From Rapid Development to a Digital Landscape — A Timeline of Chinese Museums

Part Two: The Pivot

In the past 20 years, the number of museums in China grew a staggering 1,360%,but thousands of these beautiful buildings have nothing inside of them.

For years, cities in China have competed to outdo the last impressive architectural feat. Shanghai even opened two museums across the street from each other on the same day with the hopes of attracting more attention.

Unfortunately, it is usually local governments with a lack of funds that have been responsible for constructing most of the museums. These poor cities that struggled in the first place to afford museum construction have few cultural and historical resources to attract viewers.

Recent changes in China, however, prove that a country of “ghost museums” could soon become a country of thousands of thriving ones. Archaeological discoveries, developing populations, and digitally focused directives may help China grow into a new role as the next leading cultural epicenter.

Archaeological Discovery

With a written history of 3,500 years, China is home to the oldest civilization of the world, but with little proof. Most of its rich treasure trove of history became confiscated or destroyed during the 20th century’s violent Cultural Revolution.

Left untouched, though, were undiscovered artifacts, buried relics of ancient societies’ cultures that play a growing role in China’s cultural climate.

One such society is the people belonging to the Shu State, conquered by Qin in 316 BC. Earlier this year, an excavation team discovered over 500 artifacts dating back 3,000 years and believed to be created by the people of Shu at Sichuan Province’s Sanxingdui archaeological site.

A major find was the fragment of a gold mask that in its original state weighed over 1 pound, one of the heaviest gold masks from that period in China that has ever been unearthed. Featuring protruding eyeballs and big
ears, the mask supposedly depicts the state’s first king.

Along with the mask, archaeologists discovered bronzeware, ornaments, and the presence of silk, signifying the Shu state’s role not only as a highly skilled civilization, but also as a key player in the Silk Road’s origins.

Fragment of a gold mask found at Sanxingdui. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine.

Uncovering a society’s remains whose culture we have until now known little about is a huge discovery for China, but potentially even more important than the artifacts themselves is the recognition they could garner for the regions in which they were found.

The landlocked Sichuan Province is home to some of the poorest regions in China, but its relics have their own exhibit in Shanghai’s landmark Fengxian Museum that opened in June, attracting attention from visitors living throughout the country. The “Light of Ancient Sichuan” exhibition displays 137 pieces from Jinsha Site Museum and Guanghan Sanxingdui Museum, 65 of which are national first-grade cultural relics.

Continued emphasis on archaeological discovery could be a key component for China’s cultural development, and China seems to know this. Since 1990, it has awarded the annual Top 10 New Archaeological Discoveries, referred to as the “Oscars of Chinese Archaeology.” A 21-person panel made up of the country’s leading archaeologists appraise the discoveries of 20 hopeful candidates. This highly anticipated public event brings honor to relatively remote regions such as Guizhou, home of 2020’s number one discovery.

A Reborn City

Migration to developing cities could also contribute to China’s cultural boom. Ordos’s Kangbashi, a town of architectural landmarks juxtaposed by the surrounding barren deserts of Inner Mongolia, has transformed from nationwide status as a ghost town to a desired investment opportunity.

In the early 2010s, Ordos finished construction of magnificent institutions in the developing city of Kangbashi, complete with an opera house, iconic library, and 440,000-square-foot museum reminiscent of a reflective jellybean along a massive public plaza.

In a city like Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong, these buildings would not be surprising. GIven China’s architectural boom, such iconic landmarks are even expected. In an underpopulated city consistently near the bottom of economic growth levels in China’s provincial-level cities, these landmarks symbolize glaring disparities between a city’s goals and the reality of its financial standings.

The Ordos Museum in China looks like a reflective bean. Photo courtesy of inexhibit.com

Understanding the demand for real state estate stems largely from nearby educational opportunities, Ordos relocated a few of its best high schools, along with its №1 Ordos Highschool, to Kangbashi. Low-cost housing incentives provided to teachers facilitated the move.

Because of laws in China which require parents to own a house in the same district as their child’s school, demand for real estate rose significantly. Parents did not want to forego the opportunity for their hardworking children to receive an education that would prepare them for some of the top universities in Beijing.

Now, real estate prices are at an all-time high in central Kangbashi, up from 800 yuan per square foot (8,000 per sqm) to 1,500 yuan per square foot (15,000 per sqm). The local government started to approve condominium construction after an eight-year hiatus.

Increased investment in the city could lead to a wealthier population and higher financial outlay for the existing cultural institutions, but time will reveal how realistic this is, as the city’s economy shrank in both 2019 and 2020.

While investment in cultural institutions may not rise in the near future, the use of these spaces likely will. Kangboshi’s new population will have ample academic resources at its disposal in the Ordos Library, designed to look like rows of books on a shelf. The adjacent Ordos Museum organizes special events, hosts conferences, serves as a research center, plans educational programs, and offers educational activities.

Shifting Toward a Digital Solution

Government-backed endeavors like an emphasis on archaeology and the restructuring of school districts likely will bring positive accolades to unfavorably viewed or little-known regions of China.

While effective, these efforts may not necessarily be predictable or long term. Excavators could work for years on a site without discovering anything noteworthy. China’s population has slowed to its lowest growth ever, not an optimistic statistic considering that most investment is driven by real estate sales.

If solving the problem of ghost museums is not China’s most viable option, then the next step is to go digital.

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Tech-art entrepreneur, Silk Road businessman, leading collector of Chinese contemporary art, co-author of Chinese Art — The Impossible Collection w/@achengworld

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John Dodelande - Art.Tech

Tech-art entrepreneur, Silk Road businessman, leading collector of Chinese contemporary art, co-author of Chinese Art — The Impossible Collection w/@achengworld