Scholars are urging government curators not to shy away from controversial issues in the production of new exhibits as the Hong Kong Museum of History undertakes a two-year revamp of its popular Hong Kong Story exhibition.
Occupying 7,000 square meters in eight galleries on two floors, the permanent exhibition of the Hong Kong Story has attracted more than 10 million local and overseas visitors since its launch in 2001, according to the museum website. It has now been temporarily closed, starting October 19, for an extensive renovation.
The old exhibition showcased exhibits starting from the Devonian period 400 million years ago up to 1997. It only caused a stir in the public when the exhibition was officially closed this month, even though the decision was announced in 2015. The revamp is a regular exercise of history museums conducted every 20 years, according to John Carroll, a professor in the University of Hong Kong’s History Department and an expert in museology.
Coming at a time when Hong Kong is reeling from intense turmoil after yearlong massive protests sparked by a now-defunct extradition bill last year, many fear the new exhibition — which will cover the period from the Neolithic to 2014 — will be a watered-down version of the recent history of the city.
“Everything in Hong Kong these days is politically charged, there’s no point in speculating. The project is going to be difficult and challenging. However, it’s a good opportunity to make it an even better exhibition,” according to Carroll, the author of A Concise History of Hong Kong.
“It’s not uncommon for governments to produce museums which are not critical because they don’t want to train people to be critical of the authorities. Most museums are a compromise,” he said, adding that “Museums should be a product of discussion, argument and negotiation, and to tell complex stories.”
He said even the old exhibition was curated in a traditional, conservative way, with an apparent attempt to avoid controversy. For instance, the portraits of the British governors who headed Hong Kong before the political handover to China in 1997 were displayed in a “dark corner” of the venue.
“It is designed in such a way that people would not spend much time there,” he said.
Echoing Carroll’s views, Godfrey Lai, a history researcher at Lingnan University, a Hong Kong liberal arts university, said, “I’m not too concerned with certain events being omitted or downplayed in the new exhibition since it’s rather difficult to wipe out history in modern times. But I am more concerned with the use of language and whether the selection of the content is biased.”
“What’s so problematic is that the government tends to obtain the information from pro-establishment sources such as pro-Beijing newspapers,” he added.
In the old exhibition, photos and videos instead of text were used to depict politically sensitive incidents, such as the pro-communist Hong Kong riots in 1967 under the British rule to keep away from having to deal with the conflicting views related to the historic events, Lai said.
For the updated version of the exhibition, he suggested that interviews with people who have participated in the events and government officials who are responsible for making the decisions, and artifacts generated during that time be included to provide a more complete perspective.
Lai also said the display should be presented from the point of view of Hong Kong people rather than that of the mainland Chinese.
“Domestically, it should resonate and have a connection with the local people. Externally, tourists would want to know how the local people look at the events. If people want a mainland Chinese perspective, they should go the museums in Beijing,” he said.
Taking a broader view, Carroll said the exhibition will be aimed at not just the 7.5 million local population but also visitors from mainland China and overseas.
“Some people want to be more critical of the colonial rule, but some don’t,” he said.
Both history scholars indicated they would want to have government officials’ reaction to key events shown in the exhibition. Then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s decision-making over the Umbrella Revolution, for example, also known as Occupy Central Movement when a series of mostly peaceful sit-in pro-democracy protests took place in 2014 should be featured in the renewed production, Carroll said.
Angela Fong, who had visited the now-closed exhibition several times over the years with her two children, aged 17 and 10, said she is concerned that key political issues will be left out or “twisted.”
“The government is already making changes to the history textbooks in schools. It’ll be difficult to tell the truth to our next generation,” she said.
In 2015, history researcher Lai founded Wetoasthk, a Facebook page dedicated to Hong Kong history that has close to 30,000 followers.
He said the government does not have an exclusive privilege in keeping a record of history.
“Anyone can record history, especially with the help of technology today,” he told VOA.