Showing posts with label Museums. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Museums. Show all posts

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dinosaurs in Zigong, China

Since the theme of this week here has been inspired by my yet to reappear post, it seems to be the perfect moment to share my experience regarding something that has been missing for a much longer time: dinosaurs.

About the same time I was starting to wonder about my missing post, there was an article by Tania Branigan of the Guardian about China's numerous dinosaur discoveries (see here).  She focuses on the discoveries and museum in Zhucheng, Shangdong province and highlights a few species that may not be known to those who aren't dino-experts.

Coincidentally, I happened to be in Zigong, Sichuan province -- very far away from Zhucheng.  It, too, is famous for the numerous fossils in the region and boasts its own museum aptly named the Zigong Dinosaur Museum (not to be confused with another famous museum in Zigong, the Historical Museum of the Salt Industry).  I took a taxi to the outskirts of Zigong to check it out.

On arrival one is faced with the uniquely designed building seen here:

entrance building somewhat in the shape of a dinosaur
I believe this building is supposed to look a bit like a dinosaur.
At least the building was air-conditioned.  One of the signs for the park claimed:
"Covering an area of 8.7 km2, the Dashanpu Dinosaur Fossil Site Scenic Area, which is a core protected area with the most abundant dinosaur fossils in the geopark has the largest burial site for watching on-spot protected dinosaur fossils in the world.  From the excavated area of 2,800 m2, more than ten thousand specimens belonging to over 200 dinosaurs and other vertebrates have been unearthed, and 23 genera and 27 species, including 12 new genera and 24 new species, have been identified.  This kind of the site with such abundant and completely preserved dinosaur fossil of the Middle Jurassic is rare in the world."
With that in mind I was very excited and upon entering the park a worker guided me in the proper direction.  One of the first things I saw was this:

several small models of dinosaurs that are in various states of decay or knocked over
The models look like they're about to become extinct, too.

OK.  Admittedly this was not what I was expecting.  There were many other similar scenes to be found that included even more decayed examples of miniature dinosaur replicas.  Oh well...  But onward I went to the main museum building which proved to better meet expectations.

It housed several very large fossils, including this trio:

These are 3 wonderful specimens of the Shunosaurus (type species Shunosaurus lii).  In front of the display was a sign which read in part:
"Warm family: Three family members of Shunosaurus lii are walking and feeding leisurely.  What a warm and romantic scene!"
While I appreciated the Shunosaurus fossils I must admit the romanticism wasn't what I first noticed.  Maybe I was being shunned.

Several of the other fossil displays were certainly not romantic and had a strikingly violent tilt to them.  For example:

larger dinosaur picking up much smaller one with its mouth
Dinner time

I question whether such a scene ever played out quite like this but I appreciate the drama it provided.  This one also had a bit of drama to it:

two dinosaurs attacking another
A bigger dinner

While the fossils such as the ones above were impressive and introduced me to several species I had not been previously aware of, what most impressed me was the very large partially excavated fossil pit enclosed in the museum:

large partially excavated fossil pit
Lots of fossils

several fossils in the fossil pit
Close-up view of one section of the fossil site

It was incredible to see so many fossils as they would be found during an excavation.  Both the density and variety were easy to notice.

The other sections of the park were closed for renovation.  Given the condition of the many dinosaur models outside this may be a positive sign and I am hopeful the future holds more promise for the park surrounding the main museum building.  Regardless, the museum in Zigong, like the one in Zhucheng, provides an important picture into a long ago age that captures the minds of so many today.  If one is around Zigong I recommend a quick trip to the museum -- the large fossil pit seals the deal.

And who knows, maybe you'll better appreciate the romance to be found there.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Size or Truth: What Matters Most for a Renovated Museum in China

I want to share some excerpts and thoughts on an article at The New York Times about the renovated National Museum of China in Beijing.  They highlight how the Chinese Government's desire to impress China's citizens and the world can trump any desire to share the full truth.

In a previous post, I shared Hong Kong writer Chung Wah Chow's comment that many museums in China strictly followed a single template for their design -- often leading to uncreative results (and in my opinion a few too many ineffective dioramas).  According to the NYT article a broader range of experts was apparently consulted for the National Museum of China's renovation.  Unfortunately, it may have had more of an impact on ensuring the museum would be the biggest than the museum presenting Chinese history truthfully and proportionally.  A European museum director recalls his conversations with those involved in renovating the Chinese museum:
“I got a call asking how many square meters is the Louvre,” recalled Martin Roth, director of Dresden’s state museums and an informal consultant to the museum for a decade. “Then 10 minutes later another call asking how many square meters is the British Museum. I said, ‘You guys are sitting with the architects and are figuring out how to be the biggest, right?’ They laughed and said yes."
“We feel we had a lot to show and need the space,” Mr. Tian said. “It’s not about being the biggest, but China does have 5,000 years of culture so it’s not inappropriate to be the biggest.”
Size being important for a project in China is not so surprising.  Yet, all that space, all that history, and:
Officials rejected proposals for a permanent historical exhibition that would have discussed the disasters of early Communist rule — especially the Great Leap Forward, a political campaign and resulting famine that killed more than 20 million. Some organizers also wanted a candid appraisal of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long attack on traditional culture and learning, but that effort was squashed. 
One professor in China voiced his displeasure with the newly renovated museum:
“It ignores the conflicts, which real history shouldn’t do,” said an archaeology professor at Peking University who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s delicacy. “This is why I would not call this exhibition real history but propaganda.”
This brings to mind an incredible series of posts by Xujun Eberlein about the search for truth regarding America's involvement in China in the post-WWII years (I highly recommend reading it).  In part, it shares how propaganda can persist in China -- both in people's minds and at historical sites -- even when some experts in China know the truth.

I've commented in the past that my more positive impression of an art museum in Hanoi, Vietnam than of many similar city art museums in China may have been reflective of the choices of the museums' curators.  The NYT article highlights the value of curators in a quote about the National Museum of China:
“What they need are passionate curators to go into those bronzes and textiles and find new interpretations,” Ms. Murck said. “Because a great museum depends on a great curatorial staff.”
However, even if China has great curators it might not always matter.  For example, the National Museum of China curators and other experts had their suggestions overruled by various Chinese officials, including those in the Ministry of Culture.

For now, the Chinese Government seems most concerned that one of its showcase museums is the biggest in the world and paints a rosy picture of China.  It is ironic that in its quest to improve its image in the world with a renovated museum, China has effectively highlighted one of the issues which cause many around the world to perceive it negatively in the first place -- China's inability in many situations to provide a balanced and accurate account of its history and current events.

When China can more openly confront its warts, its genuine achievements will be better recognized and appreciated by the world.

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.

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]