InterviewNews

“Working with China” interview series – Pat Rodewald

I met Pat several years ago at the National Museum of China while I was with the ICOM-ITC group trying out the museum’s education activities. I immediately wondered what a foreigner was doing at a national museum in China. It turned out that she was a museum educator-in-residence. We were later connected by a colleague at the Palace Museum whom she also consulted. She has been living in Beijing for six years now. I have always been interested in her China experience and she happily shared her story with me.

Some highlights:

    • Chinese museums are investing travel budgets and the gift of time in training and professional growth for their staff. I think this is a model that museums in the U.S. could learn from China.
    • The growth and change in Chinese museums is so rapid that myths become obsolete overnight!
    • Our Chinese colleagues often work on a shorter planning timeframe than we do.  Everything ends up being beautifully organized, so best to trust that logistics will be in place for your trip.
    • Many provincial museums have rich collections that are not as well known to foreigners.  I think there could be interesting opportunities for international exchange with these museums and would like to learn more about them.

When was your first time in China and what brought you to China this time?

My first visit to China was in 2006 when our son was part of a student orchestra group traveling and performing in China.  We loved the food, visiting the historical sites and museums, and especially experiencing the wonderful welcome that these student musicians received when they performed for Chinese audiences in Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing. It was a transformative experience for our family.

A move for my husband’s work brought us to China in 2012, and I have been living, learning, and working in Beijing for over six years now.  I loved my job as Director of Education at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, but after working in US museums for over 25 years the opportunity to live in China was too tempting to pass up. Chinese colleagues have been very gracious and generous in welcoming me to the museum education community and the museum community more broadly. My work focuses on museum education practice and professional exchange between the U.S. and China. My experience here has exceeded all expectations!

What was your general impression of Chinese museums before going and what was the biggest myth (about Chinese museums) busted after your multiple trips to China?

I was aware of the museum growth in China, especially following the Olympics in 2008, and the rich contemporary art scene here.  The growth and change in Chinese museums is so rapid that myths become obsolete overnight!  One myth that was quickly busted for me…When I first gave talks, I had heard that Chinese students/colleagues don’t ask a lot of questions. Actually, discussion is always lively, and we often have to wrap up the Q&A while there are still questions in the audience!

During your stay in China so far, what was the most memorable moment or most fascinating fact?

So many memorable experiences….one that especially stands out was the opportunity to participate in a professional development study tour during my time as a museum educator-in-residence at the National Museum of China. Colleagues from across several teams within the Social Education and Promotion

Department visited key sites and museums in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.  By meeting with colleagues for collection tours, discussions, and attending programs, we learned about key cultural relics and history in these provinces as well as expanding our professional network.  I was really impressed by this experiential and practical approach to professional development that also supported team and relationship building across departments. Chinese museums are investing travel budgets and the gift of time in training and professional growth for their staff. I think this is a model that museums in the U.S. could learn from China.

What help do you think would be appreciated before going or while there? Or what are the things that you would have loved to know before going?

Before moving to China, I connected with several American colleagues who were living or had lived in China.  They were very generous and shared lots of information and background about the arts and culture sector in China.

If you are invited to China for an official visit, rest assured that your Chinese hosts will organize everything.  You may want to get detailed information on logistics well in advance of your travel. This may not be possible. Our Chinese colleagues often work on a shorter planning timeframe than we do.  Everything ends up being beautifully organized, so best to trust that logistics will be in place for your trip.

What are the things that you still want to know about Chinese museums?

Museums here are continually evolving, so there is always lots to learn. I feel that I have barely scratched the surface!  I am interested in learning more about what is happening in the provincial level museums.  Because I live in Beijing, I have more experience with the central/national level museums.  Many provincial museums have rich collections that are not as well known to foreigners.  I think there could be interesting opportunities for international exchange with these museums and would like to learn more about them.

Can you share one of your recent projects with China?

Last year I worked with the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and the CAFA Art Museum to organize a training program focusing on museum education for 30 Chinese colleagues from across China.  We spent 6 weeks in the U.S. – 2 weeks on a study tour/training in New York and Washington, D.C., and then colleagues spent 1 month in a museum doing a fellowship in their education department.  9 U.S. museums hosted fellows. This program built on an earlier forum that brought a group of U.S. museum education directors to China.  The goal is to share practice across cultures and to develop relationships that will helps us expand our professional networks.  We are already seeing deeper connections develop out of the program with U.S colleagues invited to China to participate in workshops at their fellow’s museum.