When M+ finally opens, Doryun Chong is looking forward to seeing the public spill through the doors of Hong Kong’s new museum of visual culture. But he’s also excited about the things that most visitors will never see.
“Going to the back of the house, to the carpentry shop where the framers are, to the exhibition designers with their little models – that’s where these final decisions are made before anything appears before the public,” says Chong, the museum’s chief curator. “It becomes very clear what the core of our business is, which is giving space to and preserving the historic forms of cultural expression that we are privileged to be the caretaker of.”
That experience is almost within reach. After years of construction delays—and anticipation that in some circles has curdled into cynicism—the building that will house M+ is finally nearing completion. It towers over the West Kowloon Cultural District, a 14-storey slab atop a broad three-storey podium, with two more floors of underground space and an additional nine-storey conservation building rising behind.
“It’s tangible,” says Suhanya Raffel, the museum’s director. And yet word broke last spring that the opening of M+, already well past its original target of opening in 2017, may be delayed yet again, this time to 2021. So what’s going on?
It’s worth noting that, strictly speaking, M+ already exists. The museum was launched in 2011 under the leadership of Lars Nittve, the founding director of London’s Tate Modern, one of the world’s most important contemporary art museums. Since then, it has steadily assembled an international team of curators, a collection of nearly 6,400 works of contemporary art, moving images, architecture and design, along with more than 35,000 archival objects. It organises regular exhibitions in venues around Hong Kong, including the M+ Pavilion, a gallery annex that opened in 2016. As Nittve often liked to say, a museum is more than just its building.
While that is certainly true, every museum needs a home, and the one that M+ will occupy is a testament to the scale of its ambitions. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architecture firm responsible for the Tate Modern, Tai Kwun and other landmarks like the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, the M+ building spans 65,000 square metres. 17,500 square metres of that will be dedicated to exhibitions – roughly the same amount of gallery space as the recently expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York. There will be a total of 33 galleries, three cinemas, a mediatheque, a learning centre, a research centre, shops and restaurants, and a large public plaza on the rooftop of its podium.
The structure is covered in ceramic tiles, which architect Jacques Herzog describes as a nod to Hong Kong’s many tile-clad towers. “It plays with the sunlight, it’s a reflective surface, but it’s not glass – it’s not an office building,” he says. At night, the tower’s harbourfront façade will be transformed into a giant video screen that will be used for specially commissioned artworks and moving images from the collection. “It’s a Trojan horse,” says the architect, taking an archetypal Hong Kong building—a high-rise with a video billboard—and using it not for commercial purposes but for something artistic.
The building is on track to be completed early next year. “We are very close,” says Raffel, the former deputy director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who took over from Nittve at the end of 2016. But there is still a lot of work to be done until the museum can open its doors to the public. When construction is finished, government inspectors will arrive to make sure everything is in order before the museum is issued an occupation permit – an unprecedented process, since Hong Kong has never before had a museum on the scale of M+.
After that, Raffel says the museum will need “between nine to 12 months” to become fully operational. Front-line staff will need to be hired and trained, exhibitions built, retail and restaurant spaces rented out and at least 1,500 objects from the museum’s collection consolidated from storage facilities around the world. “We’re already started preparing a lot of it,” she says. “There is wonderful conservation [work] being done, preparing the framing, object conservation.”
Raffel says the plan is to have a soft opening in December 2020, with select people invited to visit the museum, including school groups, taxi drivers and construction workers. M+ has already been conducting exit surveys on those who attend its exhibitions, revealing a disproportionately young audience – the opposite of many established museums, which struggle to expand their appeal beyond the grey-haired crowd. The challenge of M+ will be to expand its reach to all corners of Hong Kong. “We want everybody from all walks of life to come through these doors,” says Raffel.
What they will see at first is M+’s own collection, which will be showcased in 31 of the 33 galleries. “It’s the core of the museum,” says Raffel. And it has been growing quickly. M+ added 954 new works last year alone, adding to a body of works that already includes 1,510 pieces acquired from Uli Sigg, a Swiss diplomat who built the world’s most comprehensive collection of contemporary Chinese art.
