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“Why would you want to visit a museum?”

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This week’s guest post is by Ron Chew, independent consultant and Community Scholar in Residence at the Museology Graduate Program, University of Washington. Ron is the former director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, and a member of the CFM Council.

I want to share with you a recent “ah-hah” museum moment. It happened last year during a three-week trip to China with my sister. It was my first trip ever to China. Before this trip, China was a distant place I knew mostly through the stories of my mother who talked incessantly while I was growing up about the hardships of life in Hoysan, a rural area that was once home to both my parents and most of the early Chinese immigrants to America. I took my two boys, 10 and 13, on this journey of discovery. My sister, Linda, brought her four kids. Because three of her children are girls she adopted from China, this was my sister’s fourth trip there.

In China, we visited my father and grandfather’s ancestral village of Fow Sek, a place that time seemingly forgot. The village has not changed for generations. People there still till the rice paddies with a simple plow and water buffalo. We visited the 1,400-year old Buddhist temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou. We took a boat cruise on the Li River, marveling at majestic peaks in the distance. We visited the Temple of the Soul’s Retreat with its rows and rows of huge religious statues. We took tours of a comb-making factory and a jade factory. We explored some of the 100,000 Buddhist figures that make up Dragon Gate Grottoes in Henan Province. We saw the terra cotta warriors and horses in Xi’an and climbed a towering section of the Great Wall in Beijing.

Being a museum person like those of you here, I can’t travel anywhere – and certainly not overseas – without stopping at a few museums. About a week into our trip, I realized that we hadn’t visited a single museum in China, even though we had already spent a lot of time going into factories, caves, gardens and picturesque old buildings.

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As the tour bus left the hotel that day, I turned to our tour guide and interpreter, Wendy, and said, “Can we visit some museums today?” Wendy paused, seemingly puzzled, then went to speak to the driver. They huddled and talked for nearly five minutes over the din of the kids in the rear of the bus. Wendy came back over to me and asked, “Why would you want to visit a museum?”

I paused. I didn’t know what to say. It first occurred to me that Wendy did not know what I had done for a living and, therefore, did not understand my “special interest” in museums. But then I thought: Why would anyone need to have a “special interest” to visit museums?

I awkwardly responded to Wendy: “Uh, I used to work for a museum back in the United States.” Wendy persisted, “But wouldn’t you rather visit more of these interesting sites like the temples and the historic places?” Again, I didn’t know what to say. She went back to the driver – they huddled again – then she said to me: “The driver says there aren’t any museums around here. We would have to drive far to find one, but we can if you like. How about tomorrow?”

Well, eventually, during the following week, we made our way to two museums: the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou and the China Block Printing and Yangzhou Museum. The museums were interesting to me – as a museum person who likes history, culture and art – and it provided a badly needed dose of air-conditioning for our kids who had been withering in 100 degree temperatures outside. But it was striking how few visitors there were, except for a handful of foreign tourists.

In fact, as we approached the Yangzhou museum – a huge modern building – we couldn’t figure out where to enter the towering block structure because the parking lot was nearly empty and there was no crowd of visitors to follow to the front. We walked around the building, trying doors.

I’ve been thinking about what I learned in China, and the little exchange with the tour guide and the driver. Sad to say, they were right. The most memorable and engaging places were not the museums – the air-conditioned enclosures with objects protected behind glass and neat little labels – but the living spaces: restored temples, rustic gardens, village courtyards, public squares, orphanages, and outdoor and indoor markets. These well-trafficked spaces – where daily life is lived and lots of things just sort of happen – were the places where I learned the most and found the greatest inspiration.

I started thinking to myself: Should our museum exhibitions and “stuff” be out there in newly-imagined old public spaces rather than in newly created hermetically sealed temples that we now call museums? And what is a museum exactly? Especially since we once believed that they were for collecting and displaying objects, and those boundaries have long since been shattered by the emergence of non-collecting institutions and oral history based rather than object-based exhibitions.

What about a community center that displays the artwork of senior citizens on its walls – using the artwork to inspire, educate and empower? What’s the difference between that community center and a museum?

In Beijing, the Forbidden Palace is called a museum; to me it was mostly a series of giant, interlocking public squares knit together by imperial buildings that are closed to visitors. Was all of that a museum?

Is a conservatory – which has explanatory label text next each of the plants and a knowledgeable security guard at your shoulder – a museum? Is the Griffith Observatory a museum? Why not? What about the Internet and cyberspace – with its infinite capacity to house and store virtual stuff and virtual on-line exhibitions? Isn’t that just an incredibly vast peep-hole museum with many galleries?

If the differences between these differently named kinds of institutions are fewer than their similarities, how do we begin to redefine, reshape and redirect the field?

These are not new questions, but, as you can see, when you travel to a new place, a bigger picture begins to emerge. I’m not sure I have any answers to any of the questions I’ve posed, but I do look to inspired and creative leadership from the generation coming up through the ranks to revisit these ideas. It will be up to them – and you here – to chart the way ahead.

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