Category Archives: Updates

Different Missions, Common Goals

Prior to coming to Hong Kong I worked for eight years at the Institute of Museum and Library Service. This combined agency often struggles because the goals of libraries and museum are similar but in the end there two separate types of institutions.

The museum people come from a perspective that “librarians love books but then we discover that what they really love is order.” Librarians believe that “museum people love old stuff but eventually they discover that it the presentation of that stuff that really drives us.”

With this conceit: museum people are from Mars and Librarians are from Pluto approach I collaborated with two librarians to write a paper for the IFLA conference in Singapore this year.

We are focusing on local history and talking about how these approaches can strengthen an organization that has both.
Thank you to Partick Lo and Kitty But, my librarian friends and colleagues.

Different Missions, Common Goals


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Tell me about your feelings …

Most Unforgettable Museum Experience

I was recently involved in conducting an evaluation wrap-up with a bunch of students. These students had been responsible for talking with visitors about their experience at a museum exhibition.  It was my job to speak to each of the students to discover if there were any insights learned from their time working with the public.

The following is a transcript of conversation:

Me: So how did you find the experience of conducting the interviews with museum guests?

Student: I found it a little confusing.

Me: Can you elaborate?

Student: I did not understand the questions. The visitors are here to learn about history.

Me: Yes – and why did that confuse you?

Student: Because the questions of the survey did not ask people what they learned. It asked people about how they were feeling.

Me: Can you remember your first time you went to a museum?

Student: Yes- it was the Hong Kong Space Museum. I was just little. The planetarium was so wonderful. Every one of my friends from school were impressed, we had never seen anything like that before.

Me: What was the show about?

Student: I don’t remember.

Me: But how did you feel?

Student: Wonderful!


AAM display

I think that in part, I was so keen to pick up on this student’s points is that I had just seen a display at the Annual Conference of AAM. In a very simple setup – conference participants were asked to describe the “Most Unforgettable Museum Experience in Six Words.”

As I created my six-word experience – it struck me that it was perhaps this profound moment as a child that led me to be a life-long museum goer.

Is there anything else higher we can strive for?


To this day – I cannot remember what those suits of armor looked like but I never forget how excited I was to see them.

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Free in Hong Kong


Free discussion

There has been a lot of discussion over the past few months about Free Museums. Certainly the Dallas Museum of Art and the expansion of their free membership program has been a major factor in driving this conversation. Of course Free Museums is not a new discussion. Elaine Gurian’s important piece, Free at Last first appeared in Museum News in 2005.

I remember that the article focused on issues such as equality, access and economic factors. Two aspects that surprised me were:

1. Admissions generally do not contribute to a major portion of a museum’s operating budget.

2. Paying for a service does generate a greater sense of worth for the visitor.

So with this expanding conversation, my query is: Can Free Museums work in Hong Kong?


Law Uk Folk Museum

There are many museums in Hong Kong that cover topics such as art, science, history and culture. There are also a number of museums that have specialized topics such as trains. And in addition to the typical gallery set-up, there are also historic house museums, outdoor gardens and a zoo.

A vast majority of these institutions are government run. They are operated through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). LCSD offers a family pass for HK$200 ($25 USD) that entitles up to four family members free access to all LCSD museum for a period of one year. Individuals can also pay $HK10 for an individual day pass. As they like to say in Hong Kong, “that is value for money.”

The hand full of remaining museums that are independently operated mostly charge between HK$10 and $30.

Even on the high end of HK$30, the admission charge is a nominal fee that most people can afford.

With such a nominal fees do these tickets make a difference?

1016897452_3d15852597Hong Kong Free Port

I recently attended a lecture in which the discussion was about Hong Kong’s lucrative antiques art market. The lecturer, Dr. Leo Goodstadt, a longtime Hong Kong resident and well-respected leader in the arts field, argued that there are a number of reasons why the art market flourishes. Goodstadt said one of the major factors is that Hong Kong is a free port.

Simply said, because there are relaxed business practices on issues such as taxes and tariffs, companies throughout the centuries gravitate to this small island off China because of its free port status. Today, Hong Kong is the third largest port in the world and controls an Asian art market that is greater than London or New York. Can the same be true for their museums?

Outsider point of view

As an outsider to Hong Kong I often bring a very different sense of perspective to how things in Hong Kong work. Here are two observations that I have made about people and places. I think they directly speak to why free museums make sense.

1. Hong Kong people often incorporate public spaces for their own personal use. One cannot walk around Central on a Sunday without seeing makeshift tents and blankets set up for a temporary refuge in the heart of a busy city. One of my personal favorite examples Public/Private space is the dry seafood merchant in my neighborhood who uses the construction road signs as a place to dry his products.


