Curating the World for China’s Museum Crowds
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2017-06-12 13:29:38

BEIJING — Despite staging the National Museum of China’s most-visited exhibition in its history, curator Yan Zhi does not seem satisfied. The 38-year-old spent a year and a half preparing “A History of the World in 100 Objects” for Chinese museum visitors, over 300,000 of whom have graced the installation since it opened in March.

The numbers provide little comfort to Yan, who speaks to Sixth Tone in a coffee shop not far from the museum, located in the heart of Beijing. “The outcome of the exhibition was less than 10 percent of what I originally anticipated,” he says cryptically, not elaborating on the metric of his disappointment. “No matter how hard you push your work, an invisible wall will kill your idealism.”

Yan, who holds a Ph.D. in archaeology from Peking University and has worked at the museum since 2009, had planned to erect a wall at the end of the exhibition on which visitors could post notes expressing their reactions to the exhibits. The museum rejected the proposal, he says, out of fear that opinions on sensitive topics could cause tension.

No matter how hard you push your work, an invisible wall will kill your idealism.

Oblivious to such frustrations, visitors navigate the crowded space, forming long lines to catch a glimpse of the descriptive cards accompanying each artifact. Objects on display include a 2,600-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus, a stone bust of the Roman emperor Augustus, a MasterCard Gold credit card, and a solar-powered lamp produced in southern Chinese tech hub Shenzhen.

The exhibition originated at the British Museum in London, and Yan has endeavored to convey its essence — the interconnectivity of the world’s civilizations — to Chinese visitors. The exhibition hall echoes with the soft melody of Bach’s cello suites, a recording of Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich’s impromptu performance during the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The music is a subtle symbol that will likely be lost on most visitors, but to Yan, who was 10 years old when the wall fell, the message is simple: “No civilization can grow by itself within walls,” he says, adding that civilizations must “break through the walls and fences, influence and integrate with one another.”

A Chinese Tang tomb figure on display at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, March 1, 2017. Zhang Jusheng/VCG

A Chinese Tang tomb figure on display at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, March 1, 2017. Zhang Jusheng/VCG

As per tradition, the National Museum of China — as a host of “A History of the World in 100 Objects” — was invited to add a 101st item to the exhibition. Yan chose the ceremonial gavel and pen used during China’s 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). “The communication of civilization is based on trade,” Yan explains. “China’s entry into the WTO is significant to China’s own development and the global economy.”

Certainly, China’s economy has grown at an unprecedented rate over the 16 years since it joined the WTO, but some critics believe that the trajectory is grounded in a state-controlled economy, which conflicts with the WTO’s principles. “Whether it will become a milestone or a stumbling block depends on our choice,” Yan says of the country’s WTO membership.

Yan spoke to Sixth Tone about why he chose the gavel and pen over an invention unique to China, how the exhibition was modified to suit Chinese tastes, and what the future holds for China’s museum industry. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Yan Zhi poses for a photo at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, Feb. 28, 2017. Courtesy of Yan Zhi

Yan Zhi poses for a photo at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, Feb. 28, 2017. Courtesy of Yan Zhi

Sixth Tone: Most other host countries chose items that demonstrated their technological prowess for the exhibition’s 101st object. How did you decide on the gavel and pen used during China’s accession to the WTO?

Yan Zhi: At the beginning, we, too, looked for ideas from the internet and technology. It’s a safe topic. But after searching for a long time, we felt that China was very limited in the number of innovative items in technology, and that some extraordinary inventions were not suitable for an exhibition. For example, the hybrid rice developed by Yuan Longping that solved a great number of humankind’s famine problems was a terrific idea, but we couldn’t just put a handful of rice plants in a display case.

We also considered a handprint from a Chinese astronaut after returning from space, but Americans were on the moon in the 1960s. Unless China is the first to land on Mars, we can’t claim any leading technology there. 

Against all those items, the WTO gavel and pen really stood out. We chose it right away.

Wooden gavel and pen used in the accession of China to the WTO in 2001 at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, March 1, 2017. Zhang Jusheng/VCG

Wooden gavel and pen used in the accession of China to the WTO in 2001 at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, March 1, 2017. Zhang Jusheng/VCG

Sixth Tone: The presence of Chinese relics in foreign collections — including at the British Museum — is a longstanding, contentious issue in China. Was this ever a concern in planning the exhibition?

Yan Zhi: There are nine objects in the exhibition related to China, including the WTO gavel and pen. The British Museum specially prepared two exhibits for China, but they were replaced at the recommendation of the Chinese government to avoid unduly provoking a public reaction.

One was a piece of textile from Dunhuang, which was taken by [Hungarian-British archaeologist] Aurel Stein. The other was a Neolithic-age jade bi [an ornamental disc] inscribed with a poem written by the Qing emperor Qianlong, an artifact suspected to have been stolen from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace [by French and British troops in 1860].

Sixth Tone: What reactions has the exhibition elicited from visitors? Have they embraced the exhibition’s message of reading the world’s history as an interconnected whole?

At the moment, most visitors to Chinese museums are satisfied with just getting their fill of the sights.

Yan Zhi: I feel that most visitors just come to have a look at the treasures. They can understand much of this message from the exhibit descriptions.

I did get a good question from one university student, who asked me what controversial objects were present in the exhibition, as suggested by the theme of this year’s International Museum Day: “Saying the unspeakable in museums.” Among the objects, there is a gay-themed work by David Hockney that shows two 20-something boys lying naked in bed, having just woken up. It’s not unspeakable in the U.K., but [homosexuality] is still regarded as a sensitive topic in China. It’s lucky that we were able to display the piece in this exhibition.

Sixth Tone: What is the current trajectory of China’s museum industry?

Yan Zhi: The general trend of museums in China is that there are more frequent exhibitions and more cash, which is both good and bad. On average, we only spend three months preparing an exhibition, while museums in foreign countries usually take more than four years.

‘The Lewis Chessmen’ on display at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, March 1, 2017. Wei Tong/VCG

‘The Lewis Chessmen’ on display at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, March 1, 2017. Wei Tong/VCG

I think the growth in the number [of exhibitions] is a necessary process, much like in the movie market in China, where audiences’ tastes have now improved after watching so much rubbish. At the moment, most visitors to Chinese museums are satisfied with just getting their fill of the sights.

But still, I’d say that money is not the most significant element — freedom is. With more money comes stricter control and stronger guidance of our direction. A good exhibition needs money — let’s say 2 million yuan [around $292,000] — and freedom. If I could only ask for one thing, I would choose freedom. I could still create a good show with 1 million yuan or less.

Editor: Owen Churchill.

(Header image: A view of exhibits at the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ exhibition at the National Museum of China, Beijing, March 1, 2017. VCG)