Feb 18, 2010|
It is a Saturday afternoon and every neighborhood is packed with people, especially shopping areas such as Tsim Sha Tsui. If you wish to escape from the crowd, there is a great hideaway to visit: our local museums. Take the Museum of Art at the waterfront for example—the locale is famous for its solemn atmosphere and tranquility. But while the special exhibitions may attract visitors, the rooms housing permanent art collections such as calligraphy, are worryingly quiet.
More evidence about our museums’ lack of popularity is found in the statistics. There are 14 public museums that are under the management of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, all of which were being considered for corporatization under a governmental plan. Out of these 14 museums, 13 showed a decline in attendance over the past few years. The one that experienced the most drastic fall is the Museum of Art, where attendance has dropped by half from its peak at 622,000 people in the fiscal year of 2007 (renowned Song dynasty painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” was showing at that time) to 332,198 people last year. Even the high-profile Louis Vuitton contemporary art exhibition failed to boost the attendance totals. As for the least favorite museum, only about 15,000 people visited the Law Uk Folk Museum in Chai Wan during the whole of 2009.
The government is aware of the low entrance rate and back in 2004, they set up a Committee on Museums (CoM) to advise the Secretary for Home Affairs on the provision of public museum services in Hong Kong, formulating strategies and plans for the development of the institutions. They spent three years coming up with a report which suggested that a statutory Museums Board should be set up to take on the operation and management responsibility of the 14 public museums being considerd for corporatization; in other words, these museums would gain more autonomy and more flexibility on hiring and budgeting because they would be detached from the slow-moving civil service system.
But earlier this month, the Home Affairs Bureau rejected the proposal. This means everything will remain as is, and the LCSD will continue to run the museums. This is quite worrying judging by the LCSD’s track record. Not only have there been low attendance rates over the past few years (a fact that even the Secretary of Home Affairs, Tsang Tak-sing, admits to), there have also been several other shocking facts. In 2006, a report by the Audit Commission criticized the fact that there was no collection policy for the public museums at all, which has lead to a serious backlog of exhibits. The Museum of History, Heritage Museum and Film Archive have altogether 707,631 items in storage instead of in exhibition for public viewing. It was also found that the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum has lost 21 artifacts last year while acquiring them from a private collector in America.
The problem extends to how exactly museums enrich their collections. Tang Hoi-chiu, the chief curator of the Museum of Art, said they have not found the need to join any auctions since 2000, because items in auctions tend to be “too expensive.” Instead, they prefer to acquire collections by donation, or deal with the artists themselves. Last year, they spent $1.8 million purchasing 99 items of Hong Kong contemporary art. That is less than two percent of the total expenditure of the Museum of Art.
Another problem is the museums’ failed attempt to market themselves. A survey done by the CoM shows that most of the visitors knew about the museums from “just passing by” instead of learning about them from media. More than half of the infrequent visitors considered the publicity of the museums very, or quite inadequate. Legislator Lee Wing-tat, who feels disappointed about the rejection of the corporatization proposal, finds local museums dull and outdated, and points to the inadequacy of their permanent collections as his main criticism.
Perhaps it is the bureaucracy that stifles creativity and leaves everything stagnant; under the civil service system, museums can only hire entry-level staff and they do not need experience relevant to museum management, as long as they are fresh graduates from universities. This closed circuit may lead to the lack of innovative talents coming up with new ideas. “It’s basically an apprentice system,” says Ada Wong, a member of the Consultation Panel of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. “All senior civil service positions are for internal promotions and the only way to rise up through the ranks is to spend decades learning from those who are a grade higher than you, and move up according to how long you’ve spent there. Even the most enthusiastic employees will lose their edge.” Working within this mindset, it is no surprise that only unchallenging calligraphy or painting exhibitions continue to be mounted instead of something more thought-provoking or contemporary.
Another major role for museums is educational, but visitors find the museum settings unconducive to learning. According to the same survey from the CoM, only about one-tenth of the visitors to the Science Museum said they had participated in its education program while the participation rate for other museums was only about two to six percent. Homan Ho is the chairman of Fotanian Open Studio 2010 Organizing Committee, a project that is becoming increasingly popular among locals, especially teenagers, to visit for an art experience. He thinks one problem with public museums is their austere seriousness, which he says might turn people off. “People actually get scared off by the atmosphere in museums,” he says. “Young couples will never go to museums for a date but a lot of them will go to Fotanian.” He also points out that while public museums are always uptight, the open studios in Fotan can demonstrate a wide spectrum of art-related subjects, from how a piece of art is formed to how artists live and work.