Category Archives: Museum Projects

Signs up ahead


Setting a tone

A recent visit to a museum struck me as usually negative.

While some may be looking at exhibits or panels, I have been keen to look at what messages that museums put out to their public. Although these signs or messages may be important, I think it is important to consider how the public perceives them. Do these signs limit a museum’s potential?

First, let me say that there is a certain caution required to this museum site because the main exhibit area in 50 meters above the ground and the public has to walk along a rope bridge. It is a wonderful site with magical scenes, fragrant flowers and friendly butterflies. It is the kind of place that excites the imagination. Welcome to the museum

The precarious environment of being above the ground adds to the allure of the adventure one is about to undertake. But what is the first impression that the visitor gets upon entering? A HUGE sign listing all of the things that one cannot do. There are the normal ones like no smoking and no food and drink. But I was struck but some of the others. For example, kite flying is prohibited. I always wonder at times like this, “What prompted that warning?”

The extremes

I began wondering, what signs would I like to put in my museum? Some of the ridiculous ones included:

  • No jabbing sharp objects in your eyes
  • No licking or eating the flowers
  • No holding your breath until you pass out

Or could the signs swing in the other direction?

  • Love and cherish your time here today
  • Smile at least 30 times
  • Write down one thing that makes you happy


smileWhether one is telling you what you cannot do or can do it all boils down to a simple concept; museums try to shape visitor behavior. But in reality all museums can do is open their doors and in the end hope that the public uses the space to their best desire and not in a destructive way.


Consider the pipe cleaner

A pipe cleaner a type of brush intended for removing residue from smoking pipes. They are flexible and can be twisted in all kings of shapes. But today, pipe cleaners are the one of the staple arts and crafts tools in schools around the world. The original intent was one thing but now it is also something completely different.

Did the pipe cleaner makers of the world throw up their arms in protest when their product started being used for art projects? My guess is that they were happy that their product now had a new purpose. They may also have noticed that their main clients were also dying off young and they needed to be replaced.

Museums should think the same way. I would encourage museums to think about how their signs can be more like the pipe cleaner. How can the messages encourage visitors to maximize their visit and use the space to the fullest and most rewarding effect? Some things to keep in mind:

1. Are the signs consistent with the museum’s policies?

2. Are they a reactive or preventive to visitor behavior?

3. Do they advance knowledge about one’s site?

4. Do they encourage visitor use of your site?

It would be my hope that signs can be an important part of the message that a museum gives off and thus the museum’s take away message.

I cannot remember the name of one flower I saw that day but I will always remember kite flying is prohibited.

Do you think that was the museum’s intended take away message?

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Digital trade routes

My TELDAP poster

Digital trade routes

One of the great aspects of being based in Hong Kong is that it is geographically located in the right spot. Since the days of the China Trade, its location as the crossroads of east and west gave this location the unique distinction of where goods and more importantly ideas converged.

As the project manager for the Hong Kong Maritime Museum’s digital exhibition, We are like vapours … I took advantage of these ancient trade routes to bring together a group of talented practitioners to help the museum reopen to the public with one of the most dynamic and inspiring digital exhibitions ever to hit the Hong Kong scene.

In March, I presented a poster at the TELDAP conference in Taipei in support of this year’s theme, International Partnerships. Preparing and assembling the information for this session helped me to outline the key pieces of this exhibition.


Approximately two years ago, I was approached by the Director of the Maritime Museum to prepare a concept for an exhibition based on one of the most significant pieces in the collection, a Qing scroll called Pacifying the South China Sea. This scroll is 18 meters log and 55 centimeters high. As an interpretive piece for a museum, it is wonderful. The scroll tells the story of pirates, sea battles, love and betrayal. It would be a suitable major motion picture staring Chow Yun Fat.

But the nature of the scroll being so large and also so fragile made it a difficult object to display in situ. Most of the details and symbolism are lost in the fine detail that is only appreciate if one is holding the object in their own hands and at an arm’s length.

Based on some previous digital forays, I began investing other scroll exhibitions that used a digital platform. In the end, I prepared a brief that had several elements: digital projection of the scroll, key scenes animated to add clarity of the storyline and using vapours superimposed on the scene. Vapours were chosen because there is an early Chinese history that attributes a quote to one of the key pirates of the narrative, Zhang Bao in which he states, “We are like vapours” in order to illustrate this fleeting moments of his actions and how they will soon dissipate in time.

