Image: Lynn Fung. Courtesy of the Liang Yi Museum. Photo: South China Morning Post.
“As a museum, it is important for us to be educational, almost above all else.”
Located on Hong Kong’s historic Hollywood Road, the Liang Yi Museum displays the private collections of classical Chinese antique furniture, as well as European vanities. Having collaborated with renowned global institutions, adopting a rather innovative approach and featuring as our inaugural venue partner in 2017, Art World Forum catches up with Lynn Fung.
As the Director of the Liang Yi Museum in Hong Kong, which focuses on design, craftsmanship and heritage, you have hosted institutional collaborations with reputable collections, including the V&A and Freer and Sackler Gallery Archives. How have such collaborations influenced your programming?
Every institution that we have worked with has provided valuable learning opportunities for us. We are a young institution (having only opened in 2014) and being able to work with museums like the V&A has been wonderful for our staff in finding out more about how other museum do things. This includes everything from a very practical, logistical level, to being able to chat to other curators (who are world-class specialists in their fields) and learning from them. In terms of how it has affected our programming, I think that with each relationship we build with the institutions we work with, it influences how we think about upcoming exhibitions. As we get to know the core collections of different museums, we are able to think about the loans we could ask for, to supplement and enrich our future exhibits.
What is the aim and mission of the Liang Yi Museum and what role does it play in the ever-developing art scene of Hong Kong?
Our aim is to create a place in Hong Kong where people can come to learn and think about design, craftsmanship and heritage through the conduit of our permanent collections. As a museum, it is important for us to be educational, almost above all else. As such, every time we plan an exhibition, we almost spend just as much time thinking about the educational programming alongside it. We always make sure to have exhibition catalogues with relevant research information and essays; we make sure we have a programme of guest speakers complementing the exhibition for our monthly Liang Yi Talks; and we always make sure that we are reaching out to the younger generation. For example, for our upcoming exhibition Chrysanthemum and Dragon, which is a comparative exhibition of Japanese and Chinese decorative arts in the 17th-19th centuries, we made sure to work closely with the Japanese schools here to see how we can accommodate their students to come for visits and chats with our docents.
You are an advocate of the open display system in order to make exhibitions feel more accessible and familiar, attempting to remove the feeling of intimidation towards art. Similarly, many discussions at the moment are revolving around this idea of making art “accessible” by “democratising the arts”. What are your thoughts on this and how would you say your experiential approach has impacted visitors?
For one of our core collections, the classical Chinese antique furniture, our open display system has been instrumental in getting our visitors to really appreciate all facets of the craftsmanship. I have always believed that this is especially relevant for furniture; after all, it is something that was designed to be lived with, to be touched by humans, to be used. So much of the thought that went into the design can only be appreciated when these pieces can be touched, or sat on, or held. All our visitors, almost without exception, come into the museum a bit intimidated, and it takes time for our docents to encourage them and warm them up before they feel comfortable with the idea of touching the objects. But once they get over the mental barrier, you immediately see the effect that this accessibility has to the overall experience.
Of course, it is not without some risk to us. We had a visitor who dropped one of our objects on the floor ( a very small and delicate seal paste case from the Qing dynasty) and it broke. Like I said, we are still learning as a museum, and unfortunately, we have learned that not all objects can be displayed out in the open. Now we feel the need to put some of our more delicate objects inside display cases, but we remain committed to being as open as we can. So for example, if someone really wants to see an object inside a case, then we are happy to have our docents open the case and handle the object so the visitor can take a closer look.
How would you describe Hong Kong’s art scene? Is it a key contributor to its culture?
Hong Kong’s art scene is dynamic and vibrant, and there is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm here. Of course, with the art fairs and auctions that come to town, there is an aspect of commercialisation that can’t be denied – or is that necessarily a bad thing? What I have often been told, especially from our visitors who come to town for Art Basel, is how much they appreciate our museum providing a very different arena for appreciating the arts. After having spent a morning at the convention centre, they love coming to spend the afternoon with us, where the atmosphere is decidedly more tranquil, and the focus is on appreciation and learning, not buying and selling.
With new technologies on the top of everyone’s agenda, and plenty of discussions addressing how art and technology are working together, [how] is the Liang Yi Museum participating in the discussion? Is there scope in including new dimensions to the Asian antique and collectible narrative?
One of the things that we do at the museum is really encourage people to document their experience with us on social media. We understand that for the younger generation especially, if we were to have a no-photography rule, it would really impact their enjoyment. We aren’t here to judge whether that is a good or a bad thing, only to accept that this is just how a lot of people process their experience with the arts. That aside, we had also experimented previously with QR codes. We wanted to make the experience as personal as possible for each visitor. We already do that by assigning each visitor to a docent, whose job it is to provide as much information as possible on the objects without overwhelming them with a multitude of dry facts.
The idea with the QR code was that if you were looking at an object with 2 others who wanted to move on, but you wanted to learn more, you could scan the QR code and find out more on your phone which you can read at a later time. It is a good idea on paper, but for some reason, people just weren’t keen on it. If they wanted more information, they were more likely to directly ask the docent, implying that they still preferred the personal interaction rather than the technological element.
With new patronage structures in place to support the Art market, including alternative financial avenues, fractional ownership schemes, and like yours, private institutions, what does patronage mean to you?
As a privately funded non-profit institution, I would honestly say that the freedom to do what we do, without outside interference, is probably one of the key elements for us. For example, our ability to showcase our furniture without barriers would, I imagine, be severely impeded if we were subject to fractional ownership schemes, where a lot of other people would have a say in how we do things. We cherish our freedom to be experimental, whether that is in terms of our exhibition design or our curatorial programming. Of course, that is not to say it would not be nice to receive additional funding or help, but I think on the whole, we would rather work with a more limited budget but more freedom, rather than the other way round.