Although I've mentioned Hong Kong's museums in an article on things to do for visitors, I thought I'd spend a bit more time discussing their relative merits -- and deficiencies. I feel much more qualified to do so at the moment than I did several years ago, since Daughter Tall is now entering the optimum age range for museum action (she's seven going on eight). So let's take a little tour of our fair city's publicly-funded repositories of history and culture. Note that the name of each is linked to its official site; all have adequate information on exhibits, location, opening hours, transport and so on if you root around their sites a bit.
Hong Kong Science Museum
It was the Science Museum that inspired me to write this article. A couple of weekends ago, Mrs Tall had a business dinner, so Daughter Tall and I took the opportunity to make an evening visit to the Science Museum. First off, if (after reading the remainder of my account) you have the urge to follow suit, might I highly recommend Saturday evening as a good time to go? Unlike the rest of Hong Kong's museums, the Science Museum stays open till 9:00 on each of the six days it's open (it's closed on Thursdays). Saturday afternoons (I can inform you reliably from past experience) at the Science Museum are ugly: it's crowded; you waste lots of time lining up for lame attractions (more on this forthwith); and even the walk-up exhibits can be hard to observe given the milling masses of humanity.
Now, speaking of lame attractions, please accompany me to my favorite corner of the Hong Kong Science Museum. It's on the upper floor, way in the back on the left. Comprising a projection screen and a fire-engine red automobile chassis, I suppose it could be loosely described as a 'driving simulator'. One's child sits in it, pushes a button to choose a voiceover language, and off it 'goes'. The screen shows a through-the-windshield view of a car traveling from somewhere in Tsim Sha Tsui over to Nathan Road, and then down the latter to its terminus at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. But why are my directions so vague? It's because the Tsim Sha Tsui depicted has not existed in at least three decades. This exhibit is so old it's of essentially historical interest.
But that's not its worst flaw. No, the real problem is that for reasons unfathomable, it's terribly popular, including with Daughter Tall. So if we visit the Science Museum when it's busy, we inevitably squander at least 15 minutes lining up for this travesty. And as one waits for one teenaged mutant after another to take a turn, it's impossible to avoid watching the simulation video itself and realizing, with increasing horror, that each time it runs the simulator car 'stops' at a traffic light on Nathan Road. That's fine, but then the light doesn't change, and it doesn't change, and it stays the same yet some more, and you're thinking 'Did the simulation designer, recruited as a consultant from Planet Bonehead, not realize that video can be edited so that 37 years later a tall, ruggedly handsome, but terribly impatient gwailouh will not need to stand here chewing the insides of his cheeks while his kid is waiting to 'experience' this stupid attraction?' Or perhaps that is too much to ask.
Anyway, the Science Museum has some amusing exhibits (I like the funhouse mirrors section), kids seem to enjoy it, and it's cheap (just $25, which is far less than science museums in many other cities; its special exhibits usually also require a separate fee that's often more than the admission itself). But it's no shining star in its genre, and if you're from out of town, I wouldn't bother unless you need a rainy-day option.
Hong Kong Museum of Art
Perhaps the outstanding characteristic of the Hong Kong Museum of Art is its location. It's right on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, and there's a fantastic view of the harbor from the lobbies on its upper floors. There are also some decent exhibits. My favorite is the Chinese Antiquities gallery, which features objet such as pottery, seals, statuary, etc. representing most of China's dynasties, although they're in short supply for the earlier eras. There's a gallery of some 19th-century pictures which are of perhaps greater historical than artistic interest, and another with Chinese traditional paintings and calligraphy. There's also a contemporary Hong Kong art exhibit, but I'm not really into that scene, so I shall withhold my judgement, no matter how much I would love to render it . . . . Anyway, the Art Museum is also a good deal on the financial side, as it's one of Hong Kong's $10 museum specials.
Hong Kong History Museum
In years gone by Hong Kong's History Museum was confined to a poky little building in Kowloon Park, and aside from a very handsome clan of stuffed Neanderthals inhabiting a life-sized diorama, it was of limited interest. But then the History Museum was granted new premises in Tsim Sha Tsui East, and it graduated from laugher to legitimate. The current incarnation still follows a rough timeline-based walk through Hong Kong's history, but its exhibits are much more sophisticated and extensive. My favorites are the galleries covering the Opium War, and Hong Kong's folk history and early commercial history (the latter is done via a mocked-up street scene complete with a tram), but there's plenty of interest. Allow at least a couple of hours for this one, and more if you're a history buff. At just $10 for admission, it's a great deal.