Seafood drying amongst the road construction

An entrance fee means restricted access. If a person has to pay a fee (even nominal) then they may not feel welcome to use the space. Museums can no longer work see their spaces as a one-use purpose in their community. Public parks in Hong Kong are proof that people are looking for a place for leisure time. Museums can also serve those needs. I would like to highlight the Law Uk Folk Museum. It is beautifully situated in the neighborhood of Chai Wan with a comfortable park right next door. It is a great space that people feel welcome.

2. Hong Kong people are business focused. The customer service is excellent. One of the reasons it is so good is that there is a surplus of employees. It is rare to go into a shop and see only one person on duty. Personal attention is the norm not the exception.

Staff means cost. I question how profitable it is to have a team of people at a museum whose primary responsibility is to sell and take tickets. How many tickets must be sold each day just to replace that person’s salary? Museums are educational institutions, shouldn’t resources be placed there instead.


In a recent conversation I had with a Dallas Museum of Art employee, he told me “participation is the new currency of the museum.” In other words the gate is no longer the most important thing to consider. Museums must begin looking at different ways to measure success. If an organization is allowed to move beyond looking at the bottom-line of assets that tickets sales bring in, it may be able to begin seeing how engaging with their community should be considered a far more important credit tally.

Earned revenue is of course important for museums. I would recommend that institutions look to building these revenue streams around special access, private events, concessions, temporary exhibitions, workshops and lectures. These are the areas where the greatest percentage revenue can occur.

If an institution can engage with its community, then it community’s value will rise. And that is regardless of whether or not the museum charges people for general admission.

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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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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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Museums and Make-Overs

Are Museums in Need of a Make Over?

The Known and Unknown

When one names the city of London, one’s mind naturally thinks of great cultural and historic sites. Whether it is the British Museum, Tower of London or Trafalgar Square, it has been argued that these are not sites that belong to London alone, but to the world. Beneath the list of the well-known however, there is the list of the obscure and hidden.

Leighton House Museum

A recent trip to London afforded me the opportunity to visit one of these lesser known sites, the Leighton House Museum. The museum was the home of Frederic Leighton, one of the best known 19th century British artists. And although I like to fancy myself a museum goer and someone who is knowledgeable about art, he was a character that I was not familiar with.

Why I Love House Museums

Walking into the entry hallway of the house, one is hit with sensory overload. There are rich fabrics, elegant tiles, wonderful paintings and a sense that Leighton has just stepped out and that he will be back at any moment. A striking stuffed peacock on the stair’s landing eyes one’s every move as to say, “Yeah – I am watching you.” Historic houses have the ability to capture time and place in a way that even the best galleries cannot.

And even though it was a Saturday, I was the only visitor in the home. This luxury afforded me the opportunity to really explore uninterrupted. But I did find that there was not a single seat for sitting or a single interpretive guide that aided my visit. For the life of me all I wanted to do was to sit next to the bubbling fountain, underneath the beautiful ceiling and contemplate art and the other muses. But I could not because in part I was exhausted from a 12 hour flight and the peacock was really starting to give me the hairy eye ball.

Where I Found Comfort

I left the museum and wandered not too far to a coffee place called Starbucks. They offer a variety of espresso drinks along with an assortment of pastries and other snacks at a reasonable price. In comparison to the museum, this place was packed. Conversations were wild. And though it was crowded, there was plenty of comfortable seating and free wi-fi.

Make-Over Session

As I sat there trying to recharge my batteries I caught an usual scene. Two women sat near me, each taking time to apply make-up to the other. How strange I thought. The scene really made me pause.

What Do Museums Want?

I am not arguing that museums should strive to set up a Clinique counter on site but what I do ponder is, “How can museums create an environment where two women would feel comfortable enough to have a make-over session in public?”  What has Starbucks done to create an atmosphere where one feels so welcome, so free to come in? Customers are using the space as a second home. Sure – their coffee is good but that is only part of the equation. After all if that were the whole answer, then Starbucks would be a walk-up counter.

Consider the two spaces: The museum is filled with great art that inspires. Starbucks is filled with cheap reproductions of contrived imagery. One is a local landmark that is unique to this neighborhood in London. One can be found in every community of the world. One is not being used fully by its community. One is a community centerpiece.

In the book, Great Good Place, the author argues that places can be used by people in ways that have nothing to do with their original purpose, such as coffeehouses that double as a make-over counter.

What is Right for Museums?

Leighton House Garden

Not every activity is right for every museum. Museums have to build relationships in their community that are aligned with their mission and strategic goals. But this does not mean that museums can’t take chances. There are ways that fringe activities and programming may lead to meaning experiences for both the museum and the visitor. Chances are like gateways, until one walks through it, one is still on the outside. Museums can beneifit by just getting people to walk through the gate, that is the first step.

