SPOTLIGHT: Development and Innovation in Museums in China

Laishun An

Vice President and Secretary General, Chinese Museums Association

Chinese Museums Association


"Development and Innovation in Museums in China"


Dr An Laishun
Vice President and Secretary General, Chinese Museums Association

The emergence of public museums in China occurred about 150 years later than in Europe. The close correlation between the situation of Chinese museums and the transformation of society and economy that China has been experiencing over the last 10 years has drawn the attention of the international community. On the one hand, museums in China have seen unprecedented development; on the other, they have met with the challenge of an imbalance between the increase in quantity and the elevation of quality. What is clearly indicated is that the Chinese authority and the museums sector have noticed the existence of the ld"short slabrd" together with progress, and they both have actively pushed for the sustainable development of museums.


Today, museums in China have been going through a ld"boomrd" for almost a decade. The last 8 yearsrs" statistics indicate that the number of museums rose from 2,970 in 2008 to 4,873 in 2016, with an average annual increase of 237 museums. Chinese museums preserve a total of 36 million items in collections, organize 22,000 exhibitions and receive 500 to 600 million visitors every year. What is worth noticing is that private museums account for 26.6% of all museums today in China, with an increase from a total of 319 museums to 1,297 museums in the last 8 years. Such a rapid increase of private museums has extraordinary significance.
The driving forces of the explosive increase in Chinars"s museums are chiefly such China-specific factors as the ld"historical lackrd" of museums in their early history, the change in the governmentrs"s viewpoint in only one term, and the great push towards a national cultural policy, apart from the oftentimes mentioned elevation of comprehensive national power and cultural demands from the people.

It will not be difficult to understand the rapid increase of museums in a short period if we know that China had only 349 museums for the whole population of 1 billion when it decided on economic reform and opening up to the outside world in 1978; if we observe quite a few local governments have turned from ardent pursuit of GDP to the influencing power of their local cultures as their achievement in one term of government. More importantly, the Central Government has issued a large series of museum-related policies, which are extremely supportive of the ld"boomrd" in museums. The following are two examples.

The first example is free admission to public museums nationwide since 2008. In 2016, eight years since the policy was imposed, the number of museums which provide free admission reached 4,246, i.e. 87.1% of all museums. Almost all public museums are free of charge, with the few exceptions of museums based on historical monuments or heritage buildings. In order to promote such a policy, the Central Government has appropriated an annual subsidy of 3 billion RMB (379 million Euros) since 2011. The most important significance of this policy is that museums provide cultural experiences for hundreds of millions of migrant workers from the countryside and low-income citizens.


The second example is the First All-China General Survey of Moveable Cultural Heritage, which lasted five years, covered 1.02 million collection institutions throughout the country, and digitized or re-digitized records of 64.07 million items. The invested fund for this project reached 1.245 billion RMB (157 million Euros). It not only produced a national standard for the identification of public museum collections, but also provided a basis for the public sharing of such data in later times.

Naturally, the development of Chinars"s museums has met with ld"pains during growthrd", whose kernel is how to maintain and improve the professional quality of newly-established museums when the quantity is rising at a high speed. That is to say, the challenges of matching resources are becoming increasingly prominent.

At present, 47 universities or colleges in China offer museum studies courses, which shows an increase of 4 or 5 times the number of such institutions ten years ago. Among these universities/colleges, 34 (by 2016) provide Masters and even PhD degrees in heritage studies or/and museology. But these still cannot satisfy the demand for museum professionals in quantity. At the moment, there are structural inconsistencies between capacity building and requirements in museum specialization, between professional training and diversification of museum types, and between curriculum development and museum practices, etc.

A shortage of collection sources is not uncommon for those new museums. Some museums have adjusted their collection policies, focusing more on contemporary social and cultural memory, but not all museums have the awareness of importance and urgency of adjusting their collection policies. Many museums are conservative in face of politically and culturally sensitive issues, which confines their development.

According to the planning of the Chinese government, every 250,000 people should have one museum all over the country by 2020. In the forthcoming five years, China will carry out in succession such projects as raising the quality of private museums, collections of material evidence during socioeconomic transformation, national memory, capacity building of cultural and museological personnel (ld"Jin Ding Projectrd" or ld"Gold Tripod Projectrd"), the handing-down of folk handicrafts and the sharing of nationwide moveable heritage resources.

We expect Chinese museums can gather stronger and sustainable power and can provide some researchable experience for the international community, especially for museums in emerging countries.

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