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Hong Kong branch of Palace Museum touches a political nerve

Organisers launch public consultation after opponents protest against surprise announcement

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The Hong Kong government’s plan to build a $450m museum to house loans and exhibitions from Beijing’s Palace Museum has unleashed a storm of criticism and controversy in the former British territory. The building is scheduled to open by 2022, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

The project has touched a nerve in a city increasingly polarised between pro-China forces and those who want a greater say for locals in how the city is run. After the surprise announcement of the plan on 23 December, opponents filed two motions for judicial review and a complaint to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which could delay construction.

They objected to the selection of the architect Rocco Yim without public tender, the initial lack of public consultation and the still undecided matter of who will run the museum. “The project is potentially great, but has not had a great start,” says John Batten, a local cultural activist and president of the Hong Kong chapter of the International Association of Art Critics. “It’s a bit of a mess.”

The building will be in the sprawling West Kowloon Cultural District, which is also home to the forthcoming M+ museum. It will house around 1,000 objects from the Palace Museum. The project is funded entirely by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, a charity that has financed past shows of Palace Museum artefacts in Hong Kong.

The project’s advocates argue that the new museum will give scholars around the world better access to the highest-quality Chinese antiquities—including jades and ceramics—and other objects from the former imperial households. The collections have historically been difficult to access because they are housed in the Ming-era Forbidden City. Only 10,000 works from the museum’s 1.8 million-strong holdings go on public view each year.

This is not the first time Hong Kong has hosted works from the Palace Museum. In 2012, the city agreed to showcase works from the collections more regularly, including “national treasures” that had never before left the Forbidden City. The shows have generally met with enthusiasm and even queues—a rare spectacle in Hong Kong.

The West Kowloon authority hopes the new museum will be a platform for “enhanced cultural exchange between the Palace Museum and the world”. The project was presented to the public by Carrie Lam, a frontrunner to become Hong Kong’s next leader in March.

Lam, who currently serves as the city’s chief secretary, defended the project in a statement to a government news website: “Since the plan for the entire West Kowloon Cultural District was designated for art and cultural facilities, it was not necessary to hold another public consultation on city planning just to build a new museum.”

However, following the criticism raised by the project announcement, West Kowloon launched a six-week public consultation on 10 January to solicit input on what material the museum should present and how.