Between Space and Learning: Lessons from Hong Kong’s Museum of Education | Carol Ng-He

In my teaching in schools and museums, I often find myself circling back to the idea of “space” – how people learn in both formal and informal learning spaces. This interest probably came from the lack of space in my hometown, Hong Kong. With over seven million people now living in a land of less than five hundred square miles, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. I spent my first nineteen years living in the city, and perhaps it is that experience which influenced my interests in how space can be used, transformed, and imagined and the focus of my teaching artist practice through different spaces.

It was not until I immigrated to Chicago that I gradually began to realize the importance of how physical structure shapes the connection between learning and space, and more importantly, how this connection is being documented and shared back in the public domain.  Working in the museum education field now, I am interested in alternative forms of museums, specifically ones with the focus on education itself.  I am becoming more aware of the relationship between the goals of educating children and the physical elements of spaces for learning

Last December I traveled back to Hong Kong, and spent some of my time there to explore different cultural sites in the city.  In addition to touring the Blue House described in my previous post, I visited the Institute of Education of Hong Kong. This visit fulfilled my curiosity about the current state of local art teacher education in higher education, as well as how spaces are being configured to foster a culture of creativity and imagination for these teachers-to-be. One of the most attractive places I came across on campus during my visit was the Museum of Education.  I had never seen anything like it.

Old Campus of Pui Ching Middle School (Early 1950s), Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Hong Kong Museum of Education Image Database.

The Museum of Education in Hong Kong is only three years old, but its mission is profound: Established in 2009, it is dedicated to acquiring, conserving, researching and exhibiting materials that relate to the history and development of education in Hong Kong.

Several months after my visit, the experience is still vivid on my mind, and I am reminded of the power a space like a school has to construct individual memories, as well as the way that it serves as a building block of students’ learning.   As a museum educator, the Museum of Education has also led me to reflect on what it might be like to have a museum like this in my current city, Chicago.

The exhibition I saw focused on the development of Hong Kong school buildings. The exhibit showcased the relationship between the formation and evolution of Hong Kong education systems and the philosophy of campus architecture. I was fascinated how the history of education in Hong Kong is intimately intertwined with the history of the city itself. Not only that, but this history has close connections to political and socio-economic changes over the last century.

For example, after the Second World War, the rapid increase in the population of Hong Kong led to the rise of “tenement and roof-top” schools to meet the demand due to the shortage of more formal school buildings. Some of the pictures at the museum exhibit showed a large group of elementary students crowded together, sitting row by row, and writing under the direct sunlight in a seemingly hot summer.

Another example is the “flexi-design” school style from the 1990s, that would allow for the construction of building extensions in the future to cope with the constant population growth – it is really a smart idea to prepare space for the potential growth of the student body!

One side of the gallery shows that the emerging school design in the 21st century.  Instead of the traditional thinking of school as a medium for subject-content transmission, today’s design focuses more on the student-oriented and interactive learning approach.  I believe that this is a universal need, in Hong Kong or otherwise, in regards to globalization and the increasing need for cross-cultural communications.

Now, a few months post-visit, this exhibit (and the idea about how school buildings constitute spaces that shape individual memories and learning experiences) still resonates. No doubt it was the visit to the Museum of Education which led me to think how the history of education, school design, and my past experiences within the campus have created the person I am today, as well as my outlook for education in the future.

Could Chicago also have its own museum of education? If we have one, what will it be like? What would we try to tell others about our education?  What kid of spaces will we build for our children’s education? How would a museum in Chicago be different from the one in Hong Kong? What would be the role of teachers, students, artists, and other community members in its development if we were to build one in Chicago? How would this space help the citizens to envision our education system for the future?

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