Please Welcome Dr Benjamin Hruska, who is joining the staff. In his first post, Benjamin discusses the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
As a former museum curator of a historical society devoted to the maritime history of a small island in New England, I appreciate the challenging and delicate task of maritime exhibition. Many museum visitors only see the first layer of interpretation in viewing historical displays, this being the objects and text panels related to the historical focus of the exhibition itself. However, museum visits for me mirror that of your high school English teacher pushing you to read between the lines of a Hemingway story as a closer reading reveals additional layers of complexity. With regards to museums exhibitions I look for how the interpretive narrative unfolds, which could include the usage of themes like advancing technology, human emotions, or cultural interactions. Objects, images, digital components, and exhibition text, can all successfully (or unsuccessfully) propel the visitor toward the curatorial goals of the exhibition.
One of the most challenging accomplishments in museum curation is producing exhibitions that actively engages and informs both children and adults simultaneously. I recently visited a museum devoted to maritime history that completes this elusive public history task located on the waterfront of the main island of Hong Kong. On Pier 8 of the Central Harbor Waterfront is the Hong Kong Maritime Museum that includes 13 galleries on 3 different levels and interprets the full maritime history of the Pearl River Delta. Via ship models, maritime artifacts, and period clothing, the curators from start to finish breath life into the maritime history of this region by showing the human side of the acculturation of East and West that took place in this unique location and in doing so engage visitors of all ages.
Walking the exhibitions area visitors’ move forward both in terms of time period presented and physical space. The exhibition begins on the bottom level of the museum and commences with the Chinese Maritime Silk Road of the Qin and Han Dynasties. Gradually moving from gallery to gallery bilingual exhibition panels in Chinese and English guide visitors exploring more than two thousand years of maritime history.
A theme seen throughout the museum is the long history of global trading. The false notion that Hong Kong’s economic influence on the world is a recent phenomenon commencing after World War II is confronted from the very beginning. The theme of the interconnectedness of the Pearl River Delta over a thousand years with such locations as East Africa and the subcontinent is backed up by the use of journal entries, objects, and works of art by both Eastern and Western artists. Along this vein the theme of acculturation, the blending of East and West, is reinforced throughout the museum. The most successful exhibition showcasing the merging of two worlds is in the maritime technologies from both spheres percolating together in Hong Kong starting in the 16th century.
While the merging of sailing technology may seem like a hard sell with younger visitors used to the stimulus of an I-pad, in this exhibition area I found a gathering of kids pointing and talking excitedly with their parents. Cut away models, that reveal not only the ribbing of hulls, but also show the consumer products migrating in and out of the Pearl River Delta, proved amazingly effective in engaging a range of ages. Children gravitated toward these intricately constructed representations of a maritime past.
Ship models, digital components, and a rich collection of objects, when combined gives visitors a multitude of ways of engaging with such topics as British colonization, Japanese invasion during World War II, and Hong Kong’s rapid economic expansion in the realm of shipping in the post-war era. And most important in terms of engaging visitors both young and old, the curators factored in the key question of height. It may sound simple enough, but placing objects on a low enough level for children to engage with the objects is many times the difference between young visitors enjoying the historic displays or asking their parents to leave. With this in mind, the before mentioned cut-away ship models are placed at a level waist high for the average adult, or in other words, placed at the eye level of a 9-10 year old.
The single most creative interpretative space in the entire exhibition space is at the end of the production, and a key factor in the curatorial success in reaching kids is the employment of an interpretation tactic that is completely free of the determinate of guest’s height. As the visitors work their way toward the end of the display on the history of the 20th century they are greeted by large glass panels twenty-feet high forming a backdrop looking out on the harbor of Hong Kong. Such a backdrop allows re-enforcement of a number of interpretative themes seen throughout the museum, including international connections, evolution of maritime technology, and the merging of East and West.
After learning about Imperial Chinese maritime history and the impact of the British presence in transforming these islands into a modern international port, this space offers a view of the historic Victoria Harbor in real time. The true extent of the busyness of the harbor is hard to grasp as the waterway is a moving collage of ferries, cargo vessels, cruise ships, and police and fire vessels. Kids are drawn to the glass and press their noses in excitement in looking at the vessels navigating the small straight of water between the central island of Hong Kong and neighboring Kowloon to the north. As most museum visitors are either from Hong Kong or nearby cities in southern China like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the excited conversations between children and adults is in standard Mandarin or Cantonese. However, one does not have to understand either to interpret the conversations of younger visitors pointing out to the tonnage of metal vessels passing by.
Even in using the backdrop of Hong Kong harbor, I appreciated that the curators still utilized two methods to interpret this space that represent the bookends of curatorial technology. On the modern end of the technological spectrum is a digital screen displaying real time radar soundings. Copious green signatures, each with identifying numerical sequences next to the green dots, offers a window into the true scope of the traffic in this harbor. These digital screens are modeled after a round sonar scope from a naval vessel. The crowd of adults and children gathered around continuously shift their line of site from looking down on the green scope for ship names and then looking out the window and matching these with the passing vessels.
While excitement is produced from a mixture of ages by use of the digital era registering real time readings of the activity of Hong Kong Harbor, the curators also utilize an exhibition tactic from the realm of the well-versed museum techniques in interpreting the harbor. Next to the glass window looking out on the waterway rests a series of large binoculars fixed atop a pole fashioned to the floor. Fitted inside the viewing area of the binoculars is a cut out of the HMS Iris. This British vessel sailed into the harbor in the 1840s ushering in British colonization. Utilizing the binoculars visitors young and old can look out at the modern day waterway and see the Iris sailing into the harbor. A harbor that even today 20 years after the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is named for the British monarch at the time, Queen Victoria.