Hong Kong Palace Museum: Beijing’s Forbidden City treasures find a $450 million new home

Written by Stephy Chung, CNNKristie Lu Stout, CNNhong kong

Beijing’s Palace Museum, located in the heart of the Forbidden City, contains the largest collection of Chinese art in the world, spanning nearly 5,000 years of history. Today, more than 900 of these treasures are on display at the new Hong Kong Palace Museum – a “gift” from the central government to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule.

Although there is nothing overtly political in its collection – at least by modern standards – the museum sparked controversy when it was first announced by outgoing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam , in late 2016, partly due to the apparent lack of public consultation prior to the project. was lit green.

The Palace Museum’s long-term loan, which includes rare paintings, calligraphic works, ceramics, jade and more from its 1.8 million-strong collection, is “unprecedented on every level”, it said. said Hong Kong museum president Bernard Chan.

“This is the first time that large quantities of these national treasures have been transferred to another cultural institution, so you can imagine the complexity behind this,” he adds, citing challenges related to transportation, security and to insurance, the latter of which it took a conglomerate of around 100 insurance companies around the world to solve.

The red studded doors at the entrance to the museum. Construction of the building was funded by a HK$3.5 billion ($450 million) donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Credit: Hong Kong Palace Museum

Organizing exhibitions in the midst of a pandemic has also proven difficult – as has an accelerated schedule ensuring that the museum, its construction funded by a 3.5 billion HKD ($450 million) donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, opened in time for this week’s anniversary.

“When I was a curator in the United States, I spent three years working on an exhibition. Now I have three years to work on nine exhibits,” says deputy director Daisy Wang Yiyou, referring to the museum’s ambitious opening schedule.

The stunning artefacts, 166 of which are considered “first-rate national treasures”, feature in themed exhibitions, including one exploring aspects of Imperial life in the Forbidden City and another focusing on innovative design and production techniques. . Elsewhere, a horse-inspired art exhibition juxtaposes works from the Forbidden City with pieces on loan from the Louvre in Paris. Some of the objects have never been seen in public before, including two recently restored sketches of empresses.

A glass vase, which looks surprisingly contemporary with its spiral pattern, showcases innovative techniques used in the Qing Dynasty.

A glass vase, which looks surprisingly contemporary with its spiral pattern, showcases innovative techniques used in the Qing Dynasty. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Wang expects the “hit” attraction to be the museum’s rotating exhibit of Chinese paintings and calligraphy from the Jin, Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties.

“(These works) are extremely fragile and extremely rare, so after 30 days in Hong Kong, they are going to be taken back to storage in the Forbidden City… (to) rest for a few years,” she explains.

166 artifacts from the loan are considered national treasures including this one,

166 artifacts from the loan are considered national treasures, including this one, “Ten Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains”, a 12th-century ink on paper by Zhao Fu. Credit: The Palace Museum

The evolution of the artistic environment of the city

With 84,000 square feet of gallery space and a modern design that nods to the famous architecture of the Forbidden City, the museum took just five years to complete. Nearby institutions like the M+ Museum for Contemporary Visual Culture, which also overlooks Victoria Harbor from the West Kowloon Cultural District, took almost twice as long.
One of the museum's nine galleries focuses on the history of Chinese ceramics, particularly imperial porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

One of the museum’s nine galleries focuses on the history of Chinese ceramics, particularly imperial porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Credit: Hong Kong Palace Museum

The Hong Kong Palace Museum was not part of the original plans for the sprawling arts district, which sits on a plot of reclaimed land and has been under development since the early 2000s. Lam’s unexpected unveiling of plans in December 2016 was seen by some critics as a way to curry political favor with the Chinese central government (she held the second-highest position in Hong Kong at the time). Others have alleged that Beijing exerted pressure to approve the museum.

Lam dismissed claims that the project was going ahead for political reasons.

