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Welcome to the Museums of Lifelong Learning

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Reflecting on the stresses of the coronavirus crisis and tensions posed by global challenges such as climate change and geopolitical rivalries, S Alice Mong of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center argues that the arts and culture sector can lead the way in healing the world after the pandemic and bridging divides.

Welcome to the Museums of Lifelong Learning

A new day in Asia’s arts and culture scene: M+ in Hong Kong is one of the biggest museums of visual culture in the world (Credit: Kevin Mak/Herzog & de Meuron)

Education and educational institutions need to change drastically to face the challenges of the future. Simply learning facts is no longer necessary in the age of Google and Wikipedia. Instead, being empathetic and creative will ensure a future of exciting possibilities. The global pandemic has dramatically highlighted the urgent need for this mindset makeover. The arts and culture sector bears an enormous responsibility for driving the necessary changes: Learning happens not just in schools and universities; museums, libraries, theaters, cinemas, concert halls and other homes of imagination are now an integral part of every individual’s lifelong education journey.

I remember my first museum – the Palace Museum in Taipei. I was just five years old when my parents took my brother and me to the sprawling suburban site. That was the beginning of my love affair with museums. A gallery of art or an exhibition or artefacts – this is always the first place I go to whenever I visit any city for the first time. It is the fastest, easiest and most pleasurable way to get an idea of what makes a town tick or a community’s heart beat.

Human intelligence – and touch

In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) has become a frequent topic of discussion and debate. We have become fascinated by the power and potential of thinking and learning machines. Writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro are even writing about them. AI is not the future – it is now. We have been living with it through the various gadgets and appliances we own.

Yet, no matter how much technology can do for us or teach us, nothing beats the personal touch. Asked at a conference in 2017 if humans will still have a place in the world as machines grow more intelligent, the computer scientist Kai-fu Lee responded that nothing can replace human-to-human interaction. “Touching one’s heart with your heart is something that machines will never be good at.”

That is wisdom that the arts and culture world needs to, well, take to heart in this age of light-speed communications, the overflow of information, and the need for instant gratification for short attention spans. The pandemic has allowed those of us in the sector to slow down and take a pause. As executive director of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, I lead a cultural institution that can play a major role in connecting, reconnecting and healing after this global public-health catastrophe. It is a momentous mission that I do not take lightly and one that will require new thinking – bold thinking – to fulfill.

M+ opening, November 12, 2021: “Our vision is to build a community of learning that encourages empathy, respect, multiple perspectives and creativity” (Credit: M+)

M+ opening, November 12, 2021: “Our vision is to build a community of learning that encourages empathy, respect, multiple perspectives and creativity” (Credit: M+)

In Hong Kong, the challenge is particularly acute. This is a society that was riven by social protests for nearly a year before the pandemic raged. The months of stress on the streets, anxiety at home, social distancing, travel and quarantine restrictions have taken their toll on the community. A remedy emerged on November 12, when the long-awaited M+, one of the biggest museums of visual culture in the world, opened four years late after over two decades of planning and construction. Twice the size of the Tate Modern in London, M+ is the biggest home of contemporary art in Asia. In the first weekend, over 25,000 visitors walked through its galleries.

Suhanya Raffel, the sparkling museum’s director, had this to say: “Our vision is to build a community of learning that encourages empathy, respect, multiple perspectives and creativity through visual culture for all of our audiences to benefit from. By offering an open and welcoming platform with creative learning experiences, M+ is dedicated to creative an active culture connects people, objects and spaces. It is our hope that the museum inspires the city’s residents and international visitors alike.”

Art therapy

For most Hong Kong people who have not been able to travel for almost two years, the journey into a world-class museum with all the bells and whistles – a building by star Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron; works by such global artists as Ai Weiwei, Mark Bradford, Antony Gormley, Yoko Ono and Haegue Yang; and outstanding collections including Uli Sigg selection of Chinese contemporary art – is well worth the wait. This is art therapy when our community needs it most.

As an arts and culture hub, Hong Kong may not yet be on par with New York and London, bit it is off to a good start. It is notable that M+ has one of the most diverse staffs of any major museum in the world, with individuals hailing from 27 countries. The glaring lack of diversity in the workforce including the boards of some of the cultural institutions in the West is something that younger organizations in Asia should learn from. Arts and culture is not just for the “haves” but must also be for – and run by – the “have nots”. Indeed, Asian voices and perspectives came through loud and clear at the M+ opening. As the geopolitical and geo-economic centers of gravity have shifted eastward, with rising prosperity and the world’s biggest middle class, Asia now has the artists, curators, donors, collectors and the institutions to present regional perspectives on global artforms.

In a divided, arguably broken world, disrupted by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, shaken by a global financial crisis a dozen years ago, put on edge by major-power rivalries, sent into a tailspin by Covid-19, and challenged by the existential threat of climate change, the message is obvious: Arts and culture can be the healer, the uniter, the connector, and the catalyst for action to bridge differences, lessen inequality and create new opportunities for collaboration. Hong Kong may again provide another lesson in cooperation and connectivity with the opening next year of its own Palace Museum.

Creating and connecting

The future is all about creativity. Arts and culture institutions in Asia, in particular, can lead the way by innovating. The fusion of art and technology could be an area of endless opportunity, what with the growing interest in non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and China’s leading edge in tech innovation, especially in the Greater Bay Area, the mainland’s technology hub.

In an opinion essay for Time magazine published in 2019, Kai-fu Lee identified four kinds of jobs that will be safe from the AI revolution:

Opening exhibition in M+’s Sigg Galleries: Not just places for people to have a couple of hours of entertainment, visual stimulation or simple sightseeing (Credit: Lok Cheng/M+)

Opening exhibition in M+’s Sigg Galleries: Not just places for people to have a couple of hours of entertainment, visual stimulation or simple sightseeing (Credit: Lok Cheng/M+)

  • Creative – including scientists, novelists and artists – “AI needs to be given a goal to optimize,” Lee wrote. “It cannot invent.”
  • Complex and strategic – including executives, diplomats and economists.
  • Empathetic and compassionate – including teachers, nannies and doctors – “These jobs compassion, trust and empathy,” he noted.
  • “As-yet-unknown" – Who would have heard of an NFT artist five years ago? – As AI is used more often in workplaces, new jobs will become necessary to monitor and coordinate machines and robots.

Humans never stop learning. Arts and culture institutions should remember that they are not just places for people to have a couple of hours of entertainment, visual stimulation or simple sightseeing. They are the most compelling platforms for lifelong learning. They must move with the times and fill that roll of connectors with verve and enthusiasm. In these days of global tensions and personal stresses, artificial intelligence is not going to solve our problems. Humans will, we will. And an innovative arts and culture sector can lead the way.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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