Role of local museums in (re)constructing national identity

Postcolonial museums are contributing to a rethink on national identity locally in Hong Kong and Macau, says study involving IFT alumna and IFT scholar

Research Corner | A partnership between Macau Business and the Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT)


It is a cliché to say that words matter. But according to a research paper involving an alumna as well as a scholar from the IFT the truism is worth repeating when analysing the commentaries local museums use to describe exhibits to local and international visitors.

The analysis looked at such narrative materials in, respectively, the Hong Kong Museum of History and the Macao Museum. According to the research study, museum materials are being used as an opportunity to promote a local sense of Chinese national identity in each of the two cities, following their respective handover from foreign administration.

“Both museums are part of China’s nation-building projects,” the researchers stated in their paper. “Hong Kong and Macau heritage managers utilise complex transnational memories to (re)construct an identity aligned with, yet distinct from, that of China,” they added.

The comments were featured in the paper Politics of memories: Identity construction in museums produced by four international researchers, including IFT alumna Carol Xiaoyue Zhang – now a scholar at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom – plus Dr. Honggen Xiao from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Professor Nigel Morgan of the University of Swansea, and IFT scholar Tuan Phong Ly. The work was published last year in academic journal Annals of Tourism Research.

The study adopts critical discourse analysis, which involves narratives from various sources. Descriptive texts relating to exhibits – narratives in Chinese and English – featured respectively in the Hong Kong Museum of History and the Macao Museum were included. The materials were collected over a number of site visits between 2014 and 2017.

Researchers also participated in guided tours to each of the museums and made reference to promotional information available online and offline. In addition, they reviewed visitor-generated comments about the two museums posted to popular online travel forums. Researchers also conducted what they termed in-depth interviews with cultural experts to gain insights into the production and construction of museum exhibitions.

Hong Kong and Macau are two Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of the People’s Republic of China. The former was under British rule from 1841 to 1997, when it was handed over to China. Macau was leased to then administered by Portugal for more than four centuries, until 1999, when it returned to Chinese control.

According to the researchers, the handover of Hong Kong and Macau to China subsequently influenced the respective identity of each city, making such identity “extremely ambiguous” due to a juxtaposition of European and Chinese related elements. In this context, both museums “share the goal of exhibiting the complex history of the SARs to signify that they are no longer colonies but part of the People’s Republic of China,” the scholars highlighted.

The post-handover authorities’ focus on “re-imagining [the] Chineseness” of Hong Kong and Macau was obvious in exhibits available at the two museums, wrote the researchers. Such focus included a recurrent highlighting of links with ancient and contemporary Chinese history. This provided people in Hong Kong and Macau with the opportunity – based upon evidence and precedent – to identify clearly with a sense of Chinese nationality.

The researchers said their study demonstrated that “museums in the postcolonial context” aimed to construct “relatively harmonious” narratives about Chinese-foreigner interaction locally during the periods of foreign administration in the two cities, namely by excluding references to “conflictual events”.

They noted that museums in general are “sites that offer or highlight specific, selective discourses about identities.” Such institutions thus “have profound power” to shape the way in which postcolonial societies define the “legitimacy of their ancestry,” namely by selecting “what to remember and what to forget”.

The team of researchers pointed out in their paper that “heritage tourism is an integral part of nationhood in which people experience and develop a sense of belonging through imagining the collective ancestry.” Therefore, to create a “common” sense of remembered identity “heritage often acts as a symbolic evidence to reproduce and communicate the preferred version of the past over and across generations”.


The researchers

Carol Xiaoyue Zhang is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. She has a PhD from the University of Surrey. Dr. Zhang began her higher education studies at Macau’s IFT, graduating in 2010 with a Bachelor Degree in Tourism Business Management. Her research interests include nationalism, tourism marketing, tourism policy, cultural tourism, research methodology, humour and tourism, and inbound and outbound Chinese tourism.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University associate professor Honggen Xiao specialises in tourism-related research. He holds a PhD in recreation and leisure studies from the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada. His work and research experience include spells in academic institutions in Canada, Mainland China and Japan prior to moving to Hong Kong.

Nigel Morgan is a professor at the University of Swansea in the U.K., where he heads the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. His research areas include destination development and management, and place marketing. Dr. Morgan has a PhD from the University of Exeter in the U.K.

Tuan Phong Ly – also known as Jack Ly – is a visiting assistant professor at IFT. He holds a PhD from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University; his research interests include ecotourism, national park model management, cultural heritage management, tourism development in South East Asia and museum development. He teaches tourism management and cultural related subjects at IFT.

Tuan Phong Ly

The paper

Carol X. Zhang, Honggen Xiao, Nigel Morgan and Tuan Phong Ly: Politics of memories: Identity construction in museums, Annals of Tourism Research, Volume 73, pages 116-130, 2018

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2018.09.011