Go for the Palace treasures, please

January 03, 2017 17:25
The Palace Museum in Beijing is the world’s most popular museum, with 15 million visitors a year. Photo: CNSA

The Hong Kong public has good questions to ask Carrie Lam over her handling of the proposed Palace Museum. But I have a suggestion – please ensure that the treasures of the Imperial Palace end up here.

This is a precious opportunity to have a long-term lease on some of the world's finest art pieces that every museum in the world would like to have.

There are several reasons to have them. One is the commercial value. The Palace Museum (PM) in Beijing is the world's most popular museum, with 15 million visitors a year. It is so popular that it has to put a ceiling of 80,000 entries a day, to control the flood of people during peak holiday times.

Its sister, the National Palace Museum (NPM) in Taipei, which also displays art pieces from the Forbidden City, ranks seventh in the world, with 5.4 million visitors annually. Together, the two attract 20.4 million people a year.

And these are not one-time visitors. Many go to see the pieces many times; such is their appeal.

This means that a museum in Hong Kong would also attract millions of visitors, Chinese and foreign, every year, giving the city another important card in the competition to attract visitors.

This commercial value is more than simple entry tickets. Both the Beijing and Taipei museums earn millions of dollars a year from sales of merchandize, including reproductions, books, post-cards, garments and products inspired by the pieces from which they earn a commission. A Hong Kong branch would also earn a large amount from such sales.

The second reason is that the two museums house the world's finest collection of Chinese art, including bronze statues, lacquer ware, textiles, pottery, paintings, calligraphy and religious artifacts. The PM has 1.8 million pieces, the NPM nearly 700,000; they were collected by emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties until the latter was overthrown in 1911.

The collections are so large that, at any one time, the museums can only show a fraction of them at any one. The vast majority of the pieces sleep peacefully in air-conditioned warehouses and tunnels, seen by no one but security cameras and walking guards.

In the PM, less than one percent of the pieces are on display. So it is building a second museum 25 km away in the northeast suburb of Haidian. Phase one of the project involves construction of a 125,000-square-meter building, which would allow a huge number of relics to be displayed.

Nearly 80 exhibitions are held at the current museum each year, but these displays feature only about 0.5 percent of the total number of ancient relics. The new museum expects to attract three million visitors and will, the director hopes, reduce the crush of people at the main site.

In Taipei, the NPM displays about one percent of its collection at any one time. Exhibits are rotated every three months.

So a new museum in Hong Kong would enable more of the treasures to be taken out of their crates and put on public display, for the enjoyment and education of millions of visitors.

The pieces would be here on a long-term basis, a great blessing because of their artistic and cultural value. They would be a great asset for the city. More than political leaders, they symbolize the beauty and history of China.

"The treasures in the palace are the pearls of thousands of years of our culture," said Na Chi-liang, who worked in both the PM and the NPM from 1925 to 1974. "If one was lost, it was lost forever. If a country is lost, it can be rebuilt. If its culture is lost, there is no hope of rebuilding the country."

Museums around the world are knocking on the door of the PM and NPM, asking them to loan their pieces.

President Tsai Ying-wen can go almost nowhere because of the isolation of her country. But the pieces from the NPM – and the directors of the museum -- are welcome in Washington, Paris, London, Moscow and other capitals that are off limits to her. That shows how sought-after they are.

So, here's my appeal to the leaders of Hong Kong: discuss all the issues of procedures and funding as you think fit. But please ensure that arguments and conflicts do not result in the PM's offer being withdrawn and Hong Kong losing for ever the chance to obtain these priceless assets.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.