For the uninitiated it might come as a surprise to discover that museums (for the most part) are no longer the musty, dusty, dark and serious sepulchres we remember from our youth. A visit to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum is all it takes to discover a living, breathing cultural edifice keen to engage in a dialogue with its visitors.
According to the director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum Richard Wesley, from the 1980s onwards many millions of dollars have gone into making museums centres of learning, centres of interest, of recreation and public engagement.
Fortunately for Hong Kong Mr Wesley, who joined the museum in 2010, was embarking on his curatorial career just as museums entered into a period of evolution in museology. The result is that the Hong Kong Maritime Museum very much reflects the zeitgeist.
Most professionally run museums today are places to discuss ideas and to present collections of objects that tell stories about the past to the present.
“It is the stories that have gained prominence in the way museums operate,” says Mr Wesley.
“Our story is how Hong Kong became a port; how the community benefitted from that; and how the city has grown due to its strategic location in the South China Sea. In this respect the museum is a place of community memory.”
To tell the Hong Kong story the museum has acquired hundreds of exquisite artefacts displayed in 4,400 sqm of space across three levels and 15 galleries.
Taking the story to the streets
But an institution like Hong Kong’s Maritime Museum can no longer be content or even viable as simply a space that with luck one will be lured into. Instead it must go out into the community to drum up interest or attract experts or novel artefacts that will encourage visitors to return.
“Events are very important,” says Mr Wesley.
“Simply put, we can’t keep changing the exhibits every six weeks but we can have lots of events, whether they be lectures, talks or activities for children. It could also include commercial activities where perhaps we may host an international port city selling its story to the Hong Kong shipping community,” he adds.
“Events are an essential part of our operations. First, because we need more people to know about the museum by raising awareness of our location and what we offer.
Secondly, we need to raise money. The contribution from government is in the order of 25% to 30% so we have to raise 70% of the income and this demands a commercial approach. Having said that we do make space available for community events and industry activities that have a public focus.”
Enduring ties with stakeholders
Another significant contributor to the museum’s coffers is the Hong Kong shipping community.
“The museum would not exist without the shipping industry,” Mr Wesley frankly exerts.
“Historically the Hong Kong Government set up a network of museums in the 1990s, but one thing that was not constructed was a maritime museum. Given that Hong Kong is a port city this seem rather an oversight,” he says.
“But a group of individuals based around the Shipowners Association got together and formed a committee in 2003, which eventually raised money to create the maritime museum in Stanley (a tourist town in south Hong Kong).
“Without the support of the shipping companies and individuals, which continues to this day, we would have not been created or as successful as we are.
“So we are proudly of the shipping industry. We serve all the people of Hong Kong as well as visitors from overseas. But we are telling the story of ships and how Hong Kong has flourished as a result over more than 150 years.”
Relocating the museum to Pier 8, adjacent to the world famous Star Ferry pier in Central was a shrewd move that has seen visitor numbers increase five-fold. In the 2015-2016 year the museum welcomed more than 180,000 visitors.
“The Stanley premises was a very good start and a very fine small museum,” says Mr Wesley. “But it was somewhat physically isolated. Here [at the new premises] we have greater accessibility and therefore the opportunity to attract more activities and more revenue.”
Mr Wesley describes the progress as ascending a ladder. “And we have further to rise,” he adds. If you like we are on rung two. We are looking to move up to rung three. Having become a museum that receives 180,000 visitors we want to be a museum that welcomes 280,000 visitors.”
To move up the museum has initiated a five-year plan through to 2020 that will focus on further strengthening the visitor experience; and activate the collection through a deeper integration with community experiences as they relate to Hong Kong’s long-running affair with the sea.
Mr Wesley says initiatives will also be pushed through this year to deepen engagement with the museum’s constituents that will see the institution putting still greater efforts into attracting community groups and schools with displays especially adapted to the primary and secondary school curricula.
There will also be an emphasis on recruiting more expertise to cover a broader range of themes. Finally, commercial activities and fund-raising activities will play a vital role in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the museum.