Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Poor State of Hong Kong's Museums: 1938

A famed naturalist, G.A.C. Herklots, was asked by the Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong in 1937 to "advise upon the natre of the collections which the Colonial Museum of Hong Kong should contain and upon the accommodation which those collections are likely to require." Mr. Herklots duly complied, with a scathing report upon the fact that Hong Kong throughout most of its history had no curatorial collections worth of note, and even the small half-hearted display in the City Hall (which Chinese were restricted from visiting for about half its history, and when admission was made free, became a resting spot for coolies) was terminated when said building was demolished.

The first thing Mr. Herklots suggested was finding:
"a young man of British nationality, enthusiastic, widely qualified, with specialist knowledge in one branch, artistic, capable of using his hands and willing to learn Chinese.

(i) an honours degree of a British University, subjects studied to include at least two of the following:- Zoology, Botany, Geology, Archaeology, Anthropology, or some other approved subject.

(ii) a diploma or certificate given by the Museums Association...

The qualifications suggested above need not be rigidly enforced if a man with other qualifications and with high recommendations is available... The salary must be sufficiently attractive encourage the right type of applicant for the post...We consider that the absolute minimum commencing salary to be offered should be 450 pounds, exclusive of house allowance or house, in order to encourage the right type of applicant...

The Curator must be givent he absolute power of refusal of gifts and loans. If this is not his then quantities of un-wanted material will accumulate...."
You see, the threadbare museums of those days were often enhanced by gifts of dubious quality from dilettante collectors in the merchant class that had little comprehensive education into the qualities of fine arts or rare handicrafts.

But the most amusing thing about the report was its liberal quotation of a Museums Association report in 1933 made on request of the Carnegie Corporation:"Hong Kong, in fact, represents the low-water mark in museum provision throughout the whole of the Empire, excepting only the smaller islands of the Pacific and some of the more backward African territories."

Herklots and his collaborators expand on this more in the appendix to the report, as follows:
Mention has already been made of the fact that Hong Kong represents the low-water mark in museum provision throughout the whole of the Empire, excepting only the smaller islands of the Pacific and some of the more backward African territories, but this statement, sweeping as it is, is not sufficient to give a general idea of the museum backwardness of this Colony. It is true there was a small museum in the City Hall building which existed precariously from 1874 to 1933, but even this has now disappeared, and the Hong Kong authorities generously presented part fo the collections to a Portuguese Museum in Macao and to other institutions. In the same City Hall building there was a library consisting mainly of 19th century books in a very poor state; some of the more valuable books and many of the less valuable have been attacked by pests of all kinds, and even the recent attempt of the British Museum authorities to have proper precautionary methods taken may prove to be too late. The University, the Hong Kong Club and the Helena May Institute have libraries open to their members, and there is a fine Chinese library in the University, but apart from these there is little public library provision. When it is realised that the population of the Colony is 841,000 and its area just under 400 square miles, or three to four times that of Malta, it will be realized how lacking in certain cultural amenities is this Colony.
Well, a rather damning indictment if I may say so. In Herklot's report we have a rather candid exposition of the poor state (if not the causes) of the museum in Hong Kong. Of course this situation has been remedied - Hong Kong now has a host of museums and libraries. While the public library system is well-used though, the local museums are still under-utilized by the public and also by tourists given the major advances in scope, breadth, depth and quality.

Part of it is that the city has never been a sentimental one, and for much of its history was one that was by and for immigrants, whose true feelings of identity lay somewhere else. Certainly it was true before the War. The story of the Colony is also not likely to ever inspire patriotism, unless certain things like opium were somehow magically excised out of the annals - an impossible task.


Anonymous said...

Dear Dave and Stefan,

I love Hong Kong, as I know you do, but I wonder if you're being just a bit too tough on the old Colony. Consider. When Mr. Herklots wrote, Hong Kong was just under a hundred years old. To put this in perspective, speaking as an American, consider the United States of America in 1881 (Washington's inauguration plus 99 years). How many museums did we have? Sure, we had a few, but we had a few more people than Hong Kong.

Seems to me that Hong Kong was doing fine at that point. Question is, how will Hong Kong do in the future.

I love your historical writing. It informs me. Thank you, and keep up the good work.

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

Dave and Stefan said...

Dear Fred, thanks very much for your comment. I think that is a fair assessment, but then perhaps the best comparable for a place like Hong Kong would not have been the United States, which had less of a dichotomy between colonial 'master' and local 'subject' populations in its settled areas - a better comparable would have been Singapore. It was founded only 22 years earlier.

In 1883, it founded the Raffles Library and Museum, and was something expanded upon in successive stages. It was a purpose built building with a beautiful impressive dome, and the curatorial resources to back it up. And with, certainly from the late 19th century onwards, a smaller population than Hong Kong, and with substantially all of them having come as immigrants or administrators from elsewhere.

I would argue from that perspective, that Hong Kong had as much of an opportunity to establish museums as Singapore, but failed to do so. I think this is in part attributable to the legacy of Sir Stamford Raffles; although his missives were ignored by succeeding Residents and Governors, he had had a vision for establishing a strong cultural affinity for the local population and providing them with an excellent educational system.

While the Hong Kong colonial government did participate in this educational mission, it was for narrow economic purposes, and where there was an idealistic vision involved, the work was usually done by one of the Missionary societies.

Again, I believe that the difference in Singapore and Hong Kong is again attributable to the way in which the two cities were founded - Singapore on the nominally fair basis of a contract with the Sultan of Johore, by a visionary man (Raffles) whereas Hong Kong was founded by drug dealers and stripped from China as the result of a highly dubious conflict. Hong Kong has therefore seen its past obscured by successive generations of administrators that wanted to distance this modern, orderly, prosperous city from its rather uncomfortable beginnings. The consequent focus on the present, the here-aqnd-now, therefore, has been a reason, to me, why people living in Hong Kong know quite a bit less about its past eras than possibly any other developed city on the planet...