Museums as contested terrains: Memory work and politics of representation in Greater China
Location SOAS Senate House - S118
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Suvi Rautio (University of Helsinki) email
  • Lisheng Zhang (UCL) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Harriet Evans (University of Westminster)

Short abstract

Our panel explores the role of museums in the Greater China Region. Taking an ethnographic approach to studying museums across both state official and private domains, we seek to examine the social and political dynamics that come into play in representations of the past.

Long abstract

Whilst placing nationalism at the core of political ideology is not unique to the Chinese Communist Party, the weight of cultural importance through a shared national identity has become increasingly dominant in China's 'heritage boom' over the past decade.

Implemented as pedagogical spaces across the country, museums play a key role in the 'cultural development' strategy of the Chinese government, a project of 'governance and social ordering' to assert the political legitimacy of the party-state (Denton 2014; Varutti 2014). In studying these spaces and the actors that inhabit or come to exert them, museums become contested terrains where ideas, values and powers are competed for.

In the meantime, private initiatives to preserve and represent the past have been a notable phenomenon in China. As such, museums are also memory spaces that communicate the historical narratives of individuals through arts, private collections, genealogies, archives, and cultivated landscapes. The establishment and maintenance of such spaces, although framed 'locally', are shaped by overlapping and conflicting moral, political and commercial objectives that always go beyond their localities.

This panel seeks to critically examine the diverse museum practices in both official and private domains of the Greater China Region. We welcome papers that ethnographically explore the dynamic social and political trajectories that frame and sustain museums. In doing so, our panel brings forth discussions to challenge often taken for granted binary frameworks, such as 'global/local' and 'state/private' in representations of the past.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Remembering the Colonial Past in Contemporary Hong Kong: An Examination of Government and Vernacular Museums

Author: Sonia Lam-Knott (National University of Singapore) email

Short abstract

This paper examines how contemporary Hong Kong museums, differentiated between those established by the government and by grassroots actors, respectively portray the city's colonial and Chinese pasts. Of interest are the political (and to an extent, commercial) concerns driving such processes.

Long abstract

The 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty was described as a 'handover' within the international community, but was framed as 'wuigwai' ('return') by the Chinese and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) governments. This reference of a 'return' is predicated on these governments' view that the territory has always historically been a part of the Chinese nation, a narrative that the SAR administration reinforces through its museums. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Hong Kong, this paper illustrates how the government-managed Museum of History encourages the remembrance of the city's colonial experience as a momentary interruption of its encompassing and temporally-extensive Chinese heritage. Yet this official historical discourse is challenged by the vernacular domain, who have recently come to establish their own museums, as exemplified by the House of Stories and Mei Ho House. Managed by grassroots actors and social enterprises, these museums celebrate the remembrance of quotidian and personal memories from Hong Kong's colonial era, positioning the city as apart from (as opposed to a part of) the Chinese nation. This paper compares the different Hong Kong histories projected within government and vernacular museums, the methods in which these pasts are presented, and articulates the political processes behind such portrayals. It suggests that whilst the SAR government downplays Hong Kong's colonial past for nation-building purposes, vernacular emphasise on 'the colonial' are driven by identitarian concerns, but also by commercial practicalities to ensure their survival. The problems these considerations pose for these museums will be reviewed.

Migrant worker museums in China: public cultures of migrant subjectivities in state and grassroots initiatives

Authors: Eric Florence (CEFC and University of Liège) email
Junxi Qian email

Short abstract

This paper offers an ethnographic investigation of a state-run and a grassroots rural migrant workers' museums. How do the narratives produced in the two cultural spaces articulate with various layers of public culture that shape the representation of rural workers in post-Mao China?

