Time for Hong Kong to think about museum law

Hong Kong is a city of endless possibilities. There are countless restaurants and bars serving a great variety of cuisines, and you can buy anything at almost any time you want.
Most amazing of all is that you can call any place a museum – as long as you have a roof housing a bunch of stuff that people can see. 
The ground floor of a rundown house in the fishing village of Tai O displaying artefacts under no curatorial direction and proper protection calls itself a “museum”. It allows people to visit for free, although it has a lady living upstairs.
Luxury car brand Lamborghini calls its Causeway Bay showroom a “pop-up museum”, because it is showing some multimillion-dollar Italian supercars that they are luring people to buy next to a whole bunch of photos.
Not forgetting the “3D museum”, an amusement park for photo-obsessed visitors to take smartphone pictures and then get “Likes” on social media.
Why are they qualified to be called museums? 
Some at least attempt to do things properly. The Liang Yi Museum on Hollywood Road, which opened this year, tries to present a private collection of antique Chinese furniture and Chinese works of art and runs itself like a real museum.
The Imperial Museum in Garden Road, also opened this year, shows a Chinese imperial collection of art and furniture. It even has an organisation chart detailing the museum’s management and board of governance. Bookings are required to visit these private museums.
It is an indisputable fact that the pace of development of museums in Hong Kong is painfully slow. A key problem has been the absence of a clear definition of what a museum is.
Most museums – 15 plus the Hong Kong Film Archive – are managed by the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department. There are only a handful of private museums set up by organisations such as universities and non-profit private organisations.
A proposal to establish a museums law in Hong Kong was raised when the then Committee on Museums submitted a report in 2007 calling for the corporatisation of public museums. Apparently the proposal was rejected.
More collectors and artists – such as Cui Ruzhuo, who I interviewed the other day – are eyeing setting up private museums to show, well, whatever they want to show.
With the potential growth of these private museums, and the arrival of the West Kowloon Cultural District, is this the time for Hong Kong to reevaluate the need to draft our own museum law? One that would not only clearly define what a museum is, but would also allow museums to operate in a way that will help them raise funds, manage collections professionally and even encourage more rich collectors to share their knowledge and collection with the public for the greater good?
Museums are clearly defined in many parts of the world. The International Council of Museums said a museum is “a non-profit-making, permanent institution, in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
Museums are also defined in a legal context in many parts of the world, including the US and Taiwan. On August 7, the Executive Yuan of Taiwan passed a Museum Law drafted by the Ministry of Culture.
At a press conference yesterday, culture minister Lung Ying-tai said Taiwan has 746 museums of various sizes but it has taken 30 years for Taiwan to draft the Museum Law. She said museums registered under the law will not only earn proper recognition, the law will boost the development of private museums.
West Kowloon is proposing to set up a separate legal entity to govern the visual culture museum M+, which already has a lengthy 18-page acquisition policy. Perhaps it is time to revisit the discussion of museum law in Hong Kong, or at least educate the public that you can’t just call anything a museum. The word museum deserves to be used properly.
Originally published in SCMP blog Culture Club 

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