In Museums in China: Power, Politics and Identities (Routledge, 2013), Tracy Lu discusses how modern museums have played a significant role in the formation of the modern Chinese state. Thousands of public museums in China attract and serve locals and tourists. More are on the way. According to Daisy Yiyou Wang, curator at the Peabody Essex Museum and former Smithsonian researcher, as of 2012, a new public museum broke ground every day in China. In comparison, at the height of its building boom in the US in the 1990s, a new museum broke ground every two weeks.
The museum boom in China has created a demand for professional training in American-style museum studies, especially exhibition design, technology and management. And Chinese museum professionals have reached out to University of San Francisco’s museum studies faculty for help.
In January 2015, USF hosted a delegation of twenty Chinese museum professionals, offering a short course in museum studies for senior staff of major science museums. This work built on a training that USF offered to a group from history museums in the Henan region in 2012. The January 2015 contingent came from major science museums across China. Beijing’s Chinese Science and Technology Museum is one of the largest science centers in the world. The Shanghai Natural History Museum is in the process of opening a sweeping new building designed by the American firm of Perkins & Will. Other museums that sent staff to participate in the workshop included the Jiangsu Science and Technology Museum in Nanjing; Gansu Science and Technology Museum in Lanzhou City; and Shaanxi Science and Technology Museum.
Working with a skilled language interpreter and USF faculty member Marjorie Schwarzer, the delegates explored the history of displays in science museums around the world; the way that American museums operate; and how science museums in the US have worked toward civic engagement. Science museums in China face some of the same challenges as American museums. These include how to engage audiences; balance education with entertainment; train educators to work with school groups; and deal with constantly changing technology as well as expensive hands-on exhibitry that is difficult to maintain.
Yet some challenges are strikingly different. Chinese museums are funded solely by that nation’s government. Thus directors aren’t saddled with the demands of raising private funds or generating earned income from special events. (A discussion of how science museums in the U.S. rent space for weddings and parties as a way to generate income evoked an especially amused reaction). At the same time, the delegates admitted that bureaucratic red tape and centralized systems that come with government oversight offer challenges of their own. Chinese museums also face difficulties attracting and retaining passionate and qualified staff, especially in the area of education. And some of the tools, online sources and metrics that US museum professionals regularly share on the internet are unavailable in China.
While they were in San Francisco, the delegates also enjoyed their visit to the California Academy of Sciences, just up the street from USF. They were quite intrigued with American museum marketing techniques as well as the way American museums are using big data and computer metrics to help shape their programs. “Your museums,” concluded Ou Yage of the Chinese Science and Technology Museum of Beijing, “seem to be very decentralized while ours are centralized. I am impressed that you really strive to be community-minded, creative and diverse. We have a lot to learn from our American colleagues and we thank University of San Francisco for its expertise and generosity.”
The Museum Studies program thanks Simon Liu of the FCC Group International, a training center based in California and Beijing that coordinates training opportunities for professional delegations from China, for facilitating this extraordinary opportunity.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.