Museum and Nation-Building: Hong Kong History, Communities, and Identities Represented in Hong Kong Museums (1997-2017)

Project: Research

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An interactive game enabled a child to take digital photographs. Unexpectedly, he virtually transformed into Emperor Qin’s Terracotta Warrior, which is a funerary art piece buried with the emperor to protect him in his afterlife. To some, this game might sound offensive and ridiculous, not everyone would wish to be transformed, even virtually, into a Terracotta warrior and be buried in a tomb. Nonetheless, such a game actually exists and was installed in the Hong Kong Museum of History’s 2012 exhibition entitled The Majesty of All Under Heaven: The Eternal Realm of China’s First Emperor’ to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Handover of Hong Kong. This example is a useful prompt for considering the relationship among museum, gamification of history and identity, and nation-building.Scholars of cultural studies and material culture prompt us to see a museum not merely as a place for collecting and displaying historical artefacts of the past ‘as it really was’ (Wright 1984) but also as a social institution complicit in ‘the governmentalisation of culture’ (Bennett 1995: 23), that has an intricate relationship with nation-building. Museum exhibits ‘can change other larger values and practices’ (Luke 2002: xiv), including what our society is and who we are. If we consider museums as political spaces, where power negotiations between parties take place, then, the arrangement and thus the meanings of museum objects and displays are more clearly seen as entwined with their relationship to presently-existing fields of historical discourse, museum histories, funding, collections and curatorial expertise (Levitt 2015).This research proposal was prompted by my discovery and evaluation of a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government video1 promoting the previously noted exhibition. I noted that the civil servants-cum-curators were enthusiastic when introducing the abovementioned game but provided no critical context for it. I identified four key questions after watching the video: What kinds of stories do Hong Kong museums narrate about Hong Kong and Hong Kong–China relationships after the Handover in 1997? Do post-Handover exhibitions convey the complexity of history, or do they simplify and sanitise the past? How does the development of new immersive and interactive media technologies, change the way that visitors engage with, and interpret, exhibition displays? What performances and subjectivities are created during the interaction? In order to answer these questions, a preliminary analysis of Hong Kong museums and curatorial practices is necessary.No local research has systematically explored (1) government policy on the role Hong Kong museums play in Hong Kong society, (2) the ecosystem of Hong Kong museums and the roles played by different actors in the production of Hong Kong public museum exhibitions, (3) the textual analysis of permanent exhibitions of each public museum since 1997 in relation to Hong Kong’s political, economic and socio-cultural transformation and (4) audience research of permanent exhibitions in major museums. The present research proposal attempts to fill in this knowledge gap and explore comprehensively the history and place of museum exhibitions, in the formation of Hong Kong history and identity.The proposed research will use two analytical frameworks; namely, the dynamics between nationalism– localism–cosmopolitanism and the ‘circuit of culture’ model, to study the development of Hong Kong museum exhibitions between 1997 and 2017. We will: 1) review government policies and museum exhibition policies, museums’ own archives and curators’ notes through discourse analysis; 2) conduct semi-structured interviews with exhibition curators, museum administrators and consultants; 3) conduct textual analysis of exhibition displays; and 4) establish focus group visits and interviews to explore visitors’ experiences and interpretation of displays. By analysing the data gathered through these steps, our research will explore five interrelated components of museum practices, namely, production, regulation, representation, consumption and identity, and their relationship to Hong Kong history, community and identity. 


Project number9042896
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/2018/07/22