The Emotions of a Good Museum
As Hong Kong coasts on a wave of new and renewed museums, good design can take the visitor experience to another level.
The immersive Mona Lisa exhibition uses digital tools to reveal the intricacies of the masterpiece. Exhibition design by Sylvain Roca. Photo by and courtesy of Think Utopia
These are heady times for museums in Hong Kong. Just a few years ago, the city was derided for its musty collection of government-run institutions. Now there is Tai Kwun and M+, not to mention the completely revamped Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA), a redesigned Hong Kong Heritage Museum – still under construction – and the Hong Kong Palace Museum, which opened on July 2.
With this impressive growth comes challenges. As Hongkongers knew well enough before, it’s not enough to simply have a museum: it needs to be good. And how that happens is fundamentally a question of design. “A museum is a place where experience is king,” says HKMoA director Maria Mok. “The experience begins not inside the gallery, it begins as soon as a visitor enters through our front door.”
Everything from the building’s architecture to branding is important, alongside wayfinding, accessibility and of course the design of the exhibitions themselves. “It is almost like extending curation beyond the exhibition galleries,” says Mok, “and we need to maintain that high standard throughout.”
Left: HKMoA's renovations opened up exterior views to create a more pleasant space. Photo courtesy of HKMoA
Right: "In-Between-Departures (time vector)" by Saki Ho, currently on display in "In-Between" at HKMoA. Photo courtesy of HKMoA
It’s also necessary to balance the sometimes conflicting goals of a museum. On the one hand, museums are tasked with conserving priceless objects. There are 914 items on display in the Hong Kong Palace Museum’s opening exhibitions, for instance, 166 of which are officially considered Chinese national treasures. On the other hand, a museum’s purpose is to make these precious objects available to the public so they can truly understand their significance. These two ambitions sometimes butt heads with one another.
“Today, in lots of museums and cultural spaces, most of the curators are from this generation with [a more traditional] state of mind – they see their professional aim as conserving physical objects,” says Roei Amit, director general of the Grand Palais Immersif, which organises immersive exhibitions in collaboration with some of France’s most prestigious cultural institutions. “It’s important and good to do that,” he says. “However, there is a new generation of curators and also some more traditional curators who understand this type of format is an excellent opportunity to engage with the public.”
That engagement is a challenge faced by museums all over the world. The specific circumstances are different, but the problem is the same: museums need to reach a broader slice of the public. In Europe, museum audiences tend to be older and less diverse than the general public (over-55s make up 41 percent of all visitors in the UK, well over their share of the popular), while in Hong Kong the lack of familiarity with museums has meant relatively low attendance (3.67 million people visited the city’s 14 public museums in 2019, whereas London’s top seven museums attracted 27 million people that same pre-pandemic year.)
Exhibition designer Sylvain Roca believes he understands what can pull new people in. “My credo is to create emotion,” he says. “If you have emotion, you are ready to understand. The goal is to make you interested in a way that you want to know more.”
Knowledge through objects
Visitors to the Mona Lisa exhibition can compare the paintings to other artworks by Leonardo da Vinci.
Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Child Jesus (above left), Mona Lisa (bottom left)
Exhibition design, Sylvain Roca. Photos by and courtesy of Think Utopia
The idea of the museum is at once ancient and contemporary. The word itself is generally derived from mouseion (Μουσεῖον), the ancient Greek term for a temple of the Muses – the inspirational goddesses of creativity – and more specifically from the Museum of Alexandria, founded in the third century BC by Ptolemy the Great, pharaoh of Egypt. It functioned more like an academy than anything we would recognise as a museum today, drawing scholars from across the Hellenistic world to engage in debate and study; it was a place of intellectual discovery.
That is what led the word to be adopted by wealthy Europeans to describe the collections of objects they had accumulated in the 17th and 18th centuries. These “cabinets of curiosity,” as they were often known, were by their very nature eclectic. They might contain archaeological discoveries like ancient coins and vases, or animal specimens like a taxidermied dodo bird – objects often tied to the rise of European imperialism, as countries like the Netherlands, Britain and France sent their troops, clergies, trade companies and settlers around the world. They came, they saw, they conquered and they collected.
