Outside Hong Kong: Museums as Cultural Ecosystems
What happens when museum workers visit each other?
The M+ International initiative was recently launched to create a platform to discuss current issues facing museums by partnering with international institutions. As part of this project, M+ and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo recently organised a symposium to reconsider the meaning of museum collections.
In addition to this symposium, three M+ team members visited the Mori Art Museum for two weeks to work with and learn from the staff there. We sat down with them to chat about what they learned.
- William Seung, Curatorial Assistant, Design and Architecture
- Ping Ping Tung, Exhibition Designer
- Nixon Wong, Assistant Curator, Learning and Interpretation
William: Back in September, the three of us were very fortunate to be sent to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, to undertake a two-week work placement as part of the M+ International initiative. We went to the Mori Art Museum both as ambassadors of M+ and also as students from M+.
Each of us tried to distil our scattered thoughts and experiences into three main takeaways.
1. Museums are part of a cultural ecosystem
William: I was really struck by the amount of art spaces in Japan. In Tokyo alone there are hundreds of spaces, both non-profit and profit-driven. What this made me realise is that every organisation and space has its limitations. There could be different financial, historical, and regional constraints. They all come with different contexts, different visions, and different missions.
It's all about working together to create a better ecosystem for the culture scene. We at M+ are just one of many players in the region, but we are lucky to be able to have the geographical and historical advantages of forming this friendship with others.
Of course, every institution is made up of people, and the relationships between them wouldn’t be there without museum workers’ friendships. During a lunch meeting with the Chief Curator of Mori, Kataoka Mami-san, she told us how important it is to maintain friendships among peers in the cultural sector, as you never know what interesting collaborations could come out of it in the future. Another participant of the symposium, Gridthiya Gaweewong (Artistic Director, Jim Thompson Art Center), also happened to know Doryun, M+’s Deputy Director, Curatorial, and Chief Curator, when he was a student, so it was interesting to hear those stories!
Right now, around Asia, there are a lot of new museums being built. Many people question this and wonder why we need new ones. But this conference and visit reminded me once again that different museums have different missions and strategies. They are doing unique things that actually can help to contribute to the culture scene in ways that may not be apparent at the moment, as more of a long-term commitment.
Nixon: Somehow, each museum can fill the gaps that come from the limitations of other institutions. They cover for each other.
Ping Ping: It's like an ecosystem; you should always embrace diversity. When you have a variety of museums, it captures the maximum of audiences too, because everyone has different tastes.
2. All museums face challenges and insecurities.
Ping Ping: This is a cloud of insecurity. Everyone has a few insecurities. This is the cloud that has been inside me since I joined M+. Having the opportunity to go to another museum for two weeks was a good chance to step away from it.
Talking to other museum people was great therapy. It was reassuring to know that we are not the only ones who struggle. Whether the museum is private or public, sixty years old or about to open, everyone has their own problems to solve. It is always chaotic and messy behind the scenes.
The symposium provided an opportunity to listen to different curators talk about how they utilise their collections and how they tackle problems in their museums.
For example, POLA museum—a private museum in a hot spring area called Hakone—houses a collection containing works by some of the best-known French Impressionists. However, it is a challenge for POLA to reach new audiences and to stand out from other modern art museums. Its curators had the idea of pairing up contemporary and modern artworks that share a similar context. The museum recently hosted its first contemporary art-focused exhibition based on this idea, which brought in audiences for both modern art and contemporary art.
Another example is a museum in Jakarta called The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, (MACAN), the first modern and contemporary art museum in Jakarta. Indonesia is a developing country where many people have never been to a museum, especially an art museum. Schools have very limited resources for art education, so MACAN decided to become a resource for them, giving out art education kits to schools, running regular programmes to engage educators and students, and providing weekly online tutorials on subjects in visual art. They also create booklets to give out to new museum visitors to help them understand what's happening in museums: Why is it so cold? Why can't we touch things? It’s all about identifying problems and solving them creatively and boldly.
When I got back to Hong Kong and to my cloud, I realised that it's okay to have one. It's a regular pattern that you work through. Everyone has their own working pace, and it takes time to figure out the best ways of working together. We are a very new museum. We just need to keep practising and practising, be sympathetic, be bold, and be creative.
3. Museums can teach their audiences in many different ways.
Nixon: My biggest takeaway is how we can consider museums as creative learning spaces. During this trip we visited many different museums, and I could see how they tried to transform their spaces to interact with their audiences.
We joined one of the Mori Art Museum’s programmes at a local school. They recruited thirteen student art ambassadors in the school, who introduce the exhibitions in both the classroom and the museum and create questions for their classmates like, what do you see? How do you feel? It’s quite inspiring. Art professionals usually think that they know what art is or should be, but I think students and young people should be encouraged to think for themselves and guide each other.
We also visited an exhibition called Insects: Models for Design in the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT museum. Both inside and outside the exhibition space, there were tables with dozens of rubber stamps. The rubber stamps on the table inside the gallery contained different adjectives, and the one outside contained insect types, so that children and other visitors could combine them to create new imaginary insects, like ‘marshmallow beetle’ or ‘samurai butterfly’.
This is quite interesting because they linked up the gallery space with a separate learning area. It's important that before you design an exhibition, you already have some ideas about how you will engage people.
Learn more about the M+ International initiative.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Image at top of post: Nixon Wong, Ping Ping Tung, and William Seung at the Mori Art Museum work placement. Photo: M+, Hong Kong