Long abstract

This paper offers a comparative ethnographic investigation of two rural migrant workers museums, one state-run in Guangzhou and another grassroots project in the suburbs of Beijing. Following Macdonald, we take museums as institutions « of recognition and identity politics par excellence » (Macdonald 2006) and as spaces involving complex fields of forces through which dialectics of popular culture and state formation are played out. In a first section of the paper, we delve upon the institutional context and we shed light on what the ideological foundations and justifications for the two projects are. In a second section, we document how the two permanent exhibitions are structured through specific layouts of objects, images and texts and we shed light on the ways in which rural migrant workers are being represented through these specific arrangements. We thereby engage with the following three questions: How do the two exhibitions articulate with various layers of public culture that shape the politics of representation of rural workers in post-Mao China and by what kinds of ethics of recognition are the two projects respectively informed (Sun 2014)? How do these two projects engage with gender-based and class-based differences and inequalities and do they shape more or less (dis)empowering forms of collective identity of rural workers ? Eventually, what does our study enable to infer about the changing modes of governing and regimes of power in today's China? The sources for this study are drawn from prolonged fieldwork by the two authors.

Chinese Culture Paves One Belt One Road

Author: Sophia Kidd (University of Göttingen) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the role of museums in Southwest China. Taking an ethnographic approach to study private and public museums in and around Chengdu and Chongqing , we discuss the role museums play implementing overland "Silk Road Economic Belt" and oceangoing "Maritime Silk Road" policy.

Long abstract

Private initiatives to preserve and represent the past have been a notable phenomenon in Southwest China. Notable examples include Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art Founder, Lv Peng's, curatorial project, RESHAPING HISTORY: Chinart from 2000 to 2009. The government's heavy surveillance of this museum and recent resignation of Acting Director, Lan Qingwei, indicate shifts in how nationalism is reclaiming means of cultural production and symbol creation in China's Southwest territory. This paper explores ways in which Southwest China museums are also memory spaces that communicate the historical narratives of individuals through arts, private collections and archives.

Using primary source materials including interviews and new data, this paper focuses on avant-garde activities and actors associated with museums in Southwest China. Avant-garde art production is chosen for its counter-cultural tradition, as China's Southwest has historically been known for its break-away theocracies and warlords. Today we see a rich vein of 1980s and 1990's avant-garde artists feeding into various sectors of Southwest cultural and creative industries (CCI), including the fine art and museum sectors.

This paper mainly performs an analysis of social, economic and political uses of museums in the development of frontier regions of China. Representative readings illustrate China's use of cultural industries to pave the way for social, economic and political change. As case study we look at the role museums play in representing china's New Silk Road (NSR) project, also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), consisting in an overland "Silk Road Economic Belt" and oceangoing "Maritime Silk Road".

Filling in the Gaps of Planning a Traditional Ethnic Minority Chinese Village

Author: Suvi Rautio (University of Helsinki) email

Short abstract

In outlining how the architectural layout and surrounding landscape of a Chinese ethnic minority village are modeled and rationalised into objects of aesthetics readings to become a living heritage site, this paper explores the gaps that form and how they are sustained between planning and outcome.

Long abstract

Based on my thirteen months of ethnographic research, this paper explores the role research plays in guiding preservation plans to remodel an ethnic minority village in China's Guizhou province into a 'traditional' living heritage site. In outlining how the architectural layout and surrounding landscape of an ethnic minority village are planned, modelled and rationalised into objects of aesthetics readings, the paper explores how these mirror broader national and global trends grounded on notions of ethnicity and the rural living. In doing so, the paper discusses how readings are incorporated into decision-making based on research that distances the third-person to address objective truth that separates the subjective experience of residents living in the village. Following Jones and Yarrow's (2013) research on conservation practices, the paper argues that distancing in planning is framed "in which the multiplicity and instability of the object of conservation are exposed and negotiated" (p. 23) to generates gaps between the plan and research outcome. These gaps are never empty, but contain "relations, interweaving of things" (Green 2005: 158), which remould themselves into opportunities for residents to claim autonomy and monopolise how decisions are made regardless of how they are planned. In outlining the workings behind filling in the gaps of planning a traditional ethnic minority Chinese village, my paper sheds light to how the underlying gaps across key decision makers and their interlocutors are sustained to retain meaningfulness in the actions that come forth in planning.

