Thursday, March 3, 2011

Templates and Dioramas - The Banes of Museums in China?

[Note: This was originally posted March 2, 2011.  It has been re-posted to a date one day later in response to link spamming.]

Yesterday, I suggested that my impressions of the content of art and history museums in China may be influenced by a pattern of museum curators' choices and styles.

Chung Wah Chow, a "Hongkongese" writer covering a variety of topics and an author for the Lonely Planet guidebooks for China and Hong Kong & Macau, wrote to me:
"Being revolutionarily fervent is not the only problem in history museums in China. After visiting a dozen of those museums in China I found one thing in common among them. The way they display and tell the stories of respective provinces or... regions are exactly the same. I do not mean the contents are the same but the sequence, the story-telling techniques as well as the use of multi-media and dioramas to create certain effects are almost identical in all history museums in China. They just follow one formula or template and what the curators need to do is just to fill in the blanks. Where did they borrow the formula? If you come visit the Hong Kong History Museum you’ll know the answer."
In a later discussion Chung Wah explained more.  To paraphrase:
"What I was told is the former curator of the Hong Kong History Museum, after his retirement, was hired as a consultant to oversee museums in China.  That is why China is using the Hong Kong History Museum formula for their museums.  The curators in China organized study teams and visited the museum numerous times between 1998-1999 to "study" how to do a museum.  The result is they brought the whole template back to China.  So those brand new provincial museums in China all look the same...  I think you will only notice that if you see a dozen of museums in two weeks."
So, maybe I can add "strict use of a template" to my list of possible explanations for why many Chinese museums have underwhelmed me.  What Chung Wah said is consistent with some of my impressions of many Chinese museums.  It also seems plausible in terms of how "design" sometimes works in China.  The strict use of a copied template touches on what many claim is a problem for China - a lack of creativity in many domains.  I plan to further discuss creativity, "revolutionary fervor", templates, and other Chinese museum related issues later.

For now, I will highlight one of techniques Chung Wah referenced - dioramas.  I'll share just a few photos of the mannny dioramas I've seen in history museums across China.

Here is a scene that particularly "impressed" me at the Mazu (Matsu) Musuem in Shanwei, Guangdong:

In the Mazu (Matsu) Museum in Shanwei, Guangdong

This diorama at the somber 9.18 Museum in Shenyang, Liaoning is in my opinion one of the better I've seen:

In the 9.18 Musuem in Shenyang, Liaoning

And not my least favorite, a scene from the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Hebei (which I should add was one of the relatively better museums I've been to in China - diorama notwithstanding):

In the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Hebei

Very different content in the 3 museums above but all made ample use of dioramas.  Many museums have dioramas that fall somewhere between the styles and level of execution shown above.  At the very least, I'm sure the above photos could make for interesting caption contests. 

I'll save the topic of what Chinese (excluding Hongkongers) think of such displays for another day.

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