Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Impact of How and What We Share - Some Impressions From Visting Vietnamese & Chinese Museums

A couple of days ago I visited the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam and was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the collection.  What particularly struck me was how I felt I could connect with it more than similar museums in China.

I am not trying to make a blanket statement comparing art in Vietnam and China (which certainly has much in common).  I am only trying to puzzle through my reaction to the museum in Hanoi and whether it reflects any deeper issues.  I do enjoy much Chinese art and I believe it has made some important contributions.  It wasn't that any individual piece in the Hanoi museum couldn't necessarily have been matched in brilliance by one in China - I just had never previously reacted so positively to any comparable collection of art at a museum in China as I did to the one in Hanoi.

At one point I wondered if it could be due to a possible influence of French art since Vietnam was colonized by France for a period of time.   However, that explanation seemed less likely as I was already aware of the feeling prior to viewing any art from the colonial period or afterward.  As I spent further time in the museum I began to wonder whether my more positive feelings for the collection were not reflective of Vietnamese art in general, but instead of the choices of Vietnamese museum curators.  Museums curators are typically faced with many decisions about which pieces of art to display and each decision could lead to very different experiences for the visitor.  Maybe my "tastes" were more consistent with what the Vietnamese curators thought was best to display.

The suspicion this was true was heightened when I later noticed that I was able to enjoy some of the history museums in Hanoi more than many I've visited in China.  I, similar to many other non-Chinese, have found that history museums in China, particularly those covering events of the past century, can leave an over-the-top "revolutionary fervor" feeling -- sometimes to the point of being a distraction to the actual history being described.  The Hanoi historical museums I visited did not overly impress me but I felt less of the "revolutionary fervor" and found it easier to immerse myself in the presented material.

I wondered if my impressions of the art and history museums in Vietnam and China were examples of the impact what is chosen to be shared and how it is shared can have on one's impressions of a culture and how much those decisions themselves are yet another piece of the culture.

I recognize my exploration of Vietnamese museums - both art and historical - is very limited and it is difficult to really appreciate any selection criteria of the Vietnamese and Chinese museums without seeing what didn't "make the cut".  Also, my impressions may change as I visit more museums in Vietnam.  And...  maybe they were just the effects of the strong Vietnamese coffee.

For now, I'll wrap up the post with a handful of photos of pieces in Hanoi's Fine Arts Museum.  They aren't all of my "favorites" as some pieces weren't under suitable lighting for sharing though a photograph.  I also wouldn't say they are representative of the entire collection, but I did try to pick a variety of styles and time periods.  You can see what impressions you have of this small sample of the collection which so fascinated me.

[Added note: see follow up comments here]


  1. I like the seated old guy with the staff and the deer or whatever that creature is.

  2. The screen reminds me of Nana and Grandfather's diningroom table. The table creators, the LaVerne brothers, were obviously inspired by such art.

  3. And we could learn even more about a culture if we could see the stores of stuff that didn't make the cut! I also liked the old guy and the deer. (Cori)