$450m HK Palace Museum opens with trove of Forbidden City treasures
HONHG KONG – Beijing’s Palace Museum, located in the heart of the Forbidden City, contains the world’s largest collection of Chinese art, spanning nearly 5,000 years of history. Now, more than 900 of those treasures are on display at the new Hong Kong Palace Museum — a “gift” from the central government to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule. While there’s nothing overtly political within its collection by modern standards, at least, the museum sparked controversy when it was first announced by Hong Kong’s outgoing leader Carrie Lam in late 2016, partly due to the apparent lack of public consultation before the project was green-lit. The Palace Museum’s long-term loan, which comprises rare paintings, calligraphic works, ceramics, jade and more from its 1.8m-strong collection, is “unprecedented at every level,” says the Hong Kong museum’s chairman Bernard Chan. “This is the first time ever that large quantities of these national treasures are being taken out … to another cultural institution, so you can imagine the complexity behind it,” he adds, citing challenges around transportation, security and insurance, the latter of which took a conglomerate of around 100 insurance companies from around the world to resolve.
Curating exhibitions in the midst of a pandemic also proved challenging — as did an accelerated timeline ensuring that the museum, its construction funded by a $3.5 billion HKD ($450 million) donation by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, opened in time for this week’s anniversary.
“When I was a curator in the United States, I spent three years working on one exhibition. Now I have three years to work on nine exhibitions,” says deputy director Daisy Wang Yiyou, referring to the museum’s ambitious opening program.
The stunning artifacts, 166 of which are considered “grade-one national treasures,” feature in thematic shows, including one exploring aspects of imperial life in the Forbidden City and another focused on innovative design and production techniques. Elsewhere, an exhibition of art inspired by horses juxtaposes works from the Forbidden City with pieces on loan from the Louvre in Paris. Some of the objects have never been seen in public before, including two recently restored sketches of empresses.
Wang expects the “blockbuster” attraction to be the museum’s rotating exhibition of Chinese paintings and calligraphy from the Jin, Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties.
“(These works) are extremely fragile and extremely rare, so after 30 days in Hong Kong, they are going to be escorted back to the Forbidden City storage… (to) rest for a few years,” she explains.