Making "Weness": How to exhibit a unified multi-ethnic country in a National Museum of Ethnology

Author: Pan Luo (Sun Yat-sen University) email

Short abstract

Taking the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology as an example, this study attempts to explore the historical and political factors that lead to the dilemma of representation in ethnographic museums in China.

Long abstract

The Chinese National museum of Ethnology faces lot of difficulties, how to exhibit a unified multi-ethnic country maybe the most challenging one. On the one hand, the birth of new nation-state was relatively late, and the ethnic identification was only carried out in the late 1950s, but the leading priority of the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology is to show the formation and development of the Chinese nation under the frame work of grand history, explain the unity between different ethnic groups, different regions and different nationalities since ancient times, and exhibit a society without "others". On the other hand, as contact zone of different nationalities, regions and cultures, the museum need to find a balance in its representation between its social responsibility, as well as the development of disciplines such as ethnology, history and anthropology.

This study attempts to explore the historical and political factors that lead to the dilemma of representation in all the ethnographic museums in China. I review the changing cultural and ethnic policies since the idea of establishing a national museum of ethnology was first launched. I point out that the primary reason leads to the above dilemma could be the separation between Museum of Ethnology and the discipline of Anthropology and Ethnology. Also, by examining the current practices of exhibition planning, I showed how the pursuit of "weness" have restricted the exhibition and prevented the construction project of a national level museum of ethnology.

Producing/Consuming 'Romantic Scotland' at Nanjing Museum: the Role of State Museums

Authors: Lo Yun Chung (University of Bath) email
Andrew Manley (University of Bath) email
Michael Silk (Bournemouth University) email

Short abstract

Our paper examines the role of state museums, particularly in answering the political call of cultivating Chinese citizens. Through the case study of Nanjing Museum, we examine the manner through which a particular version of Scottish cultures and identities is constructed and consumed.

Long abstract

Exhibitions offer a space in which to construct and present images of self for recognition in relation to other nations and the eyes of the world; they offer space for contouring or remembering a national past, present and future, whilst simultaneously silencing difference or versions of nation deemed outside of preferred discourse (McLean, 2005; McLean & Cooke, 2003; Prosler, 1996). The persistence of 'national' exhibitions within the global cultural industries in and of itself raises important questions about the active re-shaping and consumption of national culture within a global frame of reference.

As a large national museum, Nanjing Museum actively engages in foreign cultural exchange, as much as dedicating in the protection and communication of cultural relics. Promoting and interpreting foreign cultural heritage for the public, Nanjing Museum's practice of constructing national identities using specific cultural signifiers to cater for Chinese audience offers an opportunity to interrogate the role of state museums in relation to cross-cultural representation, in which the impact of specific cultural values on visitor experiences should be considered (Ballantyne & Packer, 2011).

This paper seeks to capture the experience and the manner through which cultural relationships capture, forge and describe the understanding of national cultures (Ritchie et al., 2011). We interrogate the negotiating process through which a particular version of Scotland is crafted and presented to Chinese audience through the exhibition 'Romantic Scotland: Castle, Land and Sea' at Nanjing Museum in 2017. We reflect on the intended and perceived role of Chinese state museums, and how Scotland is re-imagined through the lenses of Chinese audience.

The Fifteen-year War in the PRC's Museums (1949-1982)

Author: Chan Yang (Shanghai Jiaotong University ) email

Short abstract

This paper explores how the Fifteen-year War was presented in the PRC's museums, and which facets of the Fifteen-year War were specifically favoured, and the kind of memories of the war which were popularised in mainland China, by the CCP regime from 1949 to 1982.

Long abstract

Research on the evolution of the PRC's Fifteen-year War remembrance is a relatively new genre. Most of this research gives much greater weight to the era after the 1982 Textbook Incident, which is considered as the first large-scale diplomatic conflict between China and Japan over the wartime history and deals with the period before that merely as a 'preface'. Thus, inevitably, this research's examination on the pre-1982 period was insufficient. One of its insufficiencies is that some important spheres of the Fifteen-year War memory - i.e. literature, music, school textbooks and museums - have not been examined thoroughly enough.

