Recently, I visited a certain museum in Shanghai with Dr. Gabriele Neher, an art expert at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. Together, at Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, we run a professional development course for museum personnel, in collaboration with top art institutions in Britain, the U.S., and China.
Gaby and I watch museums the way other people watch planes. Often, we have a hard time even looking at the artifacts on display, having become so attuned to issues of storytelling, exhibition design, visitor experience, and signage. It’s hard to see the products when you’re focusing so hard on the packaging. The second we step through the doors, we make a beeline for the audio guide booth, or comb the gift shop looking for creative merchandizing ideas.
This particular institution is a hallowed spot in Shanghai’s museum scene. The low-lit gallery gives off an air of grandeur and houses a number of fine pieces in sealed display cases. Labels placed alongside each artifact tell you what you’re looking at: “Vase, Southern Song, 12th century,” for example.
The objects were indeed beautiful, but Gaby and I walked out of the museum unsatisfied. Having gone inside hoping to learn about Chinese porcelain, our brains had gone numb under a bombardment of highly specialized, fragmented information: “Painted pot with bird pattern, Shilingxia Type, Majiayao Culture, ca. 3800 B.C.”
There was no explanation of the significance of the birds, of the features of Shilingxia pottery, even of where Majiayao was. “I want to know why I should care about pots!” Gaby sighed, exasperated. “Why should I care about these things?”
She had a point. At no point during the exhibition was the importance of the collection explained to us. We left no more knowledgeable about the function of porcelain in Chinese culture. Perhaps the pots we had seen had been stolen by rampaging warlords or used to broker a peace deal between the country’s erstwhile warring factions. But if so, the museum remained tight-lipped about it, and we never got to hear its stories. If visitors with Gaby’s credentials — she’s a specialist in Renaissance art and an enthusiastic Chinese history buff — are falling by the wayside, what hope can there be for China’s casual museumgoers?
In the West, our traditional idea of a museum evolved from the Wunderkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities.” These Renaissance-era collections of objects “curated” by private individuals, hoarders of rare plants or indigenous artifacts, were gradually opened to the public after the collectors themselves donated them to museums. The collections of Sir Hans Sloane and Elias Ashmole, for example, were bequeathed to what are now London’s British Museum and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, respectively.
These fairly modest personal collections evolved into the grand public spaces that we frequent as part of a personal or institutional ritual — think of the school field trip, annual visits on public holidays, and so on. Much has been made of museums as a kind of modern cathedral, and indeed, the cavernous architecture, the silent space for contemplation, the break from real life, the sense of transcendence invoked by certain works of art — all of these reinforce our image of museums as somehow sacred.
Thomas Krens, former director of the Guggenheim Foundation, evokes this kind of architectural rapture in discussing his original vision for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Alongside architect Frank Gehry’s soaring silver forms, he hoped to recreate the sense of awe felt by a 13th-century French peasant, who would scarcely have seen more than a two-story inn previously, standing agape before the vast Chartres Cathedral — what Krens describes as “massive technology rising out of the landscape,” a building “calculated to stimulate an emotional religious reaction.”
One Christmas, I experienced my own little moment of aesthetic rapture while viewing Janet Cardiff’s work “The Forty-Part Motet” at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The piece consisted of a series of microphones installed in a recreation of the Rideau Street Chapel, a beautiful 19th-century building that had formed part of a convent until its demolition in 1972, and which was rebuilt inside the National Gallery in the late 1980s as a permanent exhibit.
As I circled the microphones, crystalline voices rang out from them, filling the entire space with heady choral music. Listening to the voices echoing through the halls in succession, I was moved to tears, shielding myself from the other visitors. For the nonreligious like me, experiences such as this constitute a contemporary version of the sort of divine encounter experienced in a temple or church. It is this brand of “wonder” that we seek within the walls of a museum.
Of course, not every museum has the ability to evoke a quasi-religious experience, but good museums can still tell stories that pique the curiosity of the public, engaging them and encouraging them to learn more. I like to think of such museums as akin to my favorite high school teacher, who managed, through humor and charisma, to make math seem fun. Yet in China, we are more often greeted by the curmudgeonly old schoolmarm, rapping our knuckles as if to say: “This is my elite collection of objects. It is a privilege merely for you to cast your eyes upon them.” In taking this stance, many museums alienate the public, waste valuable educational opportunities, and fail to build the strong intergenerational bonds that would keep feet walking through their doors for years to come.
A recent visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam demonstrated this perfectly. I was lazily walking through the galleries and noticed an inconspicuous silver vessel. The chalice’s label explained that it was an old beer mug, and went on to describe entertaining anecdotes about Dutch drinking culture. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned some rollicking scene closer to “Game of Thrones” than to historical fact — but the main thing was that it immersed me in the world of medieval Holland, a feeling of absorption I didn’t get when I observed the porcelain vases in Shanghai.
What sets apart institutions like the Rijksmuseum is that they care about interpreting specialized knowledge for the public. Their so-called content interpreters take the arcane facts supplied by the museum curator and translate the attendant jargon into something that engages the person in the street. In China, though, the curatorial team is usually insistent on keeping the conversation between a few specialists and ignoring everyone else in the room. Sadly, some of the worst offenders come from my field: contemporary art.
Part of the problem with exhibition didactics is the structure and hierarchy of the museums themselves. Most Chinese museums follow the “curator-as-king” model, whereby all other departments are subservient to the curator guiding the conversation. The curator’s agenda is often to appear knowledgeable and intelligent to other curators — they don’t really care much about whether you or I understand them.
In order to build up a loyal following, Chinese museums need to place other departments on an equal footing with their curators. They must respect the unique knowledge of other members of staff and give them a say in how exhibitions are crafted and managed. This will require a radical change of mindset, from being somewhat self-important institutions focused too much on their collections, to becoming client-oriented, public-first organizations.
My greatest hope lies with private museums, whose paltry state funding means they depend on customer footfall to stay alive. But there are also whispers of hope in the state sector as well. The Shanghai Natural History Museum, whose exhibits were designed by internationally renowned museum planning firm Gallagher & Associates, has made great strides in creating compelling visitor experiences, including 360-degree films and live specimen tanks with daily demonstrations, all ensconced in some seriously mind-blowing architecture. Sure, it falls a little short of “transcendental,” but if the patter of thousands of feet up and down the hallways is anything to go by, it is moving in the right direction.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A visitor looks at a specimen of an Arabian oryx at the Shanghai Natural History Museum, Shanghai, Oct. 25, 2016. Lai Xinlin/Sixth Tone)