Book Review: Chinese Museums

Form China museumMichael Webb

New Museums in China. Clare Jacobsen. Princeton Architectural Press. $50.

An invaluable compilation of 50 museums, completed or begun in the past decade, all over China. Jacobsen has selected these projects for their architectural value, and she has cast a wide net, from MAD’s Ordos Museum—a scale-less blob that anchors a raw new development in Inner Mongolia, to the Museum of Handcraft Paper, a woodsy cluster by Trace Architecture in a remote southwestern village. There’s a good mix of Chinese and Western firms, and the Pritzker Prize laureates include Wang Shu of Hangzhou.

In her introduction, Jacobsen explains how China (like the oil-rich states of the Middle East) is racing to catch up with the West, building trophy museums as a badge of status.  There were 2,571 museums in the PRC at the end of 2011 (as against 17,500 in the US) including showcases for tap water, public security, and pickles. It’s a reprise of Japan in the 1980s, where the smallest provincial town had to have a new museum, regardless of whether there was anything to display or any perceived demand. There, elaborate structures were raised to celebrate sand, sunsets, and a reconstructed earthen dam. China is even worse off: Many of its historic treasures were carried off by the retreating Nationalists in 1949 or were vandalized during the Cultural Revolution. Contemporary art is a controversial subject many state-run museums prefer to avoid. Jacobsen quotes Xie Xiofan, deputy director of the National Art Museum of China: “Of the many new museums being built in China, some fulfill real, actual demands; others answer no real needs and are more unstudied,” he says. “In many cases architects are experimenting, designing museum buildings through trial and error.”

That’s no bad thing; good architects deserve an opportunity to express themselves, and China offers more opportunities to test new ideas than the timid US and economically depressed Europe. Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin was vastly more impressive when it was empty; today it is crammed with tchotchkes and the interior has lost its elemental power. Many of these museums raise the bar for architecture in coarsely developed cities, provide a civic hub, and may eventually attract good exhibits. They could prove very good investments in the future of the world’s next great power.

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