The challenge

Ideas are great. But in the end, it takes experience and best practices to make a concept a reality. The most important moment in this process was when I met Sarah Kenderdine at City University of Hong Kong.  Over the past few years City University’s ALiVE laboratory has broken new ground in the area of augmented reality and immersive experiences.

Sarah and her team proved to be the missing link of the project. The museum formed a partnership with City University to create a joint project combining their expertise in the area of digital media and the museum’s expertise in the history and significance of the scroll.

The second piece or port of call was Kyoto University. Kyoto scanned the scroll at an amazing 1200 dpi and extreme color fidelity. I have already written a little about this experience in my article Extreme Digitization.

Lastly, I traveled along the Digital Silk Road to Poland. In Poland the museum hire i3D to give the scroll new life. They created a series of 55 animations and created the programming that allows the scroll to digitally be seen by the visitor. One of the most difficult things about the presentation is that there are 5 separate projectors in the presentation. And the presentation is always scrolling, so the action does not just occur on one spot of the 360° screen but the entire surface.

The animation also had to be done in such a way that that the original artwork had to be respected. In the end the scenes were done in a 2D format that make the characters look like Qing Dynasty figures in action, not 21st cartoons.

Lessons learned

The museum benefited from having a talented team of international partners. Each partner brought an energy and expertise and could not have been produced in-house by the museum. This combined strength yielded a result that was greater than the parts.

Lastly, the sustainability issue: partnerships are based on relationships. And the relationships formed by the museum will help serve as the platform where many more exciting projects can grow.

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Can the museum public be trusted?

Trust is a strange concept. Museums provide to the public the riches of the world. They create environments in which the most precious, the most desired items that mankind has created or discovered are showcased. These items are often placed within an arm’s length of the public. And the most remarkable thing about this practice is that in almost all cases, the relationship between the public and the object is respected.

We trust our public. Our public may sometimes reach out to touch the precious but this action is often brought about because of a desire to make a tangible connection to the work. It is seldom a malicious act.

Sound the alarm

The head of security for the museum spoke with deep passion. He was concerned. Recently the museum had installed an interactive kiosk in which the public uses an iPad mini to navigate and interrogate a digital copy of one of the museum’s most important objects, the Pacifying of the South China Sea scroll.

The iPad mini was chosen because it provides an intuitive way for a visitor to interact with a digital creation. The iPad mini is untethered to the station. This was a decision that was made in order to give the visitor a sense of freedom. The visitor can walk up and down the gallery space and as they explore visually, also physically explore.

This concept was unacceptable to the security officer. He explained that the iPad mini would be stolen within a week and that he did not have the man-power to monitor this area 24/7. He would not be held responsible for the eventual loss.


I only have a deep respect for the work that security provides for a museum. When I worked at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum it was always apparent that our very lives depended on their presence.

But I am going out on a limb and saying that I also have respect for the public. I am going to trust that if an individual makes a choice to come to the museum that the museum must believe that their intentions are true.

If museums cannot trust their public with a iPad mini, then how can we trust them with anything in the museum. And how can they trust us?


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Extreme Digitalization

One of the 20 scenes that make up the scroll

It is considered one of the highlights of the museum. Measuring nearly 18 meters and painted almost two hundred years ago, the Pacifying of the South China Sea scroll offers a unique learning opportunity to visitors at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Each section comes with a caption, this one translates to ‘Coastal Defence forces map out their strategy’

An unknown Qing painter divided the scroll into twenty individual scenes. Each section is marked by four Chinese characters originally intended to allow the viewer to carefully follow the story as they unrolled the silk fabric.  The scenes depict pirate ships, Han troops, battle scenes, rich pageantry, everyday life, and celebration. The scroll chronicles events that took place over a two-year period and the painting accurately shows the changes from spring to summer and autumn to winter, with the foliage on the trees and the garments of the people depicted on the surface moving through time. The story tells how Chinese piracy was subdued in the early 19th century by the forces of the Emperor.

The length of the scroll makes it a difficult piece to display in its entirety.

The Challenge

I was given the charge to take this wonderful object and create two digital exhibitions that would accompany the original in the new galleries of Pier 8 Central. One of the reasons that a digital interpretation was chosen is because of the limitations of the original piece. It was recognized that because of its length, the museum would not be able to show each of the twenty scenes at any one time. Also the painting depicts a complicated story filled with symbolism that without interpretive pieces to accompany the different sections, the nuances and the meaning of the scroll would be lost to the visitor. Lastly, because of its age and fragility, the original may not be able to be displayed indefinitely.

