HONG KONG CREATES A MUSEUM FOR THE FUTURE
M+ Museum Director Suhanya Raffel is championing the new institution’s deep connection with the Hong Kong community while establishing it as one of the world’s leading museums. She talks to Wallpaper* about her work and how M+ is helping to redefine the significance of visual culture in Asia
W*: When did you start working with M+, and why did you decide to take on the challenge?
SR : I moved to Hong Kong from Sydney in 2016 to join M+. The ecosystem of museum development in Asia is still emerging, which is why it is so exciting to be here. As a major new museum, we are simultaneously defining what global museum cultures of the future will look like, while creating a completely new understanding of the role of the museum in Asia.
On a more personal note, as someone originally from Asia [Raffel was born in Sri Lanka], I have always felt the significance of owning the storytelling that belongs to us – these are our stories and they are unique to here. It is crucial that our voices are heard from our place, with our people. It feels right that Asia should claim an increasing role in the narrative, and that Hong Kong, a city that has always been a connection between East and West, should take the lead.
W*: What is M+’s mission?
SR : M+, a brand new centre for visual culture and a world-class landmark for a great international city, is dedicated to collecting, exhibiting and interpreting visual culture of the 20th and
21st centuries; its collections span visual art, visual culture, design and architecture, and the moving image. I want M+ to be a major platform for fostering exchange between Hong Kong and the rest of the world. We want to tell the stories of this region through multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and interregional narratives.
W*: What is the significance of M+ to Hong Kong and the region?
SR : Great museums change global perceptions of cities and nations. A museum like M+ can have a transformative effect by expressing the identity, creativity and energy of the city. When we look at Hong Kong – its skyline, its street culture, its art and design, its regional authenticity and international influences – it reflects a rich and entirely unique history. Hong Kong has a globally recognised visual culture; there really is no better place to build a museum like M+.
One of Hong Kong’s most ambitious and far-sighted decisions has been to invest in a new district dedicated to culture and creativity. M+ is part of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a massive project consisting of museums, theatres and public space built on 40 hectares of reclaimed land. The name ‘M+’ expresses our particular ambition to be more than just a museum. M+ is a catalyst for the future development of art, culture and creativity that will change people’s lives.
W*: What kind of museum experience is M+ creating?
SR : M+ is located in the West Kowloon Art Park, a hugely popular public space. Herzog & de Meuron have created a superb and extraordinary museum building that extends that public space into and on top of the museum building through a design that is porous and inviting. It is truly a gift to Hong Kong that will become one of its most recognised architectural icons. Indeed, we regard the building itself as part of the M+ Collections.
But, M+ is more than a new public space for the city; it is a place for inspiration. The museum will be a place where visitors can interact, share our thinking, discuss and learn; it is a place where people can see our objects as they truly are.
I firmly believe when interacting with visual culture – whether an architectural model or ink painting – the experience of looking at the scale of the work is an essential part of the enjoyment. Importantly, the museum will also be a place to relax and unwind, with dining, shopping and an open-air roof garden featuring a newly commissioned, interactive ‘Playscape’ created together with the Isamu Noguchi Foundation. We hope to see people returning again and again, as we foster lifelong relationships with our visitors.
W*: Why has it been so important for M+ to make information about its collection available to the public online?
SR : M+ is embracing the practice of open access and working towards releasing as much data about our collections as possible. By providing images and metadata about our objects, and relevant contextual information about the images on the M+ website, the museum aims to unlock its institutional knowledge and invite public engagement. It’s a key element in creating new narratives and interpretations by giving the wider community a stake in what we do.
W*: What does your typical day at M+ look like?
SR : What is so exciting is that every day is different. I may be talking to architects or contractors, donors, schoolchildren or senior government officials. Increasingly, as we look beyond opening, discussing and planning M+’s next three years is taking up much of my time. We are well on the way towards establishing our next series of exhibitions, publications, internships and commissions. There are the key conversations with colleagues about our various partners and collaborators, such as Hong Kong’s participation at the Venice Biennale. And work on the growing collections continues with a strong emphasis now on how we incorporate our sustainability aspirations across the museum.