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Setting Sail : From Ancient Maritime Trade to Modern Maritime Shipping

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

On 23 October 2021, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, in collaboration with the Blanc Art Group, brought the exhibition "Setting Sail: From Ancient Maritime Trade to Modern Maritime Shipping" to the 2021 International Antique Art Fair at the Building A1 of the National Foreign Cultural Trade Base (Beijing).

The exhibition is in three sections, namely “Underwater Archaeology and the Ancient Maritime Trade”, “Finding the way: Navigation and Communication” and “The Voice of Titanic: Safety of Life at Sea”, displaying more than 130 pieces of exhibits including ship models, nautical instruments, antique porcelain, trade paintings, and old photographs.

Exhibition view

With the themes of "Maritime Technology" and "Maritime Silk Road Trade", the exhibition focuses on creating an immersive experience that brings cultural relics to life. The exhibition hopes to bridge the dialogue between the museum and the public through the artefacts, and to recreate the splendid maritime culture and the important role of the Maritime Silk Roads from ancient times to the present day.

Section 1. Underwater Archaeology and the Ancient Maritime Trade

Our underwater heritage encompasses the rich cultural relics of humankind. Such heritage, discovered through underwater archaeological investigations, provides testimony to our shared history and the Maritime Silk Routes which Chinese, Arab, Asian and Western traders followed for over 2000 years.

The term, “die Seidenstraße” (The Silk Routes), was first coined by the German geologist Ferdinand Von Richthofen in 1877. The name was given to the ancient and extensive transcontinental trade network connecting the East and the West. In the second century BCE, the imperial envoy Zhang Qian was dispatched to Central Asia during the time of the Han dynasty. Maritime trade starting from South China towards Central and West Asia was developed and commercial relations between the East and the West began to flourish.

Coral encrusted ceramic cluster of Chinese export porcelain, late 17th century, HKMM2004.0210.0001

The spread of culture, decorative style and religious ideas came as a result of centuries of maritime trade between China and the world. The artefacts on display include materials from different cultures such as export ceramics from China and Southeast Asia and gemstones from Southeast and Central Asia. Some relics were even recovered through local underwater archaeological investigations. They all reflect trade development and cultural interactions between China and other countries. Recent underwater archaeological discoveries and topics related to High Island and the Sai Kung Sea, help visitors to understand Hong Kong's role in the ancient maritime trade network that stretched across the Pearl Delta River Region, Southern China, Asia and beyond.

Section 2. Finding the way: Navigation and Communication

If a sailor couldn’t see another ship or the nearest point of land, he was on his own, cut off in a world out of touch with any other human beings save fellow crew members. Where am I? Where am I going? How and when shall I get there? These are the basic questions faced by navigators.

Chinese compass-cum sundial, early 20th century, HKMM2010.0189.0002

Section 3. The Voice of Titanic: Safety of Life at Sea

After the accident of the sinking of Titanic, technologies related to safety and security transformed rapidly in the 20th century maritime world. There were larger, faster, stronger ships less and less dominated by and subject to the exigencies of weather and season. On the other hand, came better ways of navigating them, guiding them along their routes, bringing them safely into and out of port and ensuring the safety of ships, crews and cargoes. This was also the era of increasing regulation of ships, ports and seafarers to ensure the safe carriage of goods and peoples along the ever-increasing highways of the sea, were in turn increasingly defined in legal terms. Meanwhile in Hong Kong the transformations were swift and wide-ranging and in maritime matters as in many others, pointed the way ahead for China and beyond.

A teak dinghy, Cheoy Lee Shipyard Limited, 1940s, HKMM2011.0160.0001

This travelling exhibition to Beijing "Setting Sail : From Ancient Maritime Trade to Modern Maritime Shipping" runs from 23 Oct 2021 – 8 Apr 2022 in Beijing. Read more about the show.


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