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Museums in China

Museums in China: The Politics of Representation after Mao

Marzia Varutti
Volume: 13
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Museums in China
    Book Description:

    Museums in China have undergone tremendous transformations since they first appeared in the country in the late nineteenth century. Futuristic, state-of-the-art museums have today become symbols of China's global cultural, economic and technological prominence, and over the last two decades, the number of Chinese museums has increased at an unprecedented rate, with China set to become the country with the highest number of museums in the world. But why have museums become so important?This book, based on extensive research in a number of the museums themselves, examines recent changes in their display methods, narratives, actors and architectural style. It also considers their representations of Chinese national identity, millenarian history and extraordinary cultural diversity. Through an analysis of the changes affecting not only what we observethroughmuseums, but also the verymediumof observation (i.e. museums themselves), this book provides a unique, original and timely exploration of the ongoing changes affecting Chinese society, and an evaluation of their consequences.Dr Marzia Varutti is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Museum Studies, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-210-5
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-ix)
  5. Chronology
    (pp. x-x)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Standing in the middle of Tian An Men Square is a moving experience. The concrete landscape and empty sky are overwhelming in their immensity. Space, form, textures, perspectives and colours are defined in an authoritative tone. A millennial history of power struggles, collective tragedies and dreams seems to exude from this vast esplanade. Yet Tian An Men is actually only just over half a century old. In its time, very little seems to have changed: the austerity of the concrete façade has remained unaltered. Like the eye of a tornado, Tian An Men has retained an appearance of immobility in...

  8. 1 Cultural Heritage in China
    (pp. 9-24)

    This chapter considers the relevance of cultural heritage in Ancient and Imperial China,¹ and its ties to political authority. An appreciation of the historical relationship between heritage and power in China is a useful preamble to the discussion of the forms that this same relationship takes in today’s museums.

    The concept of heritage is steeped in the specific cultural and historical trajectory of a country. As such, it cannot be transposed across different cultural contexts. It is therefore useful to recast the notion of heritage in light of its conceptualisation within the Chinese cultural milieu.

    The term ‘heritage’ is translated...

  9. 2 Museums in China: Origins and Development
    (pp. 25-42)

    The notion of the museum as a public institution has a relatively short history in China, having been imported by the colonial powers Great Britain, France and Japan. Indeed, ‘Asian nations are still struggling, with mixed results, to domesticate this somewhat exotic transplant’ (Kahn 1998, 226). Referring to museums in early 20th-century China, the Chinese museologist Guo Changhong (2008, 80) notes that, in China, the museums of the time were frequently viewed as ‘imported wonders’. The effort to educate the Chinese people, safeguard cultural artefacts and promote research through museums can be directly attributed to an increasing acceptance of Western...

  10. 3 New Actors in the Chinese Museum World
    (pp. 43-58)

    According to Howard Becker (1982, x), the concept of an ‘art world’ refers to a ‘network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for’. Despite its tautological definition, ‘art world’ is a popular and widely used term due to its capacity to capture the fuzzy world that surrounds the production, distribution and consumption of works of art. Drawing on Becker’s notion, the concept of the ‘museum world’ can be taken to represent the group of people involved in museum activities,...

  11. 4 Museum Objects and the Chinese Nation
    (pp. 59-76)

    This chapter explores how museums interpret objects in order to create and disseminate specific narratives of the Chinese nation. Since the process of representation begins with the interpretation of objects, it seems fitting to consider object biographies, and how these influence the ways in which objects are interpreted. How have specific objects endured over time and what contexts have they encountered during their ‘social life’? How have museum practices (documentation, research, conservation, exhibition) affected their meanings and values, and to what extent are new meanings created in the museum?

    One can think of museum displays as assemblages ‘of people, things,...

  12. 5 The Nation in the Museum
    (pp. 77-88)

    Museums are privileged loci for the representation of the nation: ‘museums are major apparatuses in the creation of national identities. They illustrate the nation as cultured, as elevated in taste, as inclusive and as paternal’ (Hooper-Greenhill 2000, 25). Museums are the warrants for national identity as they are ‘the site of a symbolic transaction between the visitor and the state. In exchange for the state’s spiritual wealth, the individual intensifies his attachment to the state’ (Duncan and Wallach 2004, 59). To this, one should add the temporal dimension: the museum ‘confers unity to the past, a unity of place and...

