When walking into the latest special exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, visitors are immediately greeted by an Egyptian pharaoh’s coffin, dating back thousands of years.
Over the course of the next couple months, one hundred objects that illustrate the history of the world will be on display, borrowed from the British Museum.
“We wanted to show life in human history through objects, not just words,” says Sophy Chan So-fong, the museum’s assistant curator.
Carved on the coffin were hieroglyphs – symbols used in a very old Egyptian writing system – that read “Opener of the Doors of Heaven”, calling on the sun god to shine light into the afterlife.
“Our biggest challenge in curating this exhibition was coming up with a suitable design,” says Chan.
She explains that, even though the objects travel the globe on tour, the display layout at each location is different.
“In the end, we decided on the theme of a time-space journey, where visitors can get an immersive experience of historical life.”
The museum guides are even designed to look like passports, and visitors can collect stamps for them at each section.
At the start of the exhibit, you’ll find that two million years ago, early groups of humans created tools out of stone for daily uses such as hunting and even beauty.
“Here, you can see civilisations that sprang up around the world,” Chan says, pointing at a map that showcased where the objects came from. “Even though their cultures are all slightly different, all of them [used similar] stone tools.”
She stresses that, although interaction between cities and states was extremely rare before the common era, they all followed a similar path of development. This all changed, however, when major trade routes such as the Silk Road and Indian Ocean network developed.
Approaching some dull, seemingly uninteresting fragments of pottery, Chan says with a smile that: “This is perhaps the highlight of the exhibition.”
Noticing our expressions of surprise and confusion, she goes on, “Most people think that exhibits of the British Museum must be very grand and breathtaking, yet these pottery shards are the opposite of that. At first glance, they may not look like anything spectacular. Yet they were in fact made in three different kingdoms, all transported to the beach in Kilwa, Africa, because of international trade.”
After passing through an eerie passageway that’s built to feel like a time-travelling tunnel, visitors are then transported to the modern, connected world.
“Do you recognise this from your emoji keyboard?” Chan laughs, gesturing at Japanese painter Hokusai’s renowned Under the Wave off Kanagawa. The nineteenth-century east Asian painting has also inspired a number of master western artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet – another great example of how connected our world is.
“Apart from simply showing history as it is, we also want to send a message. It is our hope that visitors leave inspired by even just one exhibit,” says Chan, drawing attention to a work of art from Mozambique in East Africa, made from scraps of metals and weapons collected during the country’s civil war.
So far, with all the other museums that these objects have been to, the host city gets to select a special object to add to the collection. The object selected to represent Hong Kong is none other than optical fibre, the “hidden figure” of modern communication.
“We chose fibre optics because it was invented by a Hongkonger (Sir Charles K. Kao),” she says. “It has since [revolutionised] the globalising world.”