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23 Sept 2022 / by Alison Fung

From Scratch to Start, or How to Facilitate a Museum Takeover

Photograph showing a woman wearing glasses, a white surgical mask, and dark t-shirt, jeans, and trainers sitting cross-legged on a floor cushion. She is talking animatedly, with her left arm raised diagonally across her chest and her right hand holding a tablet in her lap. Behind her is a large floor-to-ceiling window showing a sun-washed balcony and two people standing near a railing.

Curatorial Assistant Blanche Xu leading a talk at M+. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

M+ looks at the ways young people are transforming our museum, through the eyes 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.

Photograph showing a room with concrete and wood-panelled walls, a diagonally slanting ceiling, and floor-to-ceiling windows. The ground is littered with Styrofoam strips, discarded paper, and white tarp. Small groups of 1-4 young people sit or move throughout the space: some are cutting paper, others are examining or shaping the materials.

Volunteers and participants prepare for a showcase of two Creative Day Camps—The Image Storyteller and The Garbage Designers—in August 2022. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

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.’

Photograph showing a series of small photographs attached to three lies of string with clothespins. Two hands are attaching a dark photo showing human sculptures to the string. A blurry figure is crouched in the background.

Participants attach photographs to an improvised storyboard. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

‘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.

Photograph showing two young men working at a table. The man on the left is standing and attaching a soda can to a wooden base. The man on the right is watching the first man's progress. On the table in front of them are several Coca Cola cans with their tops cut off and an assortment of tools, water bottles, and other objects.

Designer and day camp facilitator Kevin Cheung helps repurpose discarded soda cans. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing two young women examining a piece of white tarp laid out across a table. Behind them is a floor-to-ceiling window, which reveals a balcony, body of water, and cityscape on the opposite shore.

Participants brainstorm what to do with a discarded piece of tarp. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing two young women attaching a white tarp decorated with red and orange markings to an upwards-oriented industrial fan. Behind them are a group of people working at a table and a tarp creation that resembles a tyrannosaurus rex. The floor is littered with scraps of paper, masking tape, and large canisters.

The tarp will become an inflatable sculpture, propelled upwards by an industrial fan. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young woman shaping a small piece of Styrofoam in her hands. She is holding a utility knife. On the ground around her are scraps of Styrofoam, a black plastic canister, and more utility knives.

A participant readies foam scraps to be upcycled into an artwork. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young man and woman holding up and inspecting two pieces of paper. Behind them is a table covered in bags, drinks, and cardboard.

Participants select photos to exhibit in the showcase. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young man and woman attaching a series of photographs to a floor-to-ceiling window. The photos are arranged in three rows of two to three; each one shows a detail of a building or cityscape. Outside the window, two women pass on the balcony and look curiously inside.

Urban photographs produced in the day camp are contrasted with the cityscape outside the windows. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing two young men working at a table. The man on the left is standing and attaching a soda can to a wooden base. The man on the right is watching the first man's progress. On the table in front of them are several Coca Cola cans with their tops cut off and an assortment of tools, water bottles, and other objects.

Designer and day camp facilitator Kevin Cheung helps repurpose discarded soda cans. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing two young women examining a piece of white tarp laid out across a table. Behind them is a floor-to-ceiling window, which reveals a balcony, body of water, and cityscape on the opposite shore.

Participants brainstorm what to do with a discarded piece of tarp. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing two young women attaching a white tarp decorated with red and orange markings to an upwards-oriented industrial fan. Behind them are a group of people working at a table and a tarp creation that resembles a tyrannosaurus rex. The floor is littered with scraps of paper, masking tape, and large canisters.

The tarp will become an inflatable sculpture, propelled upwards by an industrial fan. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young woman shaping a small piece of Styrofoam in her hands. She is holding a utility knife. On the ground around her are scraps of Styrofoam, a black plastic canister, and more utility knives.

A participant readies foam scraps to be upcycled into an artwork. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young man and woman holding up and inspecting two pieces of paper. Behind them is a table covered in bags, drinks, and cardboard.

Participants select photos to exhibit in the showcase. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young man and woman attaching a series of photographs to a floor-to-ceiling window. The photos are arranged in three rows of two to three; each one shows a detail of a building or cityscape. Outside the window, two women pass on the balcony and look curiously inside.

Urban photographs produced in the day camp are contrasted with the cityscape outside the windows. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

‘“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.’

Photograph showing four people standing a row, each holding up a pink sign with an illustrated icon above a word. The first one shows and eye and says 'SIGHT'; the second shows a hand and says 'TOUCH'. The other two are not visible. The second person from the right is looking at the camera with a big smile on her face.

Before joining M+ as staff, Xu (second from right) was a regular participant in M+ Summer Camps. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

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.’

