M+ looks at the ways young people are transforming our museum, through the eyes of curatorial assistant Blanche Xu.
Long screeches of pulling tape echo across the room, penetrating lively chatter. Against the captivating view of the Hong Kong harbour, a group of young people is transforming a workshop space at M+ into a temporary exhibition hall. On the ground lie Styrofoam sheets no thicker than two millimetres, stacks of photographs, rolls of string, and angled tables and chairs. The disorder is difficult to navigate with the eye.
Between the huddling groups of three to four, Blanche Xu, a slight figure in dark overalls and round glasses, is closely scanning a ‘sculpture’ erected in the centre of the floor: a delicate construction of discarded white tarp, propelled upward by a fan attached to its base. Flailing back and forth, side to side, it resembles a dinosaur with two short, dangling arms flapping mid-air.
In twelve hours, Xu and her band of volunteers will present their first showcase to the public, one of the final events of Young Collective Summer Takeover: Retrograde. Some are busy piecing together creations made from upcycled waste collected around M+. Others are using wooden pegs to attach palm-sized photographs onto jute rope, strung across columns of irregularly stacked chairs. Attached to this three-dimensional storyboard, an instruction reads: ‘Write down your thoughts and feelings about one photo hanging on the line. After filling the written card with the breath of your heart, you can take the photo home.’
‘This showcase is more than a display. It asks visitors to interact with the pieces and guides us to interpret the creations in our own ways,’ Xu explains.
Xu, a curatorial assistant on M+’s Learning & Interpretation team, goes by many roles—she is an event coordinator, a facilitator, and an administrator. Running between the workshop space and offices with a stack of folders under her arm, she has one goal in mind: to connect visitors with the museum through events designed for the public, and specifically, the young public.
Her current focus is the M+ Young Collective, a programme that engages curious young volunteers to work with the M+ team and creative practitioners on delivering talks and workshops to the public. The Young Collective Summer Takeover: Retrograde is one of its child programmes: a two-week series of events curated for young people, inspired by M+’s previous summer camps.
‘“Young” isn’t defined by an age range. It’s a status or a stage in life. It’s a phase when we experience transformation. The Young Collective encourages us to look at what’s around us from new angles and develop the ability to transform and create unconventional solutions towards change in life.’
Xu herself is no stranger to volunteering and transformation. Out of a growing curiosity in arts and culture, she joined the M+ Summer Camp as a volunteer in every summer from 2015 to 2018. During that time, she also dove headfirst into community engagement coordinating events for the Mirco Yuan’er Children’s Library and Art Centre in Beijing. By 2018, Xu had made the transition from M+ volunteer to M+ staff, returning first as an intern and then as a curatorial assistant.
‘My state of mind journeyed from simply enjoying to contributing,’ says Xu. ‘I want to share my experience with those around me and create unique experiences for others.’
Creating those experiences for other young people is less a task of standing centre-stage than of quietly orchestrating in the background—she spends most of her days emailing and corresponding with participants or coordinating for an event, providing outreach to other teams across M+.
The planning for events like this one begins months ahead. ‘We begin by brainstorming and mapping out keywords that address the characteristics young people have and the challenges they face today. We then choose an artist to collaborate with based on their experience and values shown through their works. If time permits, we will make trial runs to refine our direction and approach.’
The collective built this takeover around the keyword ‘retrograde’, which describes the apparent backwards motion of a planet. ‘Retrograde’ also serves as a metaphor that prompts young people to reassess their journeys of self-discovery and navigate the world from fresh perspectives.
To this end, Xu and the collective recruited designer Kevin Cheung to run a workshop on upcycling exhibition waste and artist Kenji Wong Wai Kin to run a workshop on storytelling through photography—the subjects of today’s showcase. Xu and the M+ Learning and Interpretation team facilitate the programme and outreach, the volunteers drive the event, and the young workshop participants bring the programme to life.
‘M+ makes museum engagement possible. There is no set framework and no barriers. We are encouraged to experiment with new ideas with alike minds, building a set of values at a new starting point,’ says Xu.
According to Xu, museum engagement is broken up into three stages. The first stage is to attract visitors to the museum. The second is when museums become resource centres, whether as a place for a quiet date, spending time with family, or finding inspiration and ideas. The final stage is when museums effortlessly become part of our daily lives.
‘An event should bring audiences what they want to achieve. It could be as simple as reaching a state of happiness or walking away with a learning experience. As event facilitators, we do twenty per cent of the work. The rest is the amount of effort the audience commits to the event. Events act as platforms for us to facilitate the exchange of dialogues and ideas, not only between the museum and its visitors, but between aspiring young people, curators, and our peers,’ Xu explains.
On the day of the showcase, visitors leave messages on the storyboard as they slip their chosen photographs into their pockets. Some of their responses reimagine through words the delights of the everyday life, while others nostalgically depict small details worth memorising.
One reads: ‘A cup of emptied ice lemon tea sits on the table in the park. Inside are cigarettes. Beside it, sits an empty cigarette box. Perhaps the image isn’t beautiful, but it’s more beautiful than cigarette buds discarded on the ground.’ Others contain shorter messages, simply reminding young Hongkongers to ‘forge on’.
After the event, Xu will collect these messages and remaining photographs for posterity. She’ll also moderate discussions with the volunteers to reflect on the outcomes of the event, so they can channel their insights into the next one.
‘Visual culture gives us opportunities to connect and share perspectives,’ reflects Xu. ‘As a public visual culture institution, we have the social responsibility to uphold the values we believe in, bring them alive on a platform for young people to interact on, and respond to our dynamically changing city.’
That vision is not restricted to within the museum walls. Xu continues diverse conversations outside of the museum setting with present and past volunteers, artists, and members of the Young Collective programme through meetups, coffee breaks, or visiting exhibitions together.
‘I find that young people often connect to the people of a place, not the place itself. People define the place.’