Hong Kong Heritage Museum taps artists' ideas to refresh old exhibitions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 6:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 6:46am

The exhibition "The Past is Continuing", currently running at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, could also be considered an attempt to revivify the often-neglected permanent collection housed in the city's youngest major museum.

More than a million visitors went to the Heritage Museum in its first year in 2000, lured to the out-of-the-way venue in Sha Tin to see famed collector Tsui Tsin-tong's donated Chinese antiques; a gallery dedicated to the works of Lingnan-style master Chao Shao-an; and the New Territories Heritage Hall with its life-size models and the sumptuous Cantonese opera hall.

Today, the museum is much more accessible thanks to the opening of the Che Kung Temple MTR station nearby, but it only attracted 636,000 people during the 2013-14 financial year. Those who did visit mostly went for the temporary blockbuster shows, such as the recent Dunhuang exhibition with replicas of grottoes; last year's fascinating history of chair designs; and the huge hit from Studio Ghibli in Japan. The permanent collections sit in silence, forgotten except by those seeking refuge from the hordes on the other floors.

Curator Lo Yan-yan was tasked with making these exhibits "relevant" - so often seen as the magic key for unlocking interest in an otherwise apathetic public. She arranged for 18 local artists and designers to visit the permanent halls and pick out exhibits that inspired them to create new works.

The result is as eclectic as the museum itself, and there are some delightfully silly moments.

Take, for example, the 20 or more slightly sinister-looking ceramic babies who pop up among the Chinese antique displays in the T. T. Tsui hall. Created by sculptor Johnson Tsang Cheung-shing, these babies are supposed to have escaped from a Ming-dynasty blue-and-white bowl with the classical "children at play" design, and they are raising havoc.

One baby, for example, is pointing at a Wei-dynasty huzi, which translates into "the son of a tiger". It's a name that appears to confer a measure of historical elegance, but the little rascal is there to show the modern visitor that the clay vessel is merely a urine bottle - you might as well call it a piss pot. Next to him, a brother is telling off an antique hound for leaving a pile of poop (also created by Tsang) on the ground.

Another sibling is acting with more decorum, shushing the audience for the benefit of the Tang-dynasty clay musicians behind him.

Nearby, artist Rosanna Li Wei-han has installed a group of her signature ceramic fat ladies next to a cluster of Tang-dynasty courtesan figures. Li's ladies are shown visiting a Tang-dynasty marketplace and, naturally, in a world where voluptuousness was the ideal for female beauty, they are checking out the countless weight-gain solutions being touted.

Each visitor is given a booklet, penned by curator Lo, with fictional accounts of how she and the artists travelled back in time to visit the world from which the old exhibits originate. This may be a Ming dynasty pottery studio or, in the case of painter Chow Chun-fai, an imaginary encounter in 1911 with Gao Jianfu, a Sun Yat-sen supporter best known for incorporating Western techniques into traditional Chinese ink paintings.

The exhibition is as eclectic as the museum itself and there are some delightfully silly moments

Lo, among the Leisure and Cultural Services Department's most imaginative curators, used a similar approach in last year's "Long Time No See, Victoria" exhibition on local artists' perspectives on Hong Kong's history as a British colony. For that project, she produced a personal, dream-like curatorial guide with sentences like: "Victoria, it's been 16 years since you left. Have you thought of me from afar?"

Unlike the 2014 show, "The Past is Continuing" features mostly new commissions. These works highlight the fact that the framework of the exhibition has provided a unique creative opportunity.

Artist Tang Kwok-hin says there's often an element of the personal in his work, but the museum's New Territories Heritage Hall and the Cantonese Opera exhibits are perfect settings for him to pay tribute to his roots as an indigenous villager from the Tang clan.

"The Past is Continuing" is on view until the end of September, after which the artworks will be returned to the artists. Tsang says his ceramic babies are designed so that they can be reconstructed for new projects in the future.

The timing of the exhibition should help capture the school holiday crowd. While the show is not specifically for a younger audience, the concept of time travelling and the presentation of history through dramatised episodes do make it particularly accessible to children.

For those who hope for an in-depth guide to museum exhibits, this show may not be for you. But then again, it is great fun.

Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 1 Man Lam Rd, Sha Tin, Mon, Wed-Fri, 10am-6pm; Sat, Sun and public holidays, 10am-7pm, HK$10 (free on Wed). Inquiries: 2180 8188. Ends Sept 28