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A Journey to China

Category: Museum Magazine
Art design image of group of people listening to a speaker while standing in a museum setting with a map overlay of China.
US museum educators tour the K11 Art Space and greet Chinese colleagues in Shanghai, China.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Museum magazine.

The American Alliance of Museums strives to foster global connections and exchange to spark relationships across borders, broaden perspectives, and transform museum practice. In support of these objectives, the Alliance partnered with the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing to host “Connection—Engagement: A US-China Museum Education Forum” to connect Chinese and American museum educators. Why China? Its museum sector is one of the world’s fastest-growing and most dynamic.

In December 2016, 14 education directors and other professionals from US art museums went to Beijing and Shanghai for museum and artist studio visits, panel presentations, and roundtable discussions with Chinese counterparts, comprising the largest delegation of US museum educators to ever visit China. One year later we revisit the US participants’ reflections about their experiences in China and the value of global exchange. Here are their stories.

Why Go to China?

There are many reasons, which benefit institutions in both countries. 

Juliette Fritsch 
Head of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience
Natural History Museum of Denmark

China is changing so rapidly, evolving so fast, and embracing innovation with such fervor; it’s hard to track and even harder to really engage with, certainly from a distance. The chance to spend a week digging deep with colleagues and really discovering what is making Chinese art museums tick was incredible. The investments the Chinese are making in the cultural economy make the eyes water, and we need to pay attention.
The kind of professional exchange AAM put together for this week with the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing will have repercussions in both China and the US for many years to come. There will be the obvious signs of partnerships, collaborations, joint projects, exchanges. But there will also be the less tangible ripple effects of cultural diplomacy, professional development, and genuine friendship.

Shaping how cultural heritage is presented and consumed in China will contribute to shaping social context over there for generations to come. For the museum education profession, this is even more critical given the Chinese government’s dictate that all Chinese school children spend a certain percentage of their academic day being taught in non-school, informal environments—like museums.

This, plus the fact that entry to Chinese museums is free, means that a huge proportion of the nation will receive foundational education and mental-framework shaping through their engagement with museums.

Sarah Ganz Blythe
Deputy Director, Exhibitions, Education and Programs
RISD Museum

Particularly notable was the size and scale of the museum ecology in China, evident in the number of new museums, mass visitation, ambitious exhibition program, and expansive square footage to populate and maintain. From my understanding, this abundance and demand is due to recent economic growth and a new government emphasis on the cultural sector. This thriving context creates a demand to which museums are responding. This is in stark contrast to the US situation in which external factors erode rather than bolster museum attendance, and museums must relentlessly create the demand for their supply of exhibitions, programs, and square footage. We can learn from China’s deep investment in education and culture, it is a seemingly productive blurring of the profit and nonprofit sectors, and the healthy collaboration between enterprise and culture.

What’s Happening in China?

Heavy investment in the cultural sector is now leading to a focus on visitor education.

US and Chinese museum education leaders participate in a panel discussion at “Connection—Engagement: A US–China Museum Education Forum” in Beijing, China
US and Chinese museum education leaders participate in a panel discussion at “Connection—Engagement: A US–China Museum Education Forum” in Beijing, China

Sarah Jesse
Associate Vice President of Education
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Considering that only about 20 museums existed when the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and today there are over 4,500 institutions, admiration is certainly warranted.

One only need look as far as the CAFA–AAM exchange itself for evidence of China’s investment in visitor engagement. The substance of the conversation indicates a strong commitment from educators, curators, and directors alike to prioritize and formalize museum education in China. The emergence over the last decade of stand-alone education departments in Chinese museums, international exchanges and training programs, and university courses on theory and practice highlight that the country is earmarking considerable resources to professionalize the field. Just as museum education evolved in the US over time, China is in the midst of conceiving and articulating its own best practices, bolstered by its conviction of the public role of museums.

Several people stand around a large wooden table with various items on it a ladder with two people behind it stands in the right corner.
US museum educators tour artist studios and meet with Chinese artists in Beijing, China

Karleen Gardner
Director of Learning and Innovation
Minneapolis Institute of Art

There is a great desire in Chinese museums to have more collaboration between curators and educators in the interpretive process, and US museums have a lot of wisdom and experience to share in this area. From my time with Chinese colleagues, I learned that Chinese museums are dedicated to becoming more visitor-centric. I believe that this initiative can be greatly enhanced by US museum educators sharing our learner-centered teaching pedagogies. Training in outcome-based evaluation and visitor studies would also be beneficial for our Chinese colleagues.