Content is King

As with any project, the core beginning of creating an exhibition is starting with good information. One of the fortunate things is that the events of the early 19th century and the problems of piracy in the Hong Kong area are well documented. In particular there are primary sources like , History of the Pirates Who Infested the Sea From 1807 to 1810, written by Yung-Lun Yüan in 1830 that help make sense of this complicated story.

It was only when a great collection of data was brought together about the people, places and the events that the scroll shows, that a digital interpretive plan could be laid out. Without the hard work of historians like Dr. Stephen Davies, who first began unravelling these pieces years ago, this project could not have been possible.

The Two Projects

Concept drawing of the 360 presentation by City University of Hong Kong

I hope to write more about the details of the two digital projects that are being prepared for the exhibition spaces. But at this time, both are still being in the works. But the general idea is that the first project is to create a 360° theatrical presentation in which visitors will encounter animated sections of the scroll along with lighting and sound effects. The second project involves creating a digital touch screen of the scroll with hotspots that highlight the meaning of each of the different characters and scenes.

Before theses two projects could proceed however, there was a realization that better digital copies were needed. The scroll was originally photographed seven years ago and although high quality tiffs were created, the quality was still not high enough for animators to create seamless transitions of movement. And the touch screen demanded that visitors would have the ability to see a pimple on the end of a person’s nose, even though many of the characters on the original piece are less than a 1cm high. Truly one of the reasons that this scroll is such a treasure is that each section is carefully painted with fine detail and accuracy. Many of the minute details have never been fully appreciated or shared with the public. And that is why a 100% digital scan of the scroll was necessary.

The Importance of Having Good Partners

When undertaking a major digitization project, it is important to work with professionals. The museum was fortunate to make contact with Dr. Ari Ide-Ektessabi of Kyoto University. He is one of the leading figures in marrying advanced technologies and cultural heritage. His expertise includes not only producing higher resolution and dpi of cultural objects, but an advanced manner of color representation. His team just recently completed scanning the original blueprints of the RMS Titanic.

Masks and gloves are worn in order to protect the fragile scroll

Fragile objects like the Qing scroll cannot be unrolled on a daily basis. That means each time it is brought out for examination, the work done on it has to count.  Dr. Ide-Ektessabi’s techniques include non-invasive procedures that do not harm the scroll. It was upon his recommendation that the scroll was to be captured at an amazing 1200 dpi. Simply put, for every inch of the scroll there would be 1200 pixels created in a lossless digital file.

For example, an iPhone has 326 pixels across its width which means a figure on the scroll which is a quarter of inch wide would fill the entire screen at perfect clarity without any enlarging or pixelization. Now imagine what that means in an application in which a high definition monitor or a four-foot projection is employed. The possibilities become limitless.

The scroll was scanned at 15 cm at a time. In all, it took over 150 individual passes to capture the entire length. In all 100GB of data was collected. With each pass the quality was checked. Curatorial staff of the museum immediately became engaged in the project as more images came to light. Some details less than an eighth of a centimeter high had never been noticed before, but now displayed on a large monitor the minute details came into focus. Perhaps only the original painter had only known these details existed before now?

This type of scanning will not only provides the museum with a high quality archival digital copy of the scroll but a mechanism for scholars all over the world to study even the smallest detail. It will be an important resource for the museum for years to come.

These characters are less than 2 inches high on the original scroll


Digitization will never replace the original but this technology should be seen as an equal partner. Digitization projects that focus on a higher quality capture will allow cultural institutions to promote research, preservation, display and presentation. By unlocking the digital world, the originals will hold a higher level of relevance in collection by increasing access to their knowledge.

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Found in Translation

The Concept

The project began with a concept: I told the translator who was helping me to redesign the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) web site that in order for this site to be successful, there had to be parity between the Chinese and the English versions of the site. Then I laid down the challenge, “I want Chinese and English readers to be unable to tell whether or not the Chinese or the English is the translation. How can we do that?” The answer was simple; in order to reach that level of comprehension and clarity, the information on the site had to be absolutely clear. That was easier said than done. 

HKMM is classified as somewhere between a small and mid-sized museum. The prevailing attitude amongst staff has always been, do it yourself. The museum doesn’t have a lot of surplus money and thus when it comes to translation work it has mainly been done by in-house staff.  None of the staff have been trained in translation and they have had to learn on the job. I must note, I only have the deepest admiration for this because I would not have the first idea on how to do this alone.