But it was also the Age of Enlightenment, when European thinkers were hungry for knowledge that could help them understand the world rationally. It was an unprecedented era of research, science, progress, philosophy and ethics. This eventually led to the rise of democracy and notions such as the separation of church and state and universal human rights. And it was often through objects that European thinkers expanded their view of the world.
The idea of using the varied objects collected by the elite to enhance public knowledge – to turn cabinets of curiosity into museums – is generally credited to Elias Ashmole, who donated his personal collection to the University of Oxford, which used them to open the Ashmolean Museum in 1677. The “public” who could gain access to such an institution was generally limited to the gentry and aristocracy. But in 1793, French revolutionaries made a leap towards a more democratic museum when they converted a royal palace into the Musée du Louvre, which the general public could visit three days a week to admire the many treasures collected by the French monarchy over the centuries.
That set off a wave of similar institutions across Europe, North America and Asia, including the Beijing Palace Museum, which opened in 1925, a little over a decade after the last emperor of China was evicted from his palace in the Forbidden City. While the objects on display differed from one museum to the next, the way they were exhibited was similar: different things arranged in a room, each labelled by information necessarily limited to the size of a placard. The extent to which the audience was able to connect with the works on display – and to understand why they were important – rested on the ability and expertise of a curator to select, arrange and contextualise objects.
Understanding through emotion
The immersive Mona Lisa exhibition uses digital tools to reveal the intricacies of the masterpiece, 2022.
Exhibition design, Sylvain Roca. Photos by and courtesy of Think Utopia
Now there are new tools that can bring the public even closer to the objects and artworks exhibited by museums. If a curator’s job is to explore and convey the significance of a particular object or artwork, a designer’s job is to make sure that significance is understood through experience. “Emotional comprehension” is what Sylvain Roca calls it. “If you have emotion, you have attachment,” he says. “It can be love or even hate – that’s attachment too.”
Those kinds of experiences are being made possible by digital projections, touchscreens, sound design, augmented reality and more. “Years ago it was impossible to imagine a large exhibition with projection – it was too expensive,” he says. “Now the price of every technology is getting lower, so these digital exhibitions become more accessible. Also, the range of what they can create is expanding. The very first thing was the interactive screen. Then virtual and augmented reality opened up a lot of new opportunities.”
Recently, Roca worked with the Louvre and the Grand Palais Immersif to design an exhibition that attempted to answer a deceptively simple question: what has made the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world? Normally, says Vincent Delieuvin, chief curator of paintings at the Louvre, the experience of seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece can be frustrating. “We have a very specific problem because we have about 30,000 visitors a day and most of them go to the Mona Lisa room,” he says. It’s hard to truly understand the painting in such circumstances.
By contrast, the immersive exhibition, which opened in March and runs until August 10 at the Palais de la Bourse in Marseille, “allows visitors to "touch screens and discover the painting by themselves," even as it remains on the wall of its home in the Louvre. Using six different touch-screen applications, they are able to zoom in to see detail of da Vinci’s renowned sfumato technique of blending tones and colours into each other, they can examine the material aspects of the work – it was painted on wood, not canvas – and explore the broader context in which it was painting, including comparisons to other Italian Renaissance paintings and da Vinci’s other works. Most importantly, says Delieuvin, “it’s a personal experience.” Instead of jostling for space in a crowded room, visitors can explore the Mona Lisa at their own pace.
The exhibition built on other immersive experiences. In 2020, just before the pandemic, the Grand Palais presented Pompeii, which dove into the famously destroyed Italian city through a selection of historic objects enhanced by a virtual recreation of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. (“It was very powerful – highly realistic,” says Roca. “It was scientific but also entertaining.”) This year saw the opening of Arts de l’Islam: un passé pour un présent, an exhibition organised by the Louvre that uses digital tools to showcase 10 Islamic objects at the same time in 18 different venues.