“The list just keeps getting longer and longer,” says Doryun Chong. This year, the museum has slowed its pace in order to take better stock of what it has assembled. The collection contains works from around the world, but its core focus is on Asia, with a special emphasis on Hong Kong’s visual culture; local artworks and design objects account for 20 percent of the museum’s collection, and 28 percent of its archival material is from Hong Kong.
There’s no question that M+ will have a dramatic impact on Hong Kong’s art ecology. Chong, who joined the museum in 2013, admits he felt nervous about “landing a giant mothership” in a city that had never been home to such a large cultural institution. But he has been pleased to see the growth of non-profit art organisations like Para Site and Asia Art Archive, a complete revamp of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, as well as the opening of new institutions like Tai Kwun and the Centre for Heritage, Art and Textiles. “We are part of a quickly enriching ecology,” he says. “We play an anchoring role but we wouldn’t have anything to anchor if there wasn’t already a lot there.”
But M+ isn’t just a local institution – it plans to speak to a global audience. And its potential is particularly apparent in its focus on architecture and design. “There is no design museum in this region—no proper one—that really tries to connect [all of] Asia,” says Ikko Yokoyama, the museum’s lead curator of architecture and design. That puts M+ in the unique position of being an institution that can reframe global design through an Asian lens. “We use Hong Kong as a vantage point to revisit 20th-century design, which had a very Western discourse,” she says.
The tentacles of the design collection reach many unexpected places. M+ has acquired a first-generation rice cooker, typefaces from Thailand, Thai psychedelic magazines, Hong Kong-made products such as Camel flasks and a Diana camera, as well as some of the city’s last neon signs. There’s even a vintage Daihatsu Midget tuk-tuk. “The most interesting thing about collecting design and architecture is that it wasn’t meant to be exhibited, it was meant to be used, to improve people’s lives,” says Yokoyama.
It won’t only be design curators that take an interest in these objects. Unlike many other museums, M+ is meant to be interdisciplinary, without any structural barriers between its different areas of focus. “If you’re looking [at objects] just through the lens of art, or the lens of architecture, you’re missing part of the picture,” says Yokoyama.
In many older institutions, there are administrative walls between different departments, right down to the bottom line of what they can spend on acquisitions and exhibitions. “We decided a long time ago we will not departmentalise according to discipline,” says Chong. Instead, M+ curators work on teams that span various areas of interest. “We will always have cross-team, cross-discipline conversations to explore new areas we aren’t thinking about.”
That approach has attracted interest from some influential artists and designers. Earlier this year, the members of the groundbreaking British architectural collective Archigram allowed M+ to acquire a portion of their archive to M+. Known for theoretical concepts that were communicated through colourful, psychedelic imagery, Archigram had a lasting impact on generations of architects. Dennis Crompton, one of the collective’s founders, says he wanted that legacy to survive in an institution that wouldn’t keep it locked away in a vault.
Despite pressure to keep the Archigram archive in the UK, Crompton passed over the Royal British Institute of Architects, and he wasn’t impressed by the Getty Center in Los Angeles either. “Basically, they’re graveyards,” he says. “They just sit there waiting for someone to research.” By contrast, he found himself won over by the “open source generosity of information” promised by M+.
“There are obvious political dangers to being in Hong Kong,” he says. “But hopefully the culture will be stronger than the politics.”
That’s raises an important question about political freedom. Hong Kong has been gripped by months of protests over what many feel is an increasingly authoritarian government. Ever since she took up her position, Raffel has been asked how she would ward off political interference and censorship of the kind suffered by cultural institutions in mainland China and Singapore.
“I have had no instance of any pressure,” she says. And she insists that she is confident that M+ is protected by such pressure by the way it is structured, with an independent board of directors, a collections trust and a clear acquisitions policy. “These are global best practices,” she says.
In just over a year, the public will be able to see for themselves. If all goes according to plan, M+ will be fully open in the early part of 2021. “It’s a very big museum that will take time to digest,” promises Raffel. And for all the angst about its repeated delays, she offers some reassurance: “When we open, it’s the beginning. The journey is yet to come.”
Correction: A previous version of this article used outdated data on the M+ collection and archives. 20 percent of the collection is now from Hong Kong, not 18 percent, and 28 percent of its archival material is from Hong Kong, not 30 percent. There are now 35,000 objects in the archives, not 14,200. The article also stated the Archigram archive was a donation, but it was in fact an acquisition. We regret the errors.