Asia Life | Society | East Asia

The Disparate Reality and Reputation of Chinese Museums

China has a poor international reputation when it comes to accessibility for foreign visitors, but what about its museums?

Layne Vandenberg
The Disparate Reality and Reputation of Chinese Museums
Credit: Pixabay

Chinese tourists have increasingly traveled the globe in the last decade, becoming the world’s leading spender in international tourism. At the same time, more Chinese nationals have travelled domestically than ever before. In 2018, domestic tourism accounted for 5.13 trillion Chinese yuan (nearly $725 million), a 12 percent increase from 2017 data. But China is not only travelled by its citizens; in 2018, international tourists contributed $127 billion in revenue.  

To match these trends, China’s investment in domestic travel and tourism has significantly grown in recent years. The museum industry is no exception. Every two days, three new museums appear in China, and older museums around the country are being renovated. Despite the domestic push for progress in this industry, China is still not recognized as a “museum country,” resulting in a large disparity between mass investment and the international reputation of Chinese museums. 

The Diplomat spoke with Harel Sholovitz, a private equity fund manager, Yenching Scholar, and the former General Manager at the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, about his research on this disparity between local development and international reputation. Sholovitz has utilized data science to study museums in Shanghai, the face of China’s contemporary museum scene. 

How would you characterize the Chinese travel and tourism industry at large?

China is a world leader in many “hard products.” This includes the world’s longest railway network, extensive air travel options, state-of-the-art accommodation, increasingly smart cities, highly advanced infrastructure, and a plethora of cultural resources, including the greatest number of UNESCO world heritage sites in the world. Despite this formidable combination of tourism magnets, many of China’s “soft products” still lag far behind from an international visitor’s perspective. While China excels in such aspects as cultural resources, safety and security and business travel, it scores exceptionally low in the fields of international openness and tourist service infrastructure. 

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So while there has been a leap forward in the travel and tourism industry in recent years, a great portion is driven by the rise of domestic tourism and development of local preferences. This current imbalance presents an interesting crossroad between an outward-looking or inward-working industry.

How does the Chinese museum industry measure up to international comparisons? 

The international playing field is still not perceived as levelled, and the reputation of Chinese museums still has much room to grow. Chinese museums are present in this space, and  frequently loan pieces to British and American museums for reasons of cultural diplomacy and improved international reputation. Despite generous state funding, high quality of collections, rich human resources, and the relative size and quality of Chinese museums, internationally prominent travelling exhibitions still very rarely originate in Chinese museums. China’s reputation in this sphere also relies on the satisfaction of museum visitors from abroad — an aspect which is still underemphasized. 

How does this lack of emphasis on international visitors to Chinese museums manifest? Are museums themselves largely inaccessible to foreign audiences who may lack prior knowledge of China or Mandarin?

Inaccessibility is omnipresent and can manifest itself in different ways. For example, language barriers or lack of familiarity with cultural codes are inevitable and natural. It is more interesting how newcomers to the Chinese sphere are affected by the social embrace of technological developments. Numerous invisible walls stand between newcomers and a fully normalized experience in China, and the variety of Chinese apps which have become an integral part of daily life — shopping, reviews, payment, social media — are still considerably inaccessible because they are only offered in Mandarin. Didi, China’s most popular ride-sharing application, only recently released English-language advertisement campaigns and promotions in 2019. Such initiatives definitely have a trial-and-error component to them, which demonstrates that inaccessibility doesn’t begin or end with language skills but has many subtle layers, from marketing strategies to cultural preferences.

What are some of the challenges faced by international visitors to China?

Visitors to China are likely to be surrounded by a head-spinning collection of attractions — including museums — without quite knowing their scope and quality. International visitors often face a lack of online information, unestablished reputation and general outsider disorientation within the Chinese museum ecosystem. Challenges can include advance ticket purchases without access to platforms like WeChat or Alipay, outdated information, or even locating and getting to attractions. In 2019, Google Maps, which had previously fallen out of favor in China, even stopped offering public transport instructions in multiple cities. 

What role do official sources, such as museums’ websites, play in providing information to international visitors? 

Museum websites are doing poorly, with the choice to either continue to be neglected or adapt to an increasingly online audience. Surprising issues include extremely slow website loading speed, cases of “retired” websites which are no longer updated, and numerous cases of official museum websites which cannot be found through English language searches on Google. Directions and translated content were fully present in only 86 percent and 66 percent of Shanghai’s top museum websites, respectively. Promotional videos, photo galleries and exhibition reviews that may further attract and inform visitors were only fully present in about one half of all websites (55 percent for both). Finally, dedicated ticket purchase and reservation systems were only featured in 14 percent of websites. 

These online issues suggest that the websites of leading museums are plagued by commonplace carelessness or conscious negligence. 

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Are there Chinese museums who do not fall short in this category?