The first aim of this paper, thus, is to provide a close-up study on one such realms: it will explore how the Fifteen-year War was presented in the PRC's museums, and how the presentation of the war in this realm changed or stayed intact between 1949 and 1982. Moreover, this paper also aims to explore which facets of the Fifteen-year War were specifically favoured, and the kind of memories of the war which were popularised in mainland China, by the CCP regime from 1949 to 1982.

It also aspires to challenge a well-established 'myth' that the atrocities perpetrated by Japan during the Fifteen-year War were deliberately omitted by the CCP from the public discourse before 1982. Through its examination of the presentation of the Fifteen-year War in the PRC's museums, this paper finds out that the tragic side of the war was in fact widely portrayed in pre-1982 PRC.

Representing the Prehistoric Past in Comprehensive Public Museums in Greater China

Author: Sofia Bollo (University of Zurich) email

Short abstract

Today a great number of museums in China display Chinese past through archaeological material. As these objects are increasingly showcased in public museums and seen by global audience, they give rise to new representations of prehistoric past and multi-perspective narratives on Chinese civilization

Long abstract

Treating objects as material mediators of meanings and seeing public museums as places for visual rhetoric, this research explores permanent exhibitions of Neolithic pottery in public museums in Greater China. This paper seeks to investigate narratives on the prehistoric past created in Chinese public museums, on the national, provincial and local level. The study integrates three key elements: the intentions of museum professionals, the content of the displays, and the interpretations of visitors. The specific object category of Neolithic pottery from China offers a peculiar example. Previously considered a material object of a primitive era, through museum narratives Neolithic pottery is now appreciated for its artistic and historical value, understood as embodying the beginning of the much-celebrated five thousand year long legacy of Chinese civilization. These phenomena are testimony to specific instances of new antiquarianism, cultural nationalism and heritage diplomacy, and are also driven by political and economic interests. The museological approach to the public display of the past in China is however heterogeneous. Despite following comprehensive exhibitionary strategies, ideas of authenticity and authority, aesthetics and realism, art and archaeology, denotative and connotative messages are played out in radically different ways, through the alternation of different scales of narrativity and display purposes in various museum spaces in China. By using a multi-sample and multi-perspective analysis, this study provides an original insight on the variety of narratives created around material objects from the prehistoric past as they are represented in museums in the present.

Postcolonial Museographies: Narrative(s) of Power and Ideology Display in Macau Museum

Author: Patrícia de Sousa Melo (FCSH/NOVA (School of Social Sciences and Humanities - NOVA University Lisboa)) email

Short abstract

The Special Administrative Region of Macau is an autonomous territory, reintegrated in People's Republic of China in 1999.I will discuss the changes on Macau's Museum discourse and its effects on museum's mission and goals:representing Macau's communities and shaping local cultural identity.

Long abstract

Macau is a multicultural city and a postcolonial territory, administered by the Portuguese until 1999, when its sovereignty was transferred to the PRC's Government.

Macau Museum was founded in 1998, with the following goals: to represent Macau's diverse communities, to establish bonds between them and the city's hybrid cultural heritage and to create a sense of belonging, constructing plural narratives and meanings through collections, displays and collaborative practices.

However, the strengthen of China's presence and power in and over the territory and on its cultural sector, since 1999 - particularly amongst the museum landscape -, changed the museographic discourse of the above institution. Since then, there is a shift in how territories' communities and cultural identity is approached, perceived and represented by this public organization.

I intend to demonstrate, through fieldwork and research conducted in Macau's Museum, that its practices and narratives expresses and underscores Chinese political dominance and state ideologies. This leads to the creation of narratives of cultural hegemony and, therefore, a sense of belonging to the national and cultural Chinese identity.

Through the highlighted collections and displays, the museum acts as vehicle for patriotic education and state ideology, disseminating a totalizing vision of the Chinese Identity. The postcolonial cultural identity of Macau, based on its hybrid cultural heritage, is gradually being replaced by a homogenized conception of "Chinese culture".

This situation shows the intimate connections between museums and politics; they're not neutral grounds but political arenas where collective memories and cultural identities are negotiated and renegotiated.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.