From ‘Necessities’ To ‘Niceties’: A Look At China’s Fast And Furious Museum Boom

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Museum of Handcraft Paper, Xianzhuang Village, Trace Architecture Office. (Shu He, from New Museums in China, Princeton Architectural Press)

Of the many booms (and busts) that have accompanied China’s unstable economic rise, perhaps no other example so conspicuously and physically manifests the relationship between culture and commerce than the new wave of museum construction. In 2000, China had approximately 1,373 museums. According to the current five-year plan, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015, a target it achieved three years early. All said, this is only a fifth of the museums in the United States.

So, as with much headline-grabbing phenomena in China, the museum boom is yet another example of the fast and furious. What makes it different, however, is that it reflects an unusual level of innovation and daring. Whether motivated by nationalism, individual passions (in the case of privately funded projects), or likely both, museum projects in China have attracted some of the world’s leading architectural talent, including eight Pritzker prize-winners.

Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing, Steven Holl Architects. (Shu He, from New Museums in China, Princeton Architectural Press)

Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing, Steven Holl Architects. (Shu He, from New Museums in China, Princeton Architectural Press)

Shanghai-based writer and editor Clare Jacobson looks beyond the more mundane issues of how all these new museums will be programmed, staffed, and sustained to celebrate the structures themselves in her book New Museums In China. Several pages of color images accompany the text for each museum profiled, with 51 in total, spanning 31 cities.

Jacobson was previously editor and editorial director at Princeton Architectural Press for 21 years and will be speaking about her book at The Art World in China: Recent Developments and Future Prospects, a symposium hosted by Sotheby’s Institute of Art as part of Asia Week New York this coming Friday.

Jing Daily took the opportunity to speak with Jacobson on the occasion of her trip to New York.

In your research, did you discover strands of what could be considered contemporary Chinese aesthetic?

While there are rare examples of contemporary Chinese aesthetics—such as I.M. Pei’s Suzhou Museum, a combination of high modernism and regionalism—more often than not new museums in China fall into a more global aesthetic. This is to be expected. There are very few countries that have a specifically national look to their museums, much less their contemporary architecture in general.

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China Wood Sculpture Museum, Harbin, MAD Architects. (Xia Zhi, from New Museums in China, Princeton Architectural Press)

What proportion of the museums you came across were private and originated as philanthropic endeavors?

According to an article in People’s Daily, 535 of China’s 3,589 museums at the end of 2012 were private.

What are key differences between private and public museums in China versus the United States, which experienced its own museum boom at the end of the 19th century? 

I think the best summation may come from Zhao Qie, director of the private Times Museum in Guangzhou, whom I interviewed for my book. He said, “State-run museums, of course, have stable funding and resources, and they might have the best location in the city. But there are restrictions; they usually don’t have much freedom in their programming. In China, a lot of state-run museums don’t really have self-initiated exhibitions. As a privately funded museum, we have respectability; we have freedom and independence. We may have more niche and unique positioning.”

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Clare Jacobson.

In the book, you describe new museums in China as cultural icons and national symbols of pride. Is there an overarching message the new museums collectively project?

New museums in China say that architectural production in China is moving from the necessities of its rapid urbanization to the niceties of culture. By positioning museums and other cultural buildings at the center of new developments, China is prioritizing culture as the heart of its cities.

Does the rise of art lifestyle malls such as K11, that aim to incorporate art into the luxury shopping experience, affect the role of museums in Chinese society?

Absolutely! Venues like K11 suggest a new—and very viable—model for art spaces in China. While their combination of commerce and culture might not sit well with some, they offer a new (and maybe uniquely Chinese) way of experiencing art.

Anything else you’d like to add? 

Within the sea of anonymous architecture that makes up China’s contemporary urban fabric, new museums provide points of excellence. And as buildings dedicated to culture, they offer great potential for China’s future artistic exploration, in whatever forms it takes.

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Ningbo History Museum, Ningbo, Amateur Architecture Studio. (Lv Hengzhong, from New Museums in China, Princeton Architectural Press)

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Xinjin Zhi Museum, Xinjin, Kengo Kuma and Associates. (Daici Ano, from New Museums in China, Princeton Architectural Press)

 

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Architecture & Design, Culture