Hong Kong Space Museum
What was I saying about lameness? In much the same vein as the Science Museum, Hong Kong's aging Space Museum houses a group of interactive scientific exhibits of varying currency and interest. The main attractions at the Space Museum, however, are the IMAX movies that are projected on to the ceiling of the Space Museum's domed interior. You won't find Avatar playing here, though; it's all hour-long documentary-style programs. Kids like them, mostly, and they do fill up quickly, so a bit of planning is worth it if there's one you'd especially like to see. Admission to the museum only is $10, but the IMAX films cost $24 or $32, depending on your seat.
Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence
I've got nothing but praise for the Museum of Coastal Defence. It's an indoor-outdoor museum comprising a number of galleries of military and war photos and memorabilia, plus a walk around the site itself. Lei Yue Mun, the promontory on which the museum is perched, commands the eastern entrance to Hong Kong's harbour, and this site was fortified in the 19th century with the aim of sealing it off. You can visit gun emplacements, munition stores, and even a torpedo launching site. It might just be the best $10 you'll spend at any of Hong Kong's museums.
Hong Kong Heritage Museum
The Heritage Museum, located not far from the Sha Tin MTR station in the New Territories, is neither here nor there. It's part history museum, part art museum, part 'interactive' kids' zone -- but not a huge success at any of the above. Perhaps its singular feature is an exhibit dedicated to Chinese opera, but then I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that's a plus or a minus. This museum's existence seems most likely to be a sop to local interests (i.e. 'Hey, let's have something that will attract tourists to Shatin!') than to any other clear purpose. It's worth a visit if you're in the area, but I would not strain to get to this one until I'd exhausted the possibilities at the History, Art and Coastal Defence museums. Admission is $10.
Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum
I have not visited this museum! Any reader feedback on its merits/demerits would be very welcome. All I know is that Dr Sun did reside in Hong Kong for part of his life, and that this museum occupies an historical building, although not one that he lived in. Admission is $10.
Flagstaff House (Teaware Museum)
Flagstaff House is the pleasant white colonial building you see off to one side in Hong Kong Park. It houses a collection of tea accoutrements that are strangely soothing to behold. Seeing them won't take you long, though; this is a small museum. It's free.
Located appropriately enough in Tai Po, right on the old Kowloon-Canton rail line, this museum comprises the old Tai Po railway station itself, plus a couple of engines and several passenger cars from the historic KCR. It's fun and it's free.
Sheung Yiu Folk Museum and the Sam Tung Uk Museuem are similar, in that they're preserved/restored traditional clan compounds. You can walk through them, see examples of some of the implements of daily life in days gone by, and be very grateful you've got an air conditioner and a fridge. Sheung Yiu is a bit of a hike to get to -- literally -- as it's a few minutes' walk down the Pak Tam Chung Nature Trail in the Sai Kung Country Park. Sam Tung Uk is in a more urban setting, near the Tsuen Wan MTR station. Both are free.
All of the museums I've listed so far are run by Hong Kong government's Leisure and Cultural Services Department. The LDSD offers a couple of bargain ticket options for its museums:
All LCSD museums also offer half-price concessionary fees to kids, people over 60, and people with disabilities.
Finally, you should note that Hong Kong's museums offer free entry on Wednesdays (although note that this may not apply to special exhibitions, and it definitely doesn't apply to the IMAX movies at the Space Museum).
Now, just before we close, I'll mention one more museum that's not part of the LCSD group.
Hong Kong Maritime Museum
As our faithful reader and commenter Gweipo has mentioned, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum is great. It's also conveniently located in the reconstructed Murray House in Stanley, so a trip to the market there can be spiced up with a fascinating look at ships and shipping both historical and modern. Admission is $20, and again note that this museum is not covered by the LCSD's weekly and yearly membership schemes I've just mentioned above.
Readers, any notes to add? What are your favorites?