more than 900 rare artefacts, and explains the future direction of the West Kowloon Cultural District’s latest addition.

“This is our obligation … to have the return of those cultural properties we lost in the past,” Ng says in an interview on Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo, the Post’s chief news editor.

He says that the museum, which opened to the public on July 3, will support the National Administration of Cultural Heritage in mainland China and its work on reclaiming cultural properties through negotiations, legal proceedings and purchases.

Ng (centre right) stands with Betty Fung (centre), CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, and HKPM designer Rocco Yim, at an event to announce the completion of the museum building, on May 10, 2022. Photo: Nora Tam
The Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage estimated in 2016 that over 10 million Chinese cultural relics were overseas, though there is some dispute over the size of its claim. There have only been few cases of large-scale repatriation such as Italy’s return of nearly 800 pieces in 2019, when it joined China’s “belt and road” plan.

Some of the world’s biggest “universal museums” which built up their collections during the 19th- and 20th-century periods of colonial expansion have become more open to the idea of repatriation in recent years – for example with regards to Benin bronzes and Australian Aboriginal human remains.

Thousands throng Hong Kong Palace Museum to see 900 precious relics

However, most still maintain that there is value in their holding of a wide range of artefacts in one place on behalf of humanity, as stated in the 2002 “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums”.

“[I] find those arguments – using ‘universal museum’ as an excuse not to return this item to the original country – not very sound,” Ng says.

Ng also explains why the HKPM, unlike its West Kowloon neighbour M+, a museum of visual culture, will not actively acquire pieces to build up its own collection.

“We don’t have money to acquire items,” he says. “That’s because the Hong Kong Palace Museum is under the management of [the] West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. [It’s a] self-financing body.”

A headrest in the shape of a reclining boy, a “grade one” national treasure on Ng’s list of his personal favourite artefacts on loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum. Photo: The Palace Museum

The palace’s main patron is the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), which controversially shouldered the HK$3.5 billion construction cost of the Rocco Yim-designed building, allowing the government to bypass the Legislative Council’s finance committee.

In return, the HKJC received the naming right for the museum’s auditorium. The opening exhibitions also include a horse-themed gallery to acknowledge the museum’s ties to the HKJC.

Ng says the museum has been approached by local collectors who are keen to donate their collections.

“So far, we have acquired five batches, over 1,000 items … there’s some gold and silver items, some porcelains, some furniture and paintings,” he says.

The Hong Kong Palace Museum at night. Photo: Getty Images

The museum is independent of The Palace Museum in Beijing, located in the Forbidden City, but the two have a working relationship that has seen the Beijing museum send over 900 rare artefacts for the Hong Kong museum’s opening exhibitions.

Within the HKPM’s current exhibitions, Ng identifies four personal favourite artefacts on loan from Beijing.

The first is a headrest in the shape of a reclining boy, a “grade one” national treasure that was made during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) and once belonged to the Qianlong Emperor’s imperial collection.

“There are only three items of similar type in existence: two in Taipei, one in Beijing,” Ng says. The piece is set to be on view for only three months.

We don’t have any political label for our cultural heritage – it [has lasted] for thousands [of] years
Louis Ng, director, Hong Kong Palace Museum

He describes the second as an ice box with stylised lotus scrolls used by the last emperor of China. It was made by artisans at Beijing’s imperial palace (now the Forbidden City) and used to store ice, working as the equivalent of modern-day air conditioners or refrigerators.

The third is the painting Jade Lion by Italian Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione (who was also known as Lang Shining), which is displayed in one of the museum’s special exhibitions, “Grand Gallop: Art and Culture of the Horse”. Castiglione came to China during the Qianlong period (1736-1795) at the age of 25, and stayed until he died at 78, Ng says. Jade Lion was one of 10 large-scale paintings commissioned by the emperor, and is now over 200 years old.

Jade Lion by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), also on Ng’s list of his personal favourite artefacts on loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum. Photo: The Palace Museum

Ng’s final pick is a Gobelins Manufactory tapestry located in the same gallery. On loan from the Louvre – the special exhibition is a collaboration with the French museum – the tapestry was made during Louis XIV’s reign (1643-1715) and depicts the Battle of Baecula during the Second Punic War (218BC-201BC), in which Roman general Scipio conquered Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal).

The tapestry was the last object installed in the museum – on July 1, just one day before the museum’s planned grand opening on July 2 (which was postponed by a day due to a typhoon) – because the curator from the Louvre had to delay his arrival to Hong Kong after testing positive for Covid-19, Ng says.

Setting up a museum during a global pandemic brought unexpected challenges, Ng adds. At one point, there was concern that the display cases, made by Italian firm Goppion – which also designed the display case for the Louvre’s Mona Lisa – wouldn’t arrive on time. Milan had been badly hit by Covid-19, but thankfully the cases were delivered on schedule.

“Benin Bronzes” looted from what is now Nigeria that were returned to the country by a British pensioner during a ceremony in Benin City on June 20, 2014. Photo: AFP

Ng describes how the artefacts from Beijing’s Palace Museum, including 166 pieces classified as grade-one national treasures and comprising paintings, calligraphy, ceramics and textiles, had to be sent to Hong Kong in five secret batches.

“We didn’t want to disclose the route [and] the timing, for the better protection, the security of these national treasures,” he says.

Upon their arrival, the pieces were handled by conservators from the Palace Museum as well as Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

On August 3, the HKPM unveiled the second rotation of national treasures on show for just one month in Gallery 8, including a well-known Northern Song dynasty copy of Gu Kaizhi’s painting Nymph of the Luo River.

Gu Kaizhi’s Nymph of the Luo River, in the Hong Kong Palace Museum’s Gallery 8. Photo: Hong Kong Palace Museum

Ng says the museum will focus on promoting cultural exchange between the East and West with exhibitions centred on what he calls “Palace Museum culture”, which encompasses the Forbidden City’s architecture, imperial collections and history.

According to Daisy Wang Yiyou, deputy director of the museum, an upcoming special exhibition will feature European paintings, including those of 17th-century Flemish artists Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, on loan from a European museum.

With worsening cross-strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan, and Hong Kong’s growing integration with the mainland, there is little hope of any collaboration soon between Hong Kong and Taipei’s National Palace Museum, which has around 700,000 extremely important artefacts that were brought over to the island in 1948 and 1949 by retreating Nationalists.

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But Ng believes that there is still potential for collaboration in the future, referencing a past partnership between the Beijing and Taipei museums.

“We don’t have any political label for our cultural heritage – it [has lasted] for thousands [of] years. What I think we really want is to provide [an] opportunity, [a] platform for our visitors to appreciate art and culture, our history, our heritage.”