China: According to its director, the Hong Kong Palace Museum (HKPM) will support the efforts made by the central government to secure the return of cultural property.
While giving the Post an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of some of the museum's more than 900 rare artefacts and explaining the future direction of the West Kowloon Cultural District's newest addition, Louis Ng Chi-wa makes the institution's first public statement regarding its position on restitution.
In an interview with Yonden Lhatoo, the chief news editor of the Post, on Talking Post, Ng states, "This is our obligation... to have the return of those cultural properties we lost in the past."
According to him, the museum, which became accessible to the public on July 3, will assist the National Administration of Cultural Heritage in mainland China in its efforts to reclaim cultural properties through discussions, legal actions, and purchases.
Although there is some disagreement over the size of its claim, the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage estimated in 2016 that there were over 10 million Chinese cultural artefacts abroad. Large-scale repatriations have only occasionally occurred, like when Italy returned nearly 800 pieces in 2019 after joining China's "belt and road" initiative.
Some of the largest "universal museums" in the world, which amassed their collections during the 19th and 20th century periods of colonial expansion, have recently become more receptive to the idea of repatriation, for instance in the case of Australian Aboriginal human remains and bronzes from Benin.
The "Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums" from 2002 stated that there is value in holding a wide variety of artefacts in one location for the benefit of humanity.
The use of the "universal museum" as a defence for not returning the object to its native country, according to Ng, is "not very sound."
Ng also explains why the HKPM won't actively seek out works to add to its collection, unlike its West Kowlon neighbour M+, a museum of visual culture.
He says, "We don't have money to buy things. This is so because the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is in charge of running the Hong Kong Palace Museum. It is a self-supporting organisation.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), who controversially paid the HK$3.5 billion construction costs of the Rocco Yim-designed building, is the palace's principal patron. This allowed the government to omit the Legislative Council's finance committee.
In exchange, the auditorium of the museum was named after the HKJC. To recognise the museum's connections to the HKJC, the opening exhibitions also feature a gallery with a horse-themed theme.
Ng claims that local collectors who are eager to donate their holdings have contacted the museum.
We have so far acquired five batches totaling more than 1,000 items. there are some pieces made of gold and silver, some porcelain, furniture, and paintings," he claims.
The Palace Museum in Beijing, which is housed in the Forbidden City, is independent of the Hong Kong museum, but the two organisations collaborate and the Beijing museum has sent over 900 priceless artefacts to Hong Kong for the opening exhibitions.
Ng names four personal favourites among the on-view artefacts at the HKPM that are on loan from Beijing.
The first is a "grade one" national treasure that was created during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) and formerly belonged to the Qianlong Emperor's imperial collection. It is a headrest shaped like a boy who is reclining.
Only three items of the same type are known to exist: two in Taipei and one in Beijing, according to Ng. The artwork will only be on display for three months.
The second is described as an ice box with stylized lotus scrolls that belonged to China's last emperor. It was created by artisans at the imperial palace in Beijing, which is now known as the Forbidden City. It was used to store ice and functioned like a refrigerator or air conditioner of the present day. The third is a painting titled Jade Lion by Italian Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione (also known as Lang Shining), which is on display in one of the museum's special exhibitions called "Grand Gallop: Art and Culture of the Horse." Ng claims that Castiglione arrived in China at the age of 25 during the Qianlong era (1736–1795) and remained there until his death at the age of 78. The emperor commissioned ten large-scale paintings, including the more than 200-year-old Jade Lion.
The tapestry from the Gobelins Manufactory, which is in the same gallery, is Ng's final choice. The tapestry, which is on loan from the Louvre and is part of a collaboration with the French museum, was created under Louis XIV (1643–1715) and shows the Battle of Baecula from the Second Punic War (218–201 BC), when Roman general Scipio conquered Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal).
The Louvre curator had to delay his trip to Hong Kong after testing positive for Covid-19, according to Ng The tapestry was the last item installed in the museum on July 1, just one day before the grand opening, which was postponed by a day due to a typhoon.
According to Ng, establishing a museum during a global pandemic presented unexpected difficulties. There was once a worry that the display cases, which were made by the Italian company Goppion, which also created the display case for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, wouldn't arrive on time. Despite the fact that Covid-19 had severely damaged Milan, the cases were thankfully delivered on time.
Ng explains how the artefacts from Beijing's Palace Museum, which included 166 items deemed grade-one national treasures and included paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, and textiles, had to be transported to Hong Kong in five secret batches.
To better protect and secure these national treasures, "we didn't want to disclose the route [and] the timing," the man claims.
The items were handled by conservators from Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Palace Museum after their arrival.
A well-known Northern Song dynasty replica of Gu Kaizhi's painting Nymph of the Luo River was included in the second rotation of national treasures on display for just one month in Gallery 8 when the HKPM unveiled it on August 3.
An upcoming special exhibition will feature European paintings, including those by 17th-century Flemish artists Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, on loan from a European museum, according to Daisy Wang Yiyou, the museum's deputy director.
There is little chance of a collaboration between Hong Kong and Taipei's National Palace Museum, which houses approximately 700,000 extremely significant artefacts that were brought over to the island in 1948 and 1949 by retreating Nationalists, in the near future given the deteriorating cross-strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan and Hong Kong's growing integration with the mainland.