Looking in the Mirror

When preparing the launch of the museum’s new web site, I began talking to language professionals in the field. Surprisingly, all my teachers and advisors told me the same thing. They explained that when they read portions of exhibition text or brochures from the museum and they could tell that it was a translation. “With my knowledge of English,” one explained, “I would just read the English and get a better understanding, than trying to read the Chinese.” What was the missing piece to this equation?

As I began to discuss the prepared English text for translation, I began by taking a hard look at what was being said. And through a thorough inner look I discovered the problem was not the Chinese translation, it was the way the English was written. Time and time again I discovered the text full of metaphors and references that had no counterpart in a Chinese culture. Furthermore, I discovered that the English text was written at a very scholarly level, and not for the general public.

These observations became even clearer when I started working with the translator by unraveling each sentence of the text.


So the museum’s historian wrote, “Real time radar shows an even wider view and a video screen captures the Mondrianesque montage of coloured boxes in Kwai-Tsing.” “What does that mean?” the translator asked. I told her that it meant that the historian was trying to be a bit too clever.

I am not opposed to a nice turn of phrase or elevating a conversation but this approach does not work for an audience that may not have any knowledge of early 20th century Western modern art. By evoking Piet Mondrian’s style of painting as a metaphor, the conversation became hopelessly sidetracked by a obscure reference.

So I said, it means the video screens are in a checkerboard pattern. And there was instant understanding.

The lesson that I learned is that clarity is step one. Every sentence needs to be examined to discover if there is any jargon that is out of place. HKMM has a commitment to provide all information to the public in both Chinese and English. And it was only through this examination that the holes were discovered. Translation made this site better than if it had only been in English alone. And in my opinion, the Chinese is even more clear than the English, even though the English came first.


A very special thank you to Denise Chau who has served as my translator and friend during this web site development project.

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China: Through My Eyes

The moving image has long been an important vehicle for telling stories for museums. Theaters are a common feature among museums of many sizes. And films have also become commonplace as a part of exhibitions. I learned first-hand as a Museum Technician at the United States Holocaust Museum the powerful nature of film. Whether it is a historic clip or a present day oral history given by a Survivor, film has the ability to convey information and create an emotional connection to the story.

One of the most exciting aspects in recent years has been the introduction of easy-to-use film editing programs. Whether one is using iMovie or Final Cut, one no longer has to be a Hollywood producer to create compelling dramas. Also with the introduction of video sites like YouTube and Vimeo, museums have the ability to push their broadcasts to a larger number of people. And cost is no longer a threshold that museums can’t reach. This is a concept that would have been hard to imagine even 10 years ago.

One observation that I have made about these self-generated films is that the quality of the footage is not pristine. And that doesn’t matter. Once again we learn that the power of film is in the compelling nature of what is seen and not how directed the content is. If millions of people tune in to watch a sneezing panda, then it must be something to this approach.

I recently had the opportunity to work on a project called “China: Through My Eyes.” It is a series about two young girls from Massachusetts that travel to China and share their adventures from their point of view.

Now I am no Francis Ford Coppola. But for the purposes of this project, that doesn’t matter. My shaky-hand technique doesn’t get in the way of the interesting observations that these two young girls make.

Museums should be thinking about how to incorporate film into their storytelling arsenal. The key is not to be turned off by the challenge. Take a chance. Not every film is going to be great, but with a little forward planning it is possible to create a regular series of online programming that can serve as a compelling way to engage with audiences and have them return time and again to your web site to learn about all the sticky stuff that you are working on.

Remember if if your web site doesn’t support video clips, it is possible to create your own channel on a number of free sites that will host your content. Where is your audience? They are on the web and that’s where you should be too!

Girl Power – Episode 2 of China: Through My Eyes from Through My Eyes on Vimeo.

In the second episode, a good night’s sleep finds Ava and Sofie bright-eyed and ready for a visit with the Hong Kong Girl Guides, a faraway equivalent of their own familiar Daisy and Brownie troops back home. With some gifts and patches to share, their troop vests proudly worn and eager to meet Chinese girls their own age, Sofie and Ava take part in an Easter basket making project with a troop leader named Circle, watch older Guides molding chocolate Easter treats, meet a younger Happy Bee Guide, and address a roomful of Girl Guides, receiving rock star treatment and making many new friends.

Through My Eyes is a production of Thunderball Entertainment Group, the Cape Cod Community Media Center and WGBH Boston. Learn more at​kids.

Boston’s WGBH is PBS’s single largest producer of beb and TV content (prime-time and children’s programs), including Nova, Masterpiece, Frontline, Antiques Roadshow, Curious George, Arthur, and The Victory Garden. Learn more about China: Through My Eyes on their Facebook page at​tmeyes.



