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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

Roberto Ignacio Diaz, Dominic Cheung, Ana Paulina Lee, Authors

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The Museum as a Textbook

At the time of my visit to the Museum of History, a special art display graced the entrance. It was a display for the “Hong Kong: Our Home” campaign: two large paintings, made up of tiles of smaller paintings, of either side of Victoria Harbor (“Hong Kong”). The campaign, which serves to “inject positive energy into society and help foster a spirit of social cohesion, mutual help and care,” has already organized over 700 events that have brought in government departments and upwards of 220 organizations (“Hong Kong”). The scope of the campaign and its overtones of fostering regionalistic pride, combined with the infantile style (the blocks, the bright colors and the simple symbols) of the display bring up associations of infantile nationhood––in the United States this means children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, learning about how to be good citizens, and hearing the rudimentary legends of the nation (George Washington and the cherry tree, Benjamin Franklin and the kite, etc.). Placed at the entrance of the Hong Kong Museum of History, the “Hong Kong: Our Home” display underlines the institution’s fundamental role as a teacher of a common, regional history. 

Indeed, the Hong Kong Museum of History plays the role of educator of Hong Kong history to denizens and tourists alike. The museum also organizes seminars and lectures by local scholars, field trips to places of historical interest, and annual essay competitions for high schoolers (Carroll 91, 96). On any given day, there are uniform-clad school children busily filling out worksheets as they shuffle from exhibit to exhibit, and a quick Google search for “school field trips Hong Kong Museum of History” brings up a myriad of school and summer camp itineraries that extol the museum as a Hong Kong must-see. One site, that of the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) International Summer School, even quotes from a travel guide: “If you visit only one museum in Hong Kong and you're prepared to spend at least 2 hours, this should be it. Make it one of your first priorities, so you’ll have a better understanding of what you see during the rest of your trip” (New York Times, as qtd. by HKIEd). The program’s portrayal of the Museum of History as the most important museum in Hong Kong and its use of the museum as a framework for understanding Hong Kong reflects the importance institutions place on the museum’s content. This is the go-to-place for learning about Hong Kong, a place where textbooks come to life. 

While the museum may serve as a four-dimensional, interactive textbook, however, its content should be examined with critical thought. In a case study on museum-based learning, researcher Joe Tin-Yau Lo studied a class of 37 students as they took a field trip to the Hong Kong Museum of History. He had identified the museum as one of the most popular field-based learning sites for Hong Kong schools, with most trips through the museum led by a museum docent and complemented by the museum’s educational resources (worksheets, informational guides, etc.) (Lo 19-20). In the study, a teacher and his Secondary 3 level students who were working on a unit on Hong Kong’s development took a field trip to the Museum of History in which they were led on a tour by a docent and had to fill out worksheets provided by the museum as they walked around (Lo 21).

Lo deduced from his experiment that “as the docent’s explanations were, by and large, exhibit-based or object-based, there was not much concern about inter-exhibit relationship and flow vital for students to analyse issues related to continuity and change in the phylogeny of Hong Kong” (21). He also observed that “about ninety percent of the questions were based on facts and data that could be found in the exhibits and on the captions. The questions were rarely designed to engage students in historical or issue-based inquiry, relating to the exhibits and relevant resources” (21). While it is true that students might have been more engaged or exhibited higher levels of thinking if the teaching methods were different (and so Lo’s experiment does not necessarily reflect the museum as a whole but rather instructional methods used with the museum), his experiment is still a valuable example of the pitfalls of taking the Museum of History––or any museum––at face value. 

If students simply accept the museum as purely informational (like a school text), then what do they make of the skimpy coverage of conflict, whether between the British and Chinese or between other ethnic groups? How do they reconcile anti-mainland sentiment with the museum’s promotion of cultural “chinese-ness” and heavy focus on the legitimacy of the handover? What do they make of all of the people of different ethnicities in Hong Kong not included in the museum’s explanations of Hong Kong heritage? What do children from international schools think when they go to learn about Hong Kong––their home––without seeing faces in the museum displays that look like theirs? 

This museum’s mediation of what Hong Kong’s heritage means is especially pertinent in light of institutionalized racism against South and Southeast Asian immigrants. With a steady rise in foreign workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Pakistan, and Nepal, among others, the ethnic composition of Hong Kong becomes increasingly less “Han Chinese,” yet these immigrants, many of whom speak fluent Cantonese, are ostracized by Hong Kong Chinese and for the most part excluded from a role in the museum’s narrative of Hong Kong heritage (Ku & Pun). In an attempt to forge more closely the connection between the mainland and Hong Kong, an interactive display at the Museum of History claims that “an abundance of unearthed artifacts also illustrate[s] that Hong Kong is in the same cultural sphere of Guangdong in South China” (HKMH). Edward Vickers argues, however, that “international scholarly opinion ... holds that Hong Kong’s prehistoric inhabitants were probably more closely related to Malays, Vietnamese or Polynesians than to the ‘Han’ peoples of northern China (Vickers 72). 

Even by the mere act of omission, the Hong Kong Museum of History creates conscious narratives about Hong Kong’s cultural identity that must be examined with a critical eye. Questions of political conflict and racial tensions, while smoothed down, are remarkably loud in their absence. These unsettling inconsistencies that leak from a narrative which otherwise strives to consistently bind Hong Kong to China in a show of ethnic and political continuity, highlight the dilemma of identity construction for the modern state whose realities veer increasingly further away from the stories it portrays. 

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