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

Leave a comment

Filed under Updates


Outside the glass case - objects come alive

Outside the glass case – objects come alive

That magic feeling

My first job working in the museum field was as a guide. I was still in high school and I had the opportunity to volunteer at a local museum giving people tours. I can still remember the magical feeling that comes about when you help people to make a connection to something tangible, to something from their own experience.

I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to do this type of hands-on work in recent years. My role has mainly been behind-the-scenes helping to create environments and opportunities for visitors to enjoy.

Native American speaker

Recently – a group of young children visited the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. They are learning about local history and applying what they know to learn in order to write better in English. The course instructor desired that the students could speak with a native English speaker at the museum. I was told. “I was close enough.” (After all I am a native American speaker)

Some pretty sharp kids interviewed me about my job. I decided it was a good opportunity to pull out one of the museum’s artifacts and let them see it close up. The object I chose was a photo album, circa 1908.

Getting that old feeling back

I was reminded how powerful that the tangible object is. The album fascinated the children. Many of them had never seen one before. And the concept that a person who was on vacation would create this to preserve their memories was bizarre.

I then showed them how I take an object like this and transform it into a digital medium. Although I had a large screen projector, the children still kept going back to the real object.

Once again – I am reminded of how powerful the real is. No matter special the digital experience can be it must be rooted in something tangible.

Digital copy of the photo album

Leave a comment

Filed under digitization, Museum Projects

Liquid history



I am so excited about Cathay Pacific’s new issue of Discovery Magazine. It features an article, Liquid history that focus on the new Hong Kong Maritime Museum at Central Ferry Pier 8.

Both the Director and myself are quoted.


Leave a comment

Filed under Museum Projects

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Museum Projects, Updates

Digitization workshop

Archives workshopIn June I was asked to give a workshop by the Hong Kong Archives Society on the topic of digitization.

After the lecture I recreated the lecture to share with everyone. Hope you enjoy it.


Digitization is becoming a standard practice for libraries, archives and museum around the world. No longer a luxury, LAMs utilize digitization as a part of a larger collections management policy. Today every institution must create a practice that is based on a standard and consistent with their institutional mission and vision.

Robert Trio, Project Officer for Technology at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, will conduct a workshop that explores different strategies in building a building a digitization policy. The areas will discuss capture, documentation, access and long-term sustainability. He will also discuss a recent digitization project that the museum undertook in partnership with Kyoto University.

The workshop will be designed as an open discussion. Although technical specifications will be a part of the talk, the workshop is designed to focus more on the issues that institutions must face and consider.


Filed under digitization, Museum Projects

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Updates

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?

Leave a comment

Filed under Museum Projects

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Museum Projects, Updates



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?


Leave a comment

Filed under Museum Projects

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Museum Projects