Museum newsNews

Exhibition exchanges with Chinese museums

Yu Culture attended the annual meeting on 22 November 2018 organised by Art Exhibitions China, a government agency in charge of organising exhibition exchanges both in China and abroad. It also serves as the liaison of ICOM ICEE in China. The meeting was attended by museum directors and head of exhibitions of major museums in China. It was organised on the occasion of the Chinese Museums Association’s MPT Expo, or biennale conference, in Fuzhou, China.

Art Exhibitions China presented a proposal of eight museum zones organised geographically (such as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei in the north, or Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejian in the east), regrouping some 40-50 museums in each zone. By doing so, museums are expected to consolidate and leverage on their resources, brainstorm and co-organise exhibitions and exchange exhibitions, extend the international network jointly, etc. Currently, Chinese museums are developing to two extents: the big ones with an important collection and important government funding continue to grow their audience and attract partners, while smaller ones struggle to make themselves known; the nearly 5,000 museums in China are concentrated in certain Chinese regions and cities. The lack of staff trained in exhibitions and research have made it difficult for most museums to tell meaningful stories. Most museums in China do not work together and, even less so, exchange exhibitions.

Two presentations at the meeting were particularly interesting, where museum directors share their best practices:

Mr. Duan Xiaoming, Director of Hunan Provincial Museum

The exhibition “Pharaohs, Gods and Mummies” has toured to Hunan Provincial Museum after being held at museums in Shanxi, Henan and Hebei provinces. It will close next week after 59 days’ exhibition and the final visitor figure is estimated at 220,000 with a peak day during the National Day holiday (13,142 visitors on 5 October 2018); the ticket sales are expected at about 5 million yuan or 625,000 EUR (full rate at 20 yuan, or 2.5 EUR). The novelty of the exhibition is that a local TV station is involved since the beginning in the promotion of the exhibition. In return, the TV station shares the sales revenue of the exhibition as a media partner, instead of having the museum pay for the marketing costs. The director supports charging visitors for temporary exhibitions, which are being implemented more and more with public museums while admission to the permanent collection remains free. According to Mr. Duan, paid exhibitions can involve private partners right from the beginning of the project and boost the group of museum’s core visitors who are often willing to pay.

Mr. Li Zhongmou, Deputy Director and Head of Exhibitions of Shanghai Museum

Shanghai Museum may be one of the most “international” museums of China. Mr. Li is very proud of his staff with international background, speaking several foreign languages and dealing with projects concerning various countries. He reviewed the exhibitions organised by Shanghai Museum between 2016 and 2018:

  • The museum has “imported” eight international exhibitions, one of which (the upcoming Dong Qichang calligraphy and Chinese painting exhibition) concerns mainly artworks on loan from different institutions, instead of an entire exhibition being imported. The museum has worked with museums in six countries on these projects.

Currently on view at Shanghai Museum, “Pathways to Modernism: American Art, 1865-1945” co-organised by the Art Institute of Chicago, Terra Foundation for American Art and the Shanghai Museum. Image courtesy of the museum.

Exhibition “Landscapes of the Mind: Masterpieces from Tate Britain 1700-1980”, on view from 27 April to 5 August 2018, was the most visited exhibition of Tate Britain. Image courtesy of the museum.

  • The museum has toured 10 exhibitions, half of which concerning important loans to exhibitions organised overseas. The museum has worked with partner institutions in eight countries on these projects. Some of them are exhibition exchanges, for example with Art Institute of Chicago (US), Acropolis Museum (Greece), the Kremlin Museum (Russia), etc.

Shanghai Museum’s exhibition at the Kremlin Museum. Image courtesy of the museum.

  • Two of Shanghai Museum’s exhibitions have toured to different museums in China. And the museum has participated in 46 different exhibitions all over China.

Shanghai Museum’s collection was on view at Shanghai History Museum at an exhibition about Royal Asiatic Society in China. Image courtesy of the museum.

  • He emphasised on the equality and reciprocity when exchanging exhibitions, the safety of the collection during exhibitions, a professional team, sustainability of exhibition exchanges instead of one-shot blockbuster deals, as well as possibilities of working with contemporary artists for archaeological and history museums.
  • He reflected on the recurring issues identified from Shanghai Museum’s various experiences in exhibition exchanges:
    • Loan fees: in the case of Shanghai Museum, neither local nor national funding now allows the museum to pay loan fees. Such expenses can only be paid through ticket sales, which is so far not practiced at Shanghai Museum.
    • Admission fees to temporary exhibitions: public museums in China are open for free since 2008. Most of these institutions do not even charge an admission for temporary exhibitions, as is the case with Shanghai Museum. So how to balance the costs?
    • Clause of non-seizure: there is not a clause of non-seizure of cultural objects in Chinese laws but the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, under Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and in some cases the local authorities, can issue a letter of guarantee to certify that the objects on loan will be returned once the exhibition is over. But for some collections claimed by third-party countries who have signed MoUs with China, the authorities may not be able to issue such a guarantee. He cited the example of an Egyptian collection from Berlin.
    • Insurance vs national indemnity: there is no national indemnity scheme in China and museums can only work with “commercial” insurers, which may make the exhibition very expensive.
    • CITES and weapons: always check the latest list of CITES and beware that firearms on loan for exhibition, contrary to cold weapons, require specific permits from the Ministry of Public Security.
    • Private collections: museums should avoid endorsing and participating in the speculation of the values of some private collections, on display within the same exhibition.
    • Photo-taking: out of concerns for preventive conservation and intellectual property protection, some leaders do not allow photo taking or forbid photo-taking with flashes. It is important to take it into account when doing exhibition design to limit issues with visitors.
    • Merchandising: for one international exhibition, it was very costly anddifficult to negotiate licensing with the lender. Shanghai Museum decided to design from public domain – finally its most successful product was coffee with latte art inspired by one of the objects on loan: a cat…