16 February 2019
M+ museum, the flagship West Kowloon Cultural District facility, will showcase how museums can be run differently if given more flexibility and freedom in their management. Photo:
M+ museum, the flagship West Kowloon Cultural District facility, will showcase how museums can be run differently if given more flexibility and freedom in their management. Photo:

How we can make our museums more vibrant

Hong Kong’s public museums are sometimes referred to as hidden gems. We know they are there, but many of us rarely think about visiting them.

The Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Shatin hosts a surprising variety of culture-oriented exhibitions. Our museums of history and art have shown some amazing artefacts from the ancient world and works by famous artists. Kids will love the Science and Space Museums. The city houses a few specialized collections that are world class, like the Museum of Tea Ware. And some of our smaller museums – like the Museum of Coastal Defence and the Sun Yat Sen Museum – are located in unique historic surroundings.

However, we do not have anything like the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While Hong Kong attracts a lot of tourists, not many make a point of going to our museums.

And if you visit our Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) museums often, you might notice that they tend to have a similar “feel” to them. Go to non-government museums, like the Maritime Museum or the little museum at Hong Kong University, and you can tell they are run differently.

This is not a criticism – public museums are very professionally managed. But it suggests that there is a potential to try some new approaches.

Our Hong Kong Foundation (OHKF), a public policy think tank, has produced a detailed report on reforming governance of Hong Kong museums.

OHKF researchers looked at publicly funded museums in Europe, Australia and in Japan and Singapore to see how greater autonomy for museums in those places has produced greater effectiveness.

The museums have more flexibility and freedom in the way they are managed. The facilities have developed closer ties with the community, they have higher profiles among local people and tourists, and they attract more support and involvement from the private sector.

The OHKF researchers are making three broad proposals.

The first – and crucial one – is to set up a statutory governing Museums Board. As with the current Museum Advisory Committee, the Board’s members would be appointed by the government. But the new body would actually run museums in the same way the Hospitals Authority and Airport Authority have responsibility for their facilities.

The Board would set strategy and development direction, and it would be in control of allocation of resources. It would have advisory committees to offer specialized guidance – the OHKF report recommends three to cover art, history and science areas.

The aim is to have a structure that allows for transparency while encouraging autonomy over budgets, procurement, staffing and other areas. For example, the new body would retain its own income, which would encourage innovative approaches to fund-raising.

The government would still have oversight (as senior officials do with other statutory bodies). It would probably also have the final say over major decisions like the opening or closure of museums.

This would mean that museums would no longer be, in effect, government departments. They would have far more flexibility to explore private sector sponsorship and other partnerships. This would in turn expand resources and capacity for exhibitions and other activities. They would also be able to develop their own identities over time.

The OHKF report also recommends that museums move away from the civil service staffing systems. The aim would be to open up management and specialist roles to a more diverse range of talent.

This sort of change can be controversial, but the researchers propose allowing existing LCSD staff to continue with their compensation and pension arrangements. They also point out that overseas experience shows that a more independent and vibrant museum scene increases demand for employees in the sector.

Is this proposal from OHKF worth exploring?

In fact, as the OHKF report points out, Hong Kong is already going down this road. The West Kowloon Cultural District is run by the autonomous, statutory WKCD Authority, of which I am a board member.

The flagship WKCD facility will be the major M+ museum, which will house a world-class collection of modern Chinese art. As M+ and its neighboring cultural attractions open in the next few years, the Hong Kong public will be able to judge for themselves.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress

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