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François Mairesse: I want to know who decides what at Chinese museums

This is the second of the series of interviews I launched before summer about people working with Chinese museums.  I ask them about their “parcours” (how they got involved with China), their impressions before and after visiting China, the advice they would have wished to have before working with China and their current projects with Chinese museums. Let me know if you want to be part of it and share your China experience with my readers.

– Yu Zhang

Last week, I had coffee with François Mairesse, chair of ICOFOM – ICOM International Committee of Museology, and professor at Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 University, whom I know from my years at ICOM. He had never been to China before October 2017, but since then and in less than a year, he has been to the country six times. He has visited Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Shandong Province, Qinghai Province and especially Nanjing where he is one of the initiators for the creation of a faculty of museology at the Nanjing University of the Arts.

Of these multiple visits, he was excited about how fast things move in China and was most impressed by the fact that the Western world doesn’t understand the reality in China. What he experienced there was different from what is presented in Western mainstream media. This was especially true after his visit to a cultural centre of Thangkas in Qinghai Province and his encounters with Tibetan monks.

Signing ceremony of a cooperation agreement between ICOFOM and Nanjing University of Arts; photo courtesy of ICOFOM

Although the official figure of some 4,000 museums in China is already impressive, he argues that due to the separate and ambiguous status of art museums, university museums, military museums and especially private museums, the exact number of museums in China might exceed by far the official figure. If there is said to be 60 museums “millionaires” in the world, receiving more than one million visitors yearly, there must be a lot more such institutions in China – how come that the world does not know? He would expect more communication about Chinese museums outside the country. This is also why he is promoting (and negotiating) the establishment of an international observatory of museums, attached to the future faculty of museology.

One other thing he would wish to know before working with China is more on a business level. “Negotiations don’t happen at meetings. And the meetings are very formal.” Indeed, things could change very quickly as he first observed, but decisions are not made so easily. “ Who decides? How it is decided? This is what I wish I would have know”, resonated François, who will go on with the negotiations over the course of a weekend in November in Nanjing.