Since the end of June, the Shanghai Museum has been inundated with visitors to a guest exhibition by the British Museum, titled “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” Attendees routinely stand in line for hours to gain admission, undeterred even by the city’s record-breaking summer temperatures.
Popular exhibitions usually hinge on one particularly eye-catching artifact designed to attract museumgoers in droves. The Shanghai Museum’s most-visited exhibition to date, 2002’s “Treasures From the Jin, Tang, Song, and Yuan Dynasties,” revolved around one of China’s most famous handscrolls, “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” painted by Zhang Zeduan in the 12th century. Other exhibitions rely on the lure of famous people, places, or styles — Claude Monet, for example, or maybe the Silk Road.
Perhaps uniquely, “100 Objects” falls into neither category. None of the artifacts on display were produced by famous artists. None of their insurance values are eye-wateringly high. On their own, most of them struggle to stand out from the rest of the British Museum’s extraordinary collection.
The reputation of the British Museum, of course, attracts crowds, but the deeper appeal lies in the nature of the exhibition itself, which the London-based institution has curated so deftly that it resonates with practically everyone. While many Chinese visitors must wonder how 100 objects can tell 25 million years of human history, the British Museum’s displays cover an astonishingly broad swath of time — with one or two exceptions. Curators have avoided directly mentioning conflicts between cultures — for example, the Crusades and the Mongol invasions — to make the exhibition palatable to viewers across the world.
“100 Objects” is hands down the best-curated touring exhibition I have seen in my seven years at the Shanghai Museum. The exhibition materials consist of full interpretations of each artifact, optional extra labels, a list of supplementary images, ready-made text for guided tours, and supplementary video content. As a curator myself, I wonder: Can Chinese museums ever emulate their British counterparts?
Chinese museums have yet to develop an exhibition that has aroused the same level of public curiosity as “100 Objects.” Why? After all, Chinese museums, especially those in major cities, have no shortage of state funding and human resources. The central government has also encouraged the establishment of new artistic and cultural institutes, as well as exchange exhibitions. Some state-funded museums, like the Shanghai Natural History Museum and the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, are already creating exportable exhibitions. But the human sciences have struggled to keep up, largely due to the sprawling, hierarchical, and inefficient bureaucracy that plagues the field.
In China’s provincial and municipal museums, directors and Party secretaries sit at the top of the management hierarchy. Beneath them lie research and operations departments covering exhibitions, education, and administrative work. Curators, who are usually deputy academic directors or senior researchers, are the only ones trusted to arrange both permanent and special exhibitions on the basis of their academic credentials.
Chinese museum curators hold a monopoly over the use of the museum’s collections. They alone reserve the right to bring artifacts out of storage. Others in the museum hierarchy therefore submit to the curators’ authority, because they lack comprehensive knowledge of what’s in the collection and what’s not. This attitude on the part of curators is a form of snobbery, as it implies that the primary function of a museum lies in the study of individual objects and not in public education. It also contravenes the Chinese government’s 2015 regulations aimed at remodeling the country’s museums as public service institutions.
Most Chinese museums separate the functions of research, education, and exhibition. Research departments deal with the artifacts, while the other departments worry about visitor numbers. Researchers — usually specialists in bronzes, ceramics, painting, or calligraphy — never communicate directly with visitors and usually care little for their needs.
For example, museumgoers may be curious about what an ancient bronze vessel was used for, or what the patterns on a sarcophagus mean. But try telling that to researchers, who are loath to explain their precious artifacts in layman’s terms. In the worst cases, objects are presented with very little accessible information, a phenomenon that fellow curator Rebecca Catching has dubbed China’s “mute museums.”
On the other hand, most employees in the operations departments understand the behavior and needs of visitors but have no say in what gets displayed. They are free to make suggestions regarding how much text to include on labels or how to arrange the artifacts in a more heuristic way, but it’s the researchers’ opinions that really matter. Despite the fact that more and more operations staff hold qualifications in history, art, or museology, their lower status in the hierarchy means that they must play second fiddle to the researchers, isolated from contact with the museum’s collection.
Teamwork is the obvious solution to this problem. Why don’t we let the guys in the education or exhibition departments think up eye-catching themes and storylines, and have the researchers find the right pieces for them? Why not have the education department write the introductory notes in a more visitor-friendly style, and have the researchers check them for accuracy?
This is exactly how the British Museum and many other Western institutions develop their exhibitions. In essence, it is the kind of project management that is now standard across most other industries. Yet in Chinese museums, this approach would be seen as a direct challenge to the unassailable position of elite researchers. Even when directors try to play by new rules and involve operations staff in the curation process, many researchers frustrate attempts at real change. A key reason for this is that creating a new system would require employees to put in extra work, which goes unpaid in China’s public institutions. Why bother overhauling the entire system if you’re not going to get any more money for it?
Loan exhibitions, brought to China as part of the government’s drive toward greater cultural exchange, are currently the only opportunity to tinker with the curation process. After all, few Chinese researchers can claim to be experts on foreign art, so they are forced to take a more collaborative approach to ensure a successful exhibition. In this sense, the British Museum’s latest overseas triumph is not only something to which Chinese curators can aspire, but also a vexing reminder of how we could run our domestic institutions better.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Visitors look at a statue of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II displayed during the exhibition ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ at the Shanghai Museum in Shanghai, June 29, 2017. Jiang Ren/IC)