Museums that regularly involve foreign exhibitions, such as modern and contemporary art museums, are more likely to have updated content and generally higher levels of website maintenance. Shanghai’s West Bund Museum Project — a collection of art museums and galleries mostly launched last year — is a great example, cooperating with the Parisian Centre Pompidou or the Japanese high-profile art collective TeamLab. It is, however, somewhat ironic that art museums — which need the least amount of additional effort in order to be made accessible and fully appreciated — seem to do the most in this regard, while museums dealing with the city’s unique history (e.g. Shikumen, Postal Museum, Sun Yat Sen’s residence, etc.) are far less accessible. This gap leaves portions of the city’s story tucked away from most visitors.

How are users filling in these information gaps?

My text analysis of thousands of user reviews for Shanghai’s top 50 museums revealed that user reviews may incidentally serve as a substitute for official sources. They may actually prove more useful in providing general practical information, albeit more limited in terms of site-specific or user experience. 

So are unofficial sources like user reviews preferable to official sources?

Reviews are largely in a perpetual limbo between disrepair and functionality and, as a result, currently fail to capture and reflect China’s bustling museum ecosystem. Museums’ reputations on review sites are negatively affected by a lack of institutional engagement, insufficient user involvement and poor response management. 

This great divide in inaccessibility can be clearly seen on TripAdvisor. As one of the world’s largest travel websites serving close to half a billion users per month, TripAdvisor offers an incomplete view of Shanghai’s museum scene. For example, the Shanghai Development Exhibition Hall’s name is noticeably misspelled on Tripadvisor (“Developemt”), and despite its relative high ranking (#6) and a large number of reviews, this error has not been corrected. The Shanghai Natural History Museum has two separate and popular listings (ranked #2 and #11). The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, the third most popular museum on TripAdvisor, cannot be found on Google Maps, and only alternative sources detail its recent relocation. In addition, museum pages on TripAdvisor do not feature the relevant websites, although this option exists and is widely used elsewhere. 

Even though TripAdvisor’s Chinese offerings are outdated, this does not signal user inactivity, utter irrelevance or demise. For the top ranked museums, users are still adding new reviews and uploading photos (interrupted by their temporary closure following the COVID-19 outbreak). What we see is a clear case of inaccessibility in the making. TripAdvisor is sort of a living-dead; it gave way to local review aggregation alternatives like Ctrip or Dianping, but it still operates and serves as a go-to source for international audiences.

It sounds like the disparity fundamentally lies in connecting the high quality of Chinese museums to international accessibility of those museums. But is this more of a translation issue or a managerial issue?

While inaccessibility can be easily attributed to the language barrier, more needs to be done than simply providing information online in more languages than just Mandarin. As a whole, managerial perspectives within the Chinese museum ecosystem can and should develop a much more international — and maybe more ambitious — outlook. The modern museum industry in China developed quickly and without a systemic development of curatorial and managerial traditions in comparison to other major countries. Industry critics blame inefficient bureaucracy, curatorial monopoly over exhibitions and a lack of inter-departmental cooperation between research, education and exhibition departments.

Who is typically responsible for strategic changes in a Chinese museum?  

21st century “museumification” — the relationship between art and wealth as reflected in museum development and economic development — has resulted in a network of stakeholders who influence strategic changes in museums. This contested landscape involves investors, government officials, founders and multiple other stakeholders. Accumulated wealth, assembled museology practices, self-promotion and growing exposure now often go hand in hand to form a new discursive cultural power. So even in cases of largely private funding, local stakeholders — in the form of government, municipality and others — may still have a say. Depending on whether an institution is formal or informal, or internationally networked or locally focused, one thing holds true: Whoever holds the power influences the direction of museums. 

In Chinese museums, the question of narrative commonly resurfaces. A main theme in contemporary Chinese museology is the reframing of past interpretations and cultural or political heritage, often in the context of standardizing Chinese history and a strong sense of connection between past, present and future. Maybe this means that standardization of other aspects in the museum ecosystem, if desired by the right people, can also be achieved.

So is China a “museum country”? 

Potentially, very much so, and right now, still more domestically than internationally. But this can be attributed to the existence of a great divide and a double trajectory between the development of the Chinese museum ecosystem and its international perception and reputation. On the one hand, museums in China, like in Shanghai, are prosperous, plentiful and increasingly innovative. They enjoy relative strong state support, quickly adapt to local technological changes and are not overly stubborn in their practices. On the other hand, their reputation and perception from international perspectives still lag behind and suffer from unequal standards.

Significant changes need to take place for China to become internationally recognized as a museum powerhouse. The post-COVID-19 global landscape is bound to reintroduce questions of China’s soft power, openness, and overall role in the international community. Travel and tourism are important economic drivers and will provide new opportunities for China’s museum ecosystem to determine its future path.

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This interview has been edited for length.

For more information on Data Science research and the Chinese museum industry, contact Harel Sholovitz via email or LinkedIn.