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Beijing Municipal Commission of Tourism Development

Palace Museums are something to treasure

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The recent announcement that a special museum will be built as part of Hong Kong's growing West Kowloon cultural hub to showcase ancient Chinese objets d'art on long-term loan from the famous Palace Museum in Beijing has so far met with a surprisingly mixed reaction here. Some seek to make controversial political points about it while others welcome this cultural good news, announced in late December by the former chief secretary for administration Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

The coming West Kowloon Cultural District is generally envisioned as reinforcing Hong Kong's growing importance as a cultural hub, with world-class museums and art performance venues. That position is already backed up by Hong Kong hosting over 100 art galleries, plus having numerous cultural performance venues, art fairs aplenty, cultural and religious festivals of many types, and a goodly number of excellent museums. For example, any visitor or resident should make the time to take in the outstanding "Hong Kong Story" permanent exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History in Tsim Sha Tsui. Such offerings add much to the experience of visiting or living in this vibrant city. So which of us could reasonably speak against adding a world-class venue to showcase one-of-a-kind priceless Chinese cultural gems borrowed from Beijing?

Situated within the impressive walls of the 1,000-roomed old Forbidden City in Beijing is the Palace Museum. This important cultural storehouse is able at any one time to display only a small fraction of its priceless collection of 1.8 million ancient objects. For example, it holds 30,000 exquisite jade carvings and 1,000 antique timepieces. The plan is for Hong Kong to have its own version of that Palace Museum at West Kowloon. It will cost the local taxpayer nothing, because the funding (estimated at HK$3.5 billion) will be provided by the Hong Kong Jockey Club's charity funding arm.

Not all Hong Kong people are able to travel to the nation's capital Beijing to view this collection in situ in the former palaces of the old emperors of China, who built up the collection over many centuries and over several dynasties. So the long-term loan to Hong Kong of key items from that collection will give all Hong Kong people the opportunity to view parts of this fascinating collection, a collection which represents their birthright. Reinforcing their feelings of Chinese identity in this way will be one of the intangible benefits of the advent of this new museum in Hong Kong.

A public consultation on these plans is being conducted until Feb 22 by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. Commentators can share their ideas and comments on these early-stage plans - such as whether additional exhibition halls should be provided for temporary exhibitions, whether a bookshop and/or a restaurant should form part of the facilities, and how to attract plenty of visitors to the planned displays. In my view, organized guided tours should be arranged for school groups, aided by the pupils having pre-tour and post-tour worksheets to complete.

The interesting, ancient, even exotic items to be displayed by two Palace Museums, one in Beijing and a new one in Hong Kong, represent the best of the cultural heritage of all Chinese people, no matter where they come from. The same may be said of the collection of some 700,000 items held by the Palace Museum in Taipei. Indeed, the source of the latter collection is the same as for the other two - the old imperial art collections from the Forbidden City. The Taipei museum's vast number of objects means that they struggle to display more than about 3,000 items at any one time.

What a fine thing it would be for improved cross-Strait relations were Taipei's Palace Museum to offer selected key items from those held in storage there for long-term loan to be displayed in West Kowloon. The Beijing authorities several years ago agreed to lend Palace Museum items for display to Taiwan; Taiwan could reciprocate by lending some of their massive holdings to this coming Hong Kong Palace Museum and - who knows - even some to their original place of collection in Beijing. And last but not least, imagine the goodwill such positive gestures would contribute to healthier cross-Strait relations.

These three Palace Museums could collaborate on a long-term cooperation plan, whereby selected items for themed exhibitions could be pooled together for rotational display at the three locations, thereby benefiting residents and visitors to all three. After all, an enlightened view is that these cultural treasures belong to all Chinese people, who can all feel justifiably proud no matter where they may be displayed. In due course, consideration can also be given to moving such themed exhibitions to other major museums, such as a proposed new museum in Shanghai. This promises to be a win-win idea that all three Palace Museums should give serious consideration to.

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