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Feature Article

Issue Number 261 - Fragrant Harbour

Fragrant Harbour, a regionally based magazine that specializes in sailing and marine issues has lighted the work of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. The article focuses on the museum’s collection of glass plate negatives that were donated by Hong Kong United Dockyards.

Images of the glass plated negatives can be viewed on the museum’s Flickr page.

Details of the procedures behind the project can be viewed on this link.

Please contact me if you wish to have a copy of the article.


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A Negative to a Positive


A Negative to a Positive: Using flickr to Manage Photographic Collections Online

Many small museums have vast repositories of photos. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) was looking for a low cost and easy access technology solution to make its collection more accessible and visible to the public. By using flickr, the most popular photo-sharing site, the museum solved two challenges that many small museums face – a way to share photographs with visitors and a way to organize and catalogue them.

The Glass Plate Negative Project


This project began with a set of more than 200 glass plate negatives that were donated to the HKMM from the Hongkong and Whampoa Dock Company (HWD). These plates date from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960’s. HWD was the one of the largest dockyards in Asia and an important ship builder throughout the 20th century. The images on the plates capture the people, places and events that defined this important era and help to show how Hong Kong, and its port, developed into the world city that it is today.

In 2010, the museum photographed each glass plate on a light board using a standard point and shoot digital camera. The images were all stored on the museum’s server and shared using email or by burning them to a disk.  While this system was perfectly workable, file sharing was difficult and much of the collection was not readily available to the general public. Flickr proved to be an ideal solution because it is easy to use, inexpensive, and allows for advanced categorization and cataloguing.


Benefits and lessons learned

Here are some of the highlights and lessons learned that I hope other small museums can use to manage their collections.

Organizing Collections and Sets – flickr provides a three-tiered system of organizing its photos. Collections are the most comprehensive category for the photos.  HKMM identified major categories such as “ships by type,” “collections by material type” and “collections by gallery.” Sets are narrower and are intended to represent only a portion of the larger collection. The museum created sets such as “models,” “photographs” and “passenger ships.” These sets fit under the larger collections tent. Lastly photos are organized at the individual level with tags. Tags can describe a number of individual characteristics.  An item can have virtually unlimited number of tags.

What makes this system dynamic for the museum is that a digital object can exist in multiple sets and collections at the same time. The digital world defies the physical world principle of one object in one place at one time. And the digital object does not have to be copied multiple times in order for this to happen.

(Figure 1)

(Figure 1) A visitor in the Photography set may discover a glass plate negative of a ferryboat. But they may also find it if they were searching in the Carrying People set. By providing multiple access points for the visitor to explore the museum’s collection it allows the visitor to access this interactive reference in a manner that appeals to their learning style and manner of exploration.

Exif – Flickr allows the Exchangeable Image File Format to be modified. This means that museum can change the default time stamp that is placed on many digital images to be set to the historic date that the original was taken. Flickr also allows photographs to have the “Circa” or “Taken Sometime in X Year” to be placed on the file in cases where the exact date is unknown. The photos can also be geo-tagged.

These features allow for a more complex archive of images. It allows unrelated collections to be brought together by having the commonality of a similar creation date or location tag. Many locals may be familiar with the devastating typhoon of September 1906. By changing the exif metadata on the historic photographs to that time period it allows all of those images to live digitally together. And it allows visitors to see photographs taken at the same location throughout the years. This is especially dramatic for Hong Kong because massive land reclamation projects around the port have dramatically changed the landscape.

Hyperlinks to the Positive – Although viewing the digital image of the glass plates is interesting, what is really spectacular is being able to view the positive image as well. Flickr allows all descriptions of the items to written in HTML so a viewer can find an image that strikes their curiosity and with one click go back and forth to the positive image. Because the negative image doesn’t reveal a great deal of the individual detail of the photograph the hyperlink connecting the two provides the further exploration that museums often seek to encourage.

Cost – A Pro Account that allows for unlimited downloading of photographs and short videos is $24 for one year. Since the museum does not currently have an online photographic collection connected to its home domain, this represents a cheap solution to bringing the photos to light. But like the free dog, it is important to remember that the real cost of the flickr solution is to have dedicated staff available for the daily feeding and walking of your digital pooch.

I encourage everyone to explore some of the images that have been made public on the museum’s flickr page.

Robert Trio is the Project Officer for Technology at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Please feel free to contact him with questions and comments.



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