Photograph showing a large piece of white tarp shaped to resemble a tyrannosaurus rex in the middle of a clean exhibition space. It is propelled upwards from its base by a small, upwards-facing industrial fan. On its body is a strip of tape labelled with the words 'Basel JK Basel'. Five people walk in the background, examining small exhibits and photographs attached to a wall and floor-to-ceiling window.

The final inflatable dinosaur sculpture. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

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.

Photograph showing two women from behind as they examine a table and wall covered in white paper. On the paper are drawings and cutouts that resemble home furniture and decor.

As part of the summer takeover, visitors can take part in a series of workshops. In Nest Reconstruction, they reimagine the concept of ‘home’. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young man and woman seated in a gallery and looking intently at tablets in their hands. Behind them are two paintings illustrating workers.

In The Body as a Gallery, workshop participants create collages on tablets and turn them into personalised (temporary) tattoos. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a dark underground area lit by two paper lanterns on the floor. A black piece of paper is attached to the concrete wall next to an exposed pipe. An entryway in the background is obscured by a curtain of sparkly silver streamers. Two people peer into the space from behind the curtain.

In the orienteering workshop A Chic Date at the Museum, pairs are sent on a quest into the hidden spaces of M+. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing two women from behind as they examine a table and wall covered in white paper. On the paper are drawings and cutouts that resemble home furniture and decor.

As part of the summer takeover, visitors can take part in a series of workshops. In Nest Reconstruction, they reimagine the concept of ‘home’. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young man and woman seated in a gallery and looking intently at tablets in their hands. Behind them are two paintings illustrating workers.

In The Body as a Gallery, workshop participants create collages on tablets and turn them into personalised (temporary) tattoos. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a dark underground area lit by two paper lanterns on the floor. A black piece of paper is attached to the concrete wall next to an exposed pipe. An entryway in the background is obscured by a curtain of sparkly silver streamers. Two people peer into the space from behind the curtain.

In the orienteering workshop A Chic Date at the Museum, pairs are sent on a quest into the hidden spaces of M+. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing two women from behind as they examine a table and wall covered in white paper. On the paper are drawings and cutouts that resemble home furniture and decor.

As part of the summer takeover, visitors can take part in a series of workshops. In Nest Reconstruction, they reimagine the concept of ‘home’. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young man and woman seated in a gallery and looking intently at tablets in their hands. Behind them are two paintings illustrating workers.

In The Body as a Gallery, workshop participants create collages on tablets and turn them into personalised (temporary) tattoos. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a dark underground area lit by two paper lanterns on the floor. A black piece of paper is attached to the concrete wall next to an exposed pipe. An entryway in the background is obscured by a curtain of sparkly silver streamers. Two people peer into the space from behind the curtain.

In the orienteering workshop A Chic Date at the Museum, pairs are sent on a quest into the hidden spaces of M+. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing two women from behind as they examine a table and wall covered in white paper. On the paper are drawings and cutouts that resemble home furniture and decor.

As part of the summer takeover, visitors can take part in a series of workshops. In Nest Reconstruction, they reimagine the concept of ‘home’. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a young man and woman seated in a gallery and looking intently at tablets in their hands. Behind them are two paintings illustrating workers.

In The Body as a Gallery, workshop participants create collages on tablets and turn them into personalised (temporary) tattoos. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Photograph showing a dark underground area lit by two paper lanterns on the floor. A black piece of paper is attached to the concrete wall next to an exposed pipe. An entryway in the background is obscured by a curtain of sparkly silver streamers. Two people peer into the space from behind the curtain.

In the orienteering workshop A Chic Date at the Museum, pairs are sent on a quest into the hidden spaces of M+. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

‘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.

Photograph showing a boy crouched on top of a large white piece of paper taped to the floor. He is colouring on the paper with an orange marker.

A young visitor colours at the summer takeover. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

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.

Photograph showing a woman crouched in front of rows of string strung between two columns of irregularly stacked chairs. Attached to the string with clothespins are a series of handwritten notes and photographs.

Visitors to the showcase can leave behind personalised notes in exchange for one of the photographs taken by workshop participants. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

‘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.’

Photograph showing three groups of people from behind a large, three-panelled window. Each one is drawing or pasting images onto the window. The left panel shows a spiral shape; the middle panel shows the letters 'AC'; and the right panel shows a heart, an illustration of two people, and the word 'HAHA'.

Visitors draw on the windows of the M+ Learning Hub as part of the takeover. Photo: Michael CW Chiu; © M+, Hong Kong

Join the Young Collective

Alison Fung
Alison Fung

Alison Fung is Editor, Digital Content at M+.

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M+ Membership benefits list updated in August 2022

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