Hong Kong’s Maritime Trade, Part VII: A Museum of the Sea

In just over a year, the anchor of the longest ship that ever sailed will find a new home outside Central Pier 9. It was salvaged from the Seawise Giant, a supertanker built in 1979 that was for a time owned by Tung Chao-yung, shipping tycoon and father of former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. When the enormous vessel — twice the length of the Titanic — was scrapped in 2010, its anchor was acquired by Anthony Hardy, founder of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. “And it’s been sitting in the government for the last 10 years or so,” says the museum’s CEO, Richard Kendall.

The anchor will form the centrepiece of a new plaza that will contain a maritime interpretive centre containing an immersive projection. When the plaza is completed and the anchor installed sometime in early 2025, it will be sure to turn heads – which is exactly the point, because the Maritime Museum hopes it will draw more visitors to its space in Pier 8. “One of the comments I get about the museum is that almost everyone who visits enjoys it, but they say it’s not well known enough,” says Kendall. 

The Seawise Giant’s anchor will find a new home outside Central Pier 9 – Image courtesy The Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Many would be surprised to learn that the Maritime Museum has already been open for 18 years. Hardy spent nearly half a century working at the world’s first third-party ship manager, the Wallem Group, and as he neared his retirement, he rallied Hong Kong’s shipowning community to the idea of opening a museum dedicated to the city’s maritime history, heritage and environment. “It was a glaring omission for Hong Kong not to have a maritime museum, because Hong Kong’s success today is built on its maritime trade links of the past,” says Kendall, who began his career at the UK’s naval academy and eventually worked for Swire, one of the museum’s original sponsors. He served on the museum’s board of trustees in the early days.

Back then, the museum was decidedly modest, with a 500-square-metre space in Murray House on the Stanley waterfront. Under the leadership of founding director Stephen Davies, a maritime historian and professor at the University of Hong Kong, the museum secured financial aid from the government and an HK$80 million endowment from the shipping community that allowed it to move into its current 5,000-square-metre space in Pier 8 in 2013. That gave it space for new permanent exhibitions on China’s maritime heritage and the history of Hong Kong’s maritime trade, as well as a decidedly eclectic range of temporary shows on topics from sharks to Chinese junks to Hong Kong pirates. The museum has also amassed a large collection of artefacts related to maritime history — directly or tangentially — including photographs, paintings, nautical instruments and Chinese ceramics. 

All of this is done in what is an unusual arrangement for Hong Kong. “We’re a private-public partnership,” says Kendall. Whereas nearly every other museum in Hong Kong is owned by the government, either directly or indirectly, the Maritime Museum operates as a registered charity that relies partly on government grants, partly from commercial revenue through event rentals and a café, and partly from donations by Hong Kong’s shipping community. 

“The shipping industry felt that letting everybody know about the industry was something we needed to do,” says shipowner Tim Huxley, director of Mandarin Shipping. “The museum tells that story and it tells it very well. As an educational and cultural attraction it is fulfilling its duty, but it’s also like shipping’s village hall. It’s a focal point for the shipping industry to gather.”

Kendall is quick to note that while individual galleries are sponsored by shipping families like the Tungs and the Paos, “we’re very careful to make sure we don’t give them a say in the content of the exhibitions. It’s very much independent to the funding.” But without that industry support, the museum wouldn’t exist – and it likely wouldn’t have survived the pandemic, whose restrictions forced its closure for a significant part of 2022. 

The industry is also funding the museum’s turn towards a focus on marine science. It is building up a new permanent exhibition on marine sciences. And last year, the Swire Marine Discovery Centre opened with a multi-purpose hall that can be used for lectures, a small gallery, and a learning centre geared towards school visits. “We’ve got a balcony with access to the harbour so kids can have the direct experience of collecting marine samples,“ says Kendall. 

He points towards one of the museum’s current exhibitions as an example of its focus on marine sciences. Produced in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, The Oyster Odyssey looks at efforts to conserve and revive Hong Kong’s oyster habitats. “Hong Kong has one of the highest per capita seafood consumption rates in the world, so it’s a good opportunity to educate people on the impact of that and sustainable practices,” says Kendall.

The shift towards marine sciences was shepherded by Joost Schokkenbroek, a Dutch marine historian who ran the Vancouver Maritime Museum before arriving at the Hong Kong museum in February 2021. He served as director for two and a half years before leaving to oversee the University of Hong Kong’s new museum studies programme last summer. 

“I think in general that museums should play a more prominent role in taking part in societal discourse,” Schokkenbroek told us last January. “Too often I find museums have been shying away from it or trying to be very neutral or indecisive. The advantage of including marine biology and biodiversity in our offering is we can play a role in that discourse.”

With Schokkenbroek’s departure, the museum is looking for new leadership, either in the form of a new director or a chief curator who can oversee the programming while Kendall handles the administration. And like many cultural institutions, it’s looking to rebuild its audience after the pandemic. The museum has had just 52,486 visitors over the past year, down 22 percent from the year below. But with Covid restrictions lifted, Kendall says the museum is quickly reaching pre-pandemic levels of attendance. 

There’s potential for much more. “A maritime museum is a way to connect with the world,” said Schokkenbroek when he was still director. “There is life on the ocean – seafarers, shipbuilding, trade. And there is life in the ocean. It’s all combined.”

For more details on the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, click here.

This story was updated after publication to reflect the involvement of Stephen Davies in the development of the museum.

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