Winnie Wong on China’s museum boom (Artforum)

HOW MANY MUSEUMS does the ideal society need? During the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party had a slogan: “Every county must have its museum, every commune its exhibition hall.” In 2002, the Chinese government rededicated itself to that ideal, when the State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced that the country would build one thousand museums by 2015. As improbably ambitious as that pronouncement might seem, it was in fact accomplished far ahead of schedule. By 2013, the country had already built almost fifteen hundred museums—in essence finishing a new museum every day during the periods of heaviest construction. And the building has continued apace. By way of comparison, a survey of new museums in the US found that only between twenty and forty were being built annually in the decade preceding the 2008 financial crash. This spate of construction is more than just a museum boom of the sort that has been celebrated in postindustrial cities of the West, wherein the public institution of the museum has taken on additional functions as a financial engine of the art world and crux of urban branding; in China, museums have a far broader range of forms and functions, and occupy a central symbolic role in the spectacular urban growth overseen by a government that still claims to put its people first.


The obvious problem with understanding a museum simply as a signature building, a unit of urban infrastructure, or a source of symbolic value is that in any case it does not need to be a functioning institution. The standard metaphor that Chinese architects and officials apply to the situation is that China lacks the “software” to fill all this new “hardware.” One contemporary art curator remembers vividly how he earned his title: In the early 2000s, while working at the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou, he was greeted in the elevator by a colleague who told him his position had been renamed and he was now a “curator.” At the time, he didn’t even know what the word meant. Today, at top-tier privately run contemporary art museums, directors and curators publicly call for greater professionalism and rigor in their own institutions. The complete lack of oversight—internal or external—might explain how a single individual could simultaneously and openly serve as developer, collector, museum director, and museum-ethics-association head. Private and public goods are commingled to such an extent that one could scarcely imagine where “corruption” might begin and end. Where there are no real institutions, there can be no real conflicts of interest.

Cultural institutions have long been the domain of the wealthy and powerful, of course—in fin-de-siècle Europe and America, for example, politicians and captains of industry recognized the very real value of cultural capital in building prestige and consolidating influence. What is new in twenty-first-century China is that a political structure legitimated by the ideals of equality and collective good has been recombined into a vast array of practices driven by market economics. Cultural capital has become equivalent to real capital. Thus, in the economics of “Creative China,” designer cell-phone covers are subject to the same rhetoric and regulation as the most priceless archaeological artifacts: Each is one small component of the complex juggernaut that is China’s ever-expanding economy. Hence it is possible for officials and developers to plan a theme-park “preservation” development of 3-D reconstructions, hotels, and museums, to be situated at the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang, a remote UNESCO World Heritage Site holding one thousand years of ancient Buddhist murals and statues. All culture is equal in the eyes of the market, and all culture is treated with the same degree of seriousness, ambition, and incompetence.

In a sense, the creation of any museum is an act of dispossession: hence the global claims of repatriation that rightfully dog the European institutions founded at the height of Western imperial power.