"Pompeii" recreated the doomed city through projections and interactive displays, Grand Palais Immersif, 2020.
Exhibition design, Sylvain Roca. Photos by Didier Plowy and courtesy of Reunion des Musees Nationaux Grand Palais
“I have been a curator for almost 30 years and in my experience, to be focused on art, we don’t need quantity, we need quality,” says Yannick Lintz, the Louvre’s Islamic arts curator, who was recently elected to the Académie des technologies based on her experience with immersive exhibitions. “I think it’s more efficient to educate on art when we can create explanations and emotion around 10 or 20 works, than it is to do it in a gallery with hundreds of artworks.”
Roca credits this clarity of focus to a dialogue between curators and designers. “[This dialogue] is getting deeper and more rich,” he says. “My feeling is that we are heading towards less quantity and being more interactive, but not in an audiovisual way – in an understanding kind of way. You have an opportunity to stand for longer in front of something and have the chance to contemplate it alone. There aren’t 20 art pieces, there’s one, and you can focus on it.”
Yannick Lintz says that immersive experiences created by new digital tools are “a real opportunity” to contextualise artworks and connect with the audience on a deeper level. But they can also fall into gimmickry; there’s a difference between pure immersive entertainment, with little but sound and images, and an immersive exhibition with a strong curatorial backbone that focuses attention on specific artefacts or artworks.
Lintz cautions that the experience itself shouldn’t outweigh the works being presented. “What we see now is a competition between more and more immersive technologies, but I think it’s very important as a curator to find the limits of these tools,” she says. “They should remain a tool, not the solution. We need to be very clear and very simple: the goal is to enhance the objects on display.”
Amit says this is the strategy employed by the Grand Palais Immersif. “For us, neither technology nor innovation are goals by themselves,” he says. “They’re always just tools we use to fulfil our missions, which is to engage with our audience. We are using it to explore details you cannot see when you look at something in front of you – for example, the back of the Mona Lisa. It allows us to tell a different side of the story.”
A total experience
Left: The Taizong Wen Emperor (Hong Taiji) in Court Attire – Hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk. Photo courtesy of The Palace Museum
Middle: Installation From Dawn to Dusk: Life in the Forbidden City. Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Palace Museum
Right: Surrounded by Antiquities, from Twelve Ladies, Qing dynasty, Kangxi or Yongzheng period, 1709-32 – Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. Photo courtesy of The Palace Museum
Hong Kong’s new museums have the advantage of being newly built – or in the case of the HKMoA, newly rebuilt. When it opened in 2019 after a four-year reconstruction, the museum gained 40 percent more exhibition space, with four new galleries that can be adapted for a variety of different exhibitions. High ceilings and glass curtain walls have done away with the cloistered feeling of the museum's previous incarnation. Maria Mok notes that, "despite the pandemic and the missing tourists," the HKMoA was ranked as one of the world's 100 most popular art museums by The Art Newspaper.
The Hong Kong Palace Museum hopes to achieve a similar trick. Designed by Hong Kong architect Rocco Yim, it is built around a "vertical central axis" that museum director Louis Ng says “turns the horizontal spatial configuration of the Forbidden City's central axis into a vertical structure.” Three atriums connect the museum’s floors, “each facing in a different direction, along the central axis across the ground, second and fourth floors, guiding visitors to move upwards and explore all our galleries.”
What they’ll find, aside from the many objects on display in the opening exhibitions, is 53 multimedia exhibits “to fully immerse themselves in the Forbidden City,” says Ng. It’s an attempt to bring historical objects to life and to prove that the Hong Kong Palace Museum is a vital, relevant institution. If experience is king, then emotion is the key to the castle – or in this case, the palace.
This column is produced in partnership with Zolima CityMag, an online magazine that explores Hong Kong’s arts, design, history and culture.