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Cultural Values

If China’s glut of empty museums could engage the public with art and culture, they’d be of great social value

Of the many essential elements that go into the realisation of architectural projects − time, space, material resources, skill and ideas − time is the one thing we do not have very much of in China. As a result, our abundant skills and ideas often suffer in the race to completion.

Hungry for the future, we do not wait until everything has been clearly thought out and all plans properly made. In recent years, for instance, government-backed land and funding incentives, combined with a certain generous flow of private funds, have generated a boom in the construction of museums and all projects that could be labelled ‘cultural’. Yet new museums often stand empty of collections, or projects peter out.

At a recent gathering of museum directors in Hangzhou to discuss the inception of new museum regulations, the shared concern was expressed: whereas no one is fool enough to pass up the opportunity to obtain a large piece of land and generous funding with which to build ‘something’, after the initial euphoria, directors feel less confident about creating programmes worthy of the new space. Or rather, the worthy long-term goals that contribute to education and cultural leadership do not translate readily into strategic shorter term objectives. This is partly due to lack of preliminary planning (so that the physical process of construction takes place before there’s time to work out the bigger picture), and partly due to concern about the potential lack of follow-up government funding.

However, the problem goes deeper than tangible material considerations. It points to a leadership vacuum at the heart of cultural development. As a state-dominated society, the Chinese government is expected (and relied upon) to do the thinking and leading. In the absence of clear directives, the people have a tendency to wait.

However, though there will continue to be limits to how much experimentation the government will accept, things are clearly changing. By making material resources available, accompanied by policies couched in vague and general terms without specific directives, it is quite clear that the state is handing over responsibility somewhat. It is beginning to outsource thinking to society. At the same time, society has become less dependent on government funding for its projects. The opportunities for taking the initiative now are very real.

But what can be done? A paradoxical product of the combination of immense haste and habits of passivity, the hesitation and uncertainty that new museums now face in China also reflect doubt about their own capacity to make a difference. Setting aside awareness of big landmark national institutions, museums in China feature less significantly in the lives of ordinary people compared with Europe and America. The space they provide, though open to the public, is even more exclusively focused towards a specialist elite.

So how do museums that have already grasped the material opportunities on offer become active social institutions that make positive contributions to society rather than representing stillborn, ossified or irrelevant edifices of esoteric fantasy? The hope must be that, with time and effort, the sheer size, regional diversity, and potential wealth of themes (both historical and current) in China, will foster a multiplicity of viable responses from Urumqi to Shanghai, from Harbin to Nanjing.

One promising example is the Dongqian Lake Institute and Museum of Education (working title) in Ningbo. Funded by the Huamao Corporation and led by Yiqiang Cao (of the National Academy of Art and adviser to the state council on arts education), this project is a new concept of a museum for China which makes two leaps forward.

First, it aims to address the disconnection between museums and society in order to tackle the gaps within the prevalent Chinese model of education, which is too narrowly confined to science and technology. Unfortunately, scientific and technological progress alone does not guarantee social progress; our society needs to be able to engage critically too.

Contrary to common perceptions of being pure pleasure, leisure or aesthetics, art is a key. The necessary balance of inspiration and craft, the combination of the unexpected and the routine that goes into the making of great art, are powerful intellectual tools. As interfaces between specialists and laymen, museums can show the public how art and artists can help them to think and react. And second, the new museum steps back from fantasies that are commonly linked to architectural icons: that they revolutionise education, revitalise culture and nurture global citizens.

To make up for time lost in the rush to grasp material opportunities, we now need to focus on creating an institutional structure (combining an interdisciplinary international forum with exhibition and research programmes) that will enable us to engage properly with the issues that matter and bring ideas to maturation in a disciplined fashion, to provide focused teaching and learning.

The physical infrastructure remains primarily a concrete show of commitment by all stakeholders to the project. It carves out a space of calm in the rush of time for us to think and build in. Our main duty is for innovative management and quality assurance which, in itself, is a great challenge in China. Given that there are no quick fixes here, what we are really arguing for is a building of sufficient quality that will last for as long as it takes. But the meaning and significance of a museum cannot, and should not, be achieved on the level of physical infrastructure alone. The institutional organism it houses must come to life and begin to deliver on its promise.

So the city’s new museum, incorporating exhibitions, conference, library, research and hotel functions, is a 93,000 square metre ‘non-icon’. It is only a shell − a promising shell − where content is key. Hopefully, this will truly revolutionise the museum debate − and their future design.

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