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Going Mobile

Mobile Makes the List

The New Media Consortium has just recently published this year’s Horizon Report for Museums. The report has become an important benchmarking tool for museum professionals to gage which technologies are on the cutting edge and which are to make an impact within the next few years.

I was proud to serve on this year’s Advisory Board for the report, which included museum professionals from all over the world, representing museums from all different sizes.

Not surprisingly, one of the important trends identified by the report was the use of mobile technologies. Mobile platforms have become a mainstay in people’s lives. In my community of Hong Kong, people are more likely to access information from a mobile device than a traditional desktop or laptop. Why? It is a combination of low cost for hardware, service plans and the convenience of on-demand content at one’s fingertips.

Mobile Web or Customized Application?

For museums, one of the most important questions is how to utilize the mobile platform into a viable interpretive tool. There are many issues to consider. Content – is an obvious first consideration. For if a mobile program is built upon poor content, then it doesn’t matter how well executed the mobile technology is.

Another important consideration is whether museums should consider a mobile web version or an application. These two choices have more in common than differences. It is like comparing frozen custard and ice cream. The App definitely has the higher percentage of butter fat. Which is to say the App has a better potential to create a dynamic user experience by using more advanced technology features.

Mobile Web: When viewing content on a mobile device it is sometimes difficult to read long articles because the user is constantly finger swiping back and forth. But some web sites are more user friendly. They utilize a type of sniffing technique where the web content management system (WCMS) is capable of detecting that the user is using a mobile browser and thus returns the content in a templated form that fits the mobile device. These templates ensure that all the content is properly sized and that it all fits within the width of device. These sniffers are not iPhone or Android exclusive and it requires no additional content creation by the museum if one’s museum site is being delivered through a WCMS that supports this function.

Applications: Commonly referred to as Apps, applications are specifically programed to a type of platform software. Common platforms include the iPhone, iPad, Android and the Samsung Tablet. One important consideration to remember is that when developing an App is that an application that is created for one of these systems will not work on the other. Even products from the same company such as Apple will not necessary work. Most iPhone Apps will run on the iPad but not the other way around. At best a developer can use the same content in all devices but all the programming is going to be different.

Applications that Work

Although this is not an exhausted list, I have put together some key points to help museums consider whether or not developing an App is worth it or not. Basic Apps can costs up to $20,000 to develop. And museums may need to develop to two Apps in order to satisfy both the iPhone and Android users. If the  proposed App is not utilizing one of these points than more than likely a mobile web version will suit one’s needs.

  • The Device’s Capabilities

In addition to web browsers and cell phones, many mobile devices have a growing number of other functionalities. These include cameras, geo-location detection, gesture based sensors, and tactile navigation.

Apps that take advantage of these other features have the ability to make a much more dynamic experience for a museum visitor. The one common element that all of these features have is that the user is an active participant in making the content change, interact or be manipulated.

Augmented reality and gesture based Apps are on the cutting edge of what museums are doing today. These features can usually only be achieved by building an application specific to a certain mobile platform.

  • Premium Content

Apps cost money. One can browse the App marketplace and find a wide range of prices. Some are free and some can cost up to fifteen dollars. But in addition to providing a little revenue for the museum, Apps that cost money also create a mechanism to allow users to access premium content of the museum’s collections.

One model approach is to provide basic content with a no cost App. Users can get the look and feel of the program before they choose the cost option. Museums may consider this approach for specially designed tours based on the tradition museum audio guide.

  • Exclusive Experience 

Many museums are moving to the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach. This concept is based on the idea that users bring their own mobile, download their own content and are responsible for the maintenance and charging of the device, opposed to the museum. One of the most significant costs associated with mobile tours is the personnel costs associated with renting the devices out.

But museums may want to create an experience for visitors that can only happen on site. This may mean that the museum has an arsenal of mobile devices available to the public. And these devices have been specifically programed to the museum’s site alone.

Apps are also good option for museums that may not have a good Wi-Fi system or if they are located in a broadband blackout area. That is because Apps can have all the content loaded onto the device and they will work regardless of whether or not they are connected to the web. One drawback is that it can make the App quite large in digital bytes.

Pushing Content

Whether a museum chooses to go the mobile web or App route it is important to consider that at a number of basic sections of the web site that should be mobile friendly. This includes the About Us and the Location portions. Visitors to museums that are out and about looking for the next big thing to do on their vacation will appreciate content that is delivered cleanly.

Mobile devices are only getting better. And it is conceivable that will become more and more dynamic making stand alone computers obsolete. Museums regardless of their size should consider how mobile fits into their larger strategy to provide the rich content that their museums hold to the public.

One of the best resources to learn about more Mobile Use and Museums is the Smithsonian’s Mobile Wiki.

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