  13. 6 The Politics of the Past
    (pp. 89-102)

    This chapter explores the complex relationship that links the Chinese political present to its recent and ancient past. The Chinese political system fits Michel Foucault’s definition of ‘discursive regimes’ as ‘systems for managing and policing discourse (who produces or evaluates what will count as true or valid knowledge and what will not, and the conditions of such truth)’ (Hodge and Louie 1998, 10). Within such ‘regimes’, museums are assigned the function of shaping the image of the nation and its past. Yet, while Tony Bennett’s (1995) Foucault-inspired paradigm of museums as political tools is not inappropriate in explaining the relationship...

  14. 7 The Representation of the Past in China’s Museums
    (pp. 103-120)

    National history and national heritage are often juxtaposed to complement and support each other: the former provides a cohesive narrative and a context for the heritage, while the latter materialises an otherwise abstract past. In museums, the past is transformed into heritage through processes of selection, interpretation and memorialisation. Museums are sites where collective ideas are formed, nurtured, validated, disrupted and contested. In other words, they act as sites of both memory and counter-memory (Zemon Davis and Starn 1989). What makes museums special repositories of memory is the presence of objects. Objects transform museums into treasure houses preserving stories and...

  15. 8 The Politics of Identity
    (pp. 121-128)

    The previous chapter examined how the national past has been interpreted and represented in Chinese museums. In most instances, the re-evocation of the past is instrumental to the unfolding of narratives centred on the present and future of the Chinese nation. As the scholars of China Yih-Jye Hwang and Florian Schneider (2011, 42) remark in their analysis of the People’s Republic of China’s 60th anniversary celebrations in 2009, ‘the parade has moved the ideological legitimacy basis of the Party significantly away from its revolutionary heritage to a mixture of nationalism and the current administration’s interpretation of Chinese modernity’. Notions of...

  16. 9 The Museum Representation of Ethnic Minorities
    (pp. 129-144)

    This chapter considers the relevance of ethnic minorities in discourses on Chinese national identity and explores the representation of Chinese ethnic groups in museums. The Chinese expression used to designate ethnic groups isshaoshu minzu, which literally means ‘minority nationality’ or ‘national minority’. The termshaois a diminutive; it may refer to a small number and/or small size.Minzualso appears in the official denomination of China as a ‘unified, multinational state’,duominzu guojia, literally a ‘country with many nationalities’. The termminzuis laden with political significance. As the historian of China Frank Dikötter (1996, 594) notes, ‘The...

  17. 10 Techniques and Sites of Display of Ethnic Minorities
    (pp. 145-158)

    The use of mannequins, miniatures, small-size figurines and dioramas is sufficiently widespread within ethnic minority displays in China to justify a critical reflection on their use and implications as display techniques. At the Museum of the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province in south-western China, the visitor can see the 56 Chinese ethnic groups represented by small-scale plastic figurines positioned side-by-side to form a materialised picture of the Chinese nation. This depiction is consistent with China’s self-definition as a ‘multinational state’. The display technique adopted by the museum in Chengdu is not an isolated...

  18. Conclusions: The New Museums of China
    (pp. 159-164)

    Throughout Chinese history, the meanings and values attributed to cultural heritage have reflected the stability and the transformations, the weaknesses and the virtues deployed in the exercising of authority. Since the 19th century, Chinese museums have provided not only a framework for the viewing, appreciation and interpretation of cultural heritage, but also a setting for the representation of contrasting narratives of the past and present of the Chinese nation.

    In China, perhaps more than anywhere else, museums have played a crucial role in rooting political authority, instilling a sense of unity, creating a common identity and developing images of the...

  19. Appendix: List of Museums in China Visited by the Author
    (pp. 165-166)
  20. Bibliography and References
    (pp. 167-182)
  21. Index
    (pp. 183-190)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 191-193)