What can Canada learn from the museum building boom in China? It’s a question examined in the book Museum Development in China: Understanding the Building Boom, edited by Gail Dexter Lord, Guan Qiang, An Laishun, and Javier Jimenez. The anthology aims to discover how much East and West can learn from each other about museum roles, our publics, how we preserve, what we conserve and our future sustainability—even as we marvel at the accomplishments of China's museum building boom.
On November 27, the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, in partnership with the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, the Faculty of Information, and Lord Cultural Resources, hosted a book launch event and panel discussion at the George Ignatieff Theatre.
Gail Dexter Lord, co-founder and president of Lord Cultural Resources, kicked off the event with a presentation that included an overview of the book. With an impressive group of over 25 international contributors, Museum Development in China chronicles the history of museum building in China. Its chapters present details about opportunities and challenges faced by Chinese museums, such as digital storytelling, iconic architecture, sustainability and cultural diplomacy that correspond to Western experience. Lord also shared her thoughts on the role museums play in city-building and identified potential opportunities for cultural exchange between China and Canada.
The presentation deftly contextualized the current museum boom amidst the rapid urbanization of China, firmly rooting the role of museums in the context of Chinese city-building. Lord related the idea of reinventing cities through investment in cultural architecture as the “Bilbao effect” – a phenomenon whereby cultural investment plus iconic architecture equals economic uplift through job creation and tourism. The term is named after the small city of Bilbao, Spain. Ever since the opening of the iconic Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim 22 years ago in Bilbao, the city has attracted more than one million visitors each year.
(Source: Lord Cultural Resources, adapted from TheAtlas.com, Data: United Nations: “World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision.”)
In China, museums are overwhelmingly designed by Chinese architects. Lord’s presentation addressed the ways in which Chinese museums display a strong sense of symbolism and place. For example, the Wenchuan earthquake museum is located at the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake in Yingxiu outside Chengdu. It resembles the ruptured landscape while also integrating into its surroundings from ground view.
Wenchuan Earthquake Epicenter Yingxiu Memorial (2009) (left: view of site, right: the completed building) (Source: He Jingtang in Museum Development in China: Understanding the Building Boom (2019, Rowman & Littlefield).
One of the most striking examples of museum architecture in China is the Ningbo Museum. The Ningbo opened in 2008 and won the prestigious Pritzker Architectural Award in 2012. Its façade incorporates fragments of tile and brick from nearby buildings that were demolished when the city’s new downtown was built. The pattern was selected by the construction workers.
The Ningbo Museum (2008), (Photography: Chao Shen. Photo courtesy: Chinese Museums Association Architecture and Technology Committee, China Archive of Museum Architecture and the Nanjing Museum in Museum Development in China: Understanding the Building Boom (2019, Rowman & Littlefield).
Façade of the Ningbo Museum (2008) ), (Photography: Chao Shen. Photo courtesy: Chinese Museums Association Architecture and Technology Committee, China Archive of Museum Architecture and the Nanjing Museum in Museum Development in China: Understanding the Building Boom (2019, Rowman & Littlefield).
Despite the challenge of political circumstances, Lord detailed a variety of opportunities for cultural diplomacy between China and Canada. For instance, China is in need of trained museum professionals to fulfill demand created as a result of the proliferation in museum construction. This growth may enable exchange and employment prospects for Canadian-trained curators and designers. There is also a shortage of display material for the new museums, leading to opportunities for the surplus of Canadian collections, which may never have the opportunity to be displayed in North America, to be shared in order to delight new audiences overseas.
Following her presentation, Lord was joined by a panel of experts including Rebecca Catching, museum consultant and editorial coordinator, Haoying Han, visiting professor and director of the Institute of Urban and Rural Planning Theories and Technologies at Zhejiang University, University of Toronto professor Jennifer Purtle, and curator and PhD student at the iSchool Yan Zhou. The panel was moderated by Cara Krmpotich, associate professor and director of the iSchool.
The School of Cities thanks the speakers and our partners, the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, the Faculty of Information (iSchool) and Lord Cultural Resources.