Museums China

Life on the South China Sea

Hong Kong’s maritime museum to reopen on a pier in Victoria Harbour this month

Viceroy Bailing tackles pirates in this section of the museum’s 18m scroll. Below, a Han Dynasty pottery boat

While M+, Hong Kong’s museum-in-the-making of contemporary visual culture, attracts international attention, a museum that tells the history of the port city’s rise to global importance is due to reopen on 26 February. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum is moving to a three-storey pier in the city’s central business district. The space will boast coveted views of Victoria Harbour and, at 35,000 sq. ft, will be six times bigger than the museum’s previous home, a colonial building in Stanley, a suburb of Hong Kong.

“The waterfront and maritime trade is where Hong Kong started; without shipping, the British would never have chosen to stay in Hong Kong,” says Anthony Hardy, the museum’s chairman, who led its expansion and move to Pier Eight in the Central district, next to the building from which the Star Ferry runs to Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district.

One of the highlights of the museum, which was founded in 2003, is an exhibition created around Pacifying the South China Sea, a rare and highly detailed Qing Dynasty scroll. It records the Imperial navy’s successful campaign to quell piracy along the Guangdong coast (an area that included what is now Hong Kong). Historians consider the event vital to the Qing Dynasty’s ability to exercise power in the early 19th century.

The work was acquired by the museum from a French family’s collection in 2006. It was made by an unknown artist in the early 1800s, around the time of the campaign. For the exhibition, the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media has created a 360-degree animation based on the scroll.

Other galleries will shed light on Hong Kong’s history as a world maritime capital, the evolution of seafaring life through the centuries, and the development of China’s export trade in ceramics and other coastal-based trades and industries.

At any given time, the institution will display more than 1,000 of the 5,000 objects in its collection, as well as items on long-term loan from individuals. Anthony Hardy says that the museum also plans to bring at least two major exhibitions from world-class collections to Hong Kong in 2013.

The Hong Kong government granted the museum a ten-year lease to the pier and supported a HK$114m ($15m) renovation to turn it into what Hardy calls “a high-tech, modern museum”. The new space will include 13 permanent galleries, two spaces for visiting exhibitions, a cafe and two shops. Representatives estimate that the museum, with its new, more convenient location and larger floor plan, can attract at least 140,000 visitors in its first year—more than triple the number it drew in Stanley.

Although the museum has the backing of the government, it is a privately run institution, and will be financed primarily by funding from the local shipping industry. Hardy, who is a collector, was the chairman of the Wallem Group shipping company until 2006, when he retired and focused his energy on the maritime museum. Richard Wesley, who has worked in historical museums in Australia, is the museum’s director.

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