Hong Kong museum yanks a priceless artifact from the public: How a broken system is threatening public art

M+ , the Hong Kong Museum of Art is currently in the press due to recent controversy concerning its beautiful glass lattice walls. Was this design by Hong Kong native Philippe Starck the reason…

Hong Kong museum yanks a priceless artifact from the public: How a broken system is threatening public art

M+ , the Hong Kong Museum of Art is currently in the press due to recent controversy concerning its beautiful glass lattice walls. Was this design by Hong Kong native Philippe Starck the reason it’s suddenly in danger? As it turns out, the solution may be clearer in hindsight.

The unfortunate circumstances surrounding the museum stem from a delicate relationship with an artifact from ancient Egypt, a priceless bronze mask covered in whalebone. After the museum successfully purchased the object last year, planning began to display it. But the museum’s director, Nicholas Croce, removed the mask from its original resting place in the second-floor gallery where the public was permitted to view it, and moved it from an underground room under the entrance that it was never intended to enter.

Croce did this, according to Wired, because the museum wants to maintain the object as “an instrumental museum object,” rather than the center of a larger exhibition. That’s something he felt obligated to do by the Museo Reina Sofia de Madrid’s (Museo Reina Sofia) dispute with the library of King Philip IV over the copyright of an artifact he displayed without permission to the Spanish republic. His argument is that, after the Spaniards took it, “the mask became a puppet of international cooperation between Madrid and Hong Kong.” In short, he wants to keep the artifact in his possession for his museum, as opposed to the public.

There are so many issues with this reasoning. First of all, it is incredibly wasteful to spend so much time and effort to move an object that is, essentially, moving with you. Also, museums have always hoped to get the maximum benefit from their acquisition, and once that object has been purchased, it should reside as naturally as possible for as long as possible. It’s not unusual for the public to use objects with which they’ve acquired a good deal of familiarity, but it’s still a waste of taxpayer money to protect them from the people.

A professional outrage over these sensitive and fast-traveling objects is understandable. After all, would you place a piece of art in a research-sensitive job site, right next to a student’s article? But Croce seems to have violated established museum protocol for storage and presentation, something most museums do by and large. You don’t tear up the floors so long as the public can still reach the object, you don’t put your object at risk in the public’s hands and you don’t place objects with the public at risk. Not a smart move for a museum considered an elite institution by even most hard-core art enthusiasts.

There is a chance that the museum will open its doors for a press event this Thursday, October 11. As of Friday afternoon, the museum did not respond to questions regarding its policy and procedure in the matter. Hopefully Croce will be cautious when displaying such a historical object in light of the social and cultural sensitivity surrounding objects of this kind, and in light of the numerous tragic instances in recent years of real and otherwise well-preserved antiquities being stolen and/or destroyed. Unless Croce has a backup plan, then he should leave the mask with the much less serious thing he was likely hoping to do with it in the first place: construct a gallery and display something else.

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