“I know that our society today is full of this type of distrust. But for this project, we are really not driven by self-interest,” she said in 2017. “We really hope to build a Hong Kong Palace Museum, for Hong Kong we can all be proud of.”

The museum’s announcement nonetheless came as “a surprise to everyone, including myself,” Chan recalls. “Nobody knew about it,” he said. “But you can imagine why this has been kept somewhat secret. This discussion is at a very high level.”

A festive dress from the Qianlong period (1736-1795) is displayed during a media preview of the Hong Kong Palace Museum in Hong Kong on June 22, 2022.

A festive dress from the Qianlong period (1736-1795) is displayed during a media preview of the Hong Kong Palace Museum in Hong Kong on June 22, 2022. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Although the extent of Beijing’s role remains unknown, the museum is in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of the “Chinese Dream” or “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, which sees the economic future and the China’s international influence intertwine with the glories of the nation’s past. Xi has repeatedly spoken of the role of artists in promoting patriotism and spreading Chinese and “core socialist” values. Traditional Chinese culture, in its view, should be seen as a source of inspiration for current literary and artistic innovation.

During a three-day visit to Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover in 2017, Xi attended a signing ceremony at the museum, saying he hoped Hong Kong could promote traditional Chinese culture and trade between China and the West.
The Palace Museum of Hong Kong, designed by Rocco Design Architects Associates, is located in the cultural district of West Kowloon overlooking Victoria Harbour.  Hong Kong is positioning itself as an East-meets-West cultural hub with the development of new art spaces in the district.

The Palace Museum of Hong Kong, designed by Rocco Design Architects Associates, is located in the cultural district of West Kowloon overlooking Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong is positioning itself as an East-meets-West cultural hub with the development of new art spaces in the district. Credit: ROCCO Design Associates Architects Limited

But the museum opens today in a radically different Hong Kong. Beijing’s push for soft power comes at a time when free speech is being curtailed following mass pro-democracy protests and the sweeping national security law that effectively shut them down in 2020.

Art in the city has also been under threat, with politically sensitive works apparently censored and artists voluntarily going into exile. Several large-scale works of art dealing with the Tiananmen Square massacre, including the famous ‘Pillar of Shame’, have been dismantled in Hong Kong, which was once the only place on Chinese soil where people could freely commemorate the victims. bloody repression. Earlier this year, the painting ‘New Beijing’, a thinly veiled allusion to the deaths of pro-democracy protesters in the 1989 massacre, was removed from display at M+, despite the museum saying it was part of routine rotation plans related to “the condition of the artwork and conservation needs.”

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If this last loan is a first in terms of size, the Hong Kong Palace Museum is not the only place where the treasures of the Forbidden City are exhibited. In Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, many of the Imperial Palace’s most prized treasures are currently housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

More than 600,000 objects from the Forbidden City were transported to the island by retreating Nationalist forces in the 1940s. With tensions between Beijing and Taipei at an all-time high, the museum is planning an artefact evacuation drill in case of war.

“I hope one day there can be a real collaboration between the three museums, because we all present Chinese civilization,” Chan said, expressing hope that the new city museum and its treasure trove of treasures can transcend politics.

“Where does Chinese civilization come from? And how is Chinese civilization related to other civilizations? Because we are not alone, right? I think it is important, especially in times when the world is so polarized and divided.”

A portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in court dress.

A portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in court dress. Credit: The Palace Museum

For Hong Kong residents, the museum is a hot summer destination, with 100,000 tickets already sold for July. In addition to providing the opportunity to see the famous objects up close, the museum’s job is to make their stories relevant to local audiences, says Wang.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a historian or a driver,” she says. “You (can) relate to these fantastical treasures and the stories we tell. You can be emotionally moved by the objects.”

Watch the video above for an inside look at the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

CNN’s Kevin Broad, Momo Moussa, Tom Booth, Dan Hodge and Ziyu Zhang contributed to this report.

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