Jackie Terrassa 
Woman’s Board Chair of Learning and Public Engagement
Art Institute of Chicago

I did not imagine, prior to my visit to China, that innovation and art education would be valued within the Chinese educational system. That thinking was the product of my own cultural bias and ignorance. But what we learned during the exchange was that China is aggressively seeking to transition from an economy primarily based on manufacturing to a design economy where creativity and affective/sensorial experience are paramount.

The investment in education, arts administration, and in art education of all kinds is staggering. It reflects a unified system that is entirely different from our fragmented system of a state-by-state, community-by-community, school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher approach to education. The tremendous level of interest in gaining greater knowledge about art museum education may be limited to the next 10 years. It is entirely possible that after that, they will have sufficient capacity to provide training themselves for their own people. On the other hand, their investment in art education, the surge in access for school children, and increasingly relaxed travel restrictions mean that our museums may see a huge increase in tourism from China in the future.

There’s an intersection of art, lifestyle, and commercial culture in China today.

Wendy Woon
The Edward John Noble Foundation Deputy Director for Education
Museum of Modern Art

While in Shanghai, we visited K11, an arts initiative started by a successful shopping mall magnate that has an on-site exhibition and programming space (for adults and also a space for families) in a downtown luxury mall, as well as art and workshop spaces integrated throughout the mall. It also hosts unpaid artist residencies and helps promote the work of emerging artists selected for the program, which is held outside of China’s major centers.

It was interesting to note that staff members running various functions within the space were government-funded positions (Chinese students must give a year of public service). This mix of public and government partnership was particularly intriguing given its context within a luxury mall. This reminded me that in the early history of both the Metropolitan Museum and MoMA (and I’m sure several others) relationships between exhibiting and promoting commercial industrial design were not uncommon, including relationships with department stores. Museums embraced the opportunity to bring “good design” at affordable prices into the lives of everyday consumers.

What Can We Learn from Each Other?

There is always value in an exchange of ideas and information.

Kelly McKinley
Deputy Director
Oakland Museum of California

Our Chinese colleagues were forthright about how museum education is being positioned and understood as a powerful counterpoint to formal or classroom education. Exposure to arts, culture, and creativity through museums is key to the government’s strategy to better prepare Chinese students for the competitive global marketplace. The explosion of museum education programs is in direct response to the desire to “round out” Chinese student education, which is traditionally quite rigidly and narrowly defined.

This is where the real opportunity exists for us to come together in true exchange: to imagine an entirely new model for museum school and teacher programs—a model that takes the fullest advantage of the spaces and experiences afforded by museums and collections, a model that is a true compliment, even counterpoint, to the modes and methods of classroom learning. I was struck by the formality of many of the programs we observed, programs that directly reference models at play here in the US. We have an incredible opportunity to imagine and craft something new for both of our contexts. Though not everything will translate—and it’s worth acknowledging that.

Though not everything will translate—and it’s worth acknowledging that.

Kathryn Potts
Associate Director, Helena Rubinstein Chair of Education
Whitney Museum of American Art

On the trip, we heard a speech by Chinese Education Minister Xu Tao, who remarked that international exchanges such as ours introduce ideas and approaches from the West that are then  interpreted and implemented “with a Chinese character.” What I found so fascinating as a result of this trip is how much of my own work and that of my education colleagues is actually more precisely “education  with an American character.”

Our democratic values; the founding principles of our country; and our belief in diversity, equity, and inclusion are all so fundamental to who we are and are expressed in our work as museum educators. Yet these values don’t translate exactly to a country like China, with its own long history, cultural traditions, and a rapidly changing contemporary context.

This is not necessarily a failure on either side, but it does speak to the difficulty of establishing a common language that is shared by both countries. Do we mean the same thing when we use terms like education, public, democracy, or community? There even seems to be different expectations for the cultural role museums play, what museums aspire to do, and how they might impact the lives of the people they serve.

Peter Samis
Associate Curator of Interpretation
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

We have a tendency in Europe and the US to think of ourselves as hot stuff: top-level trained and seasoned museum professionals. This is often with good reason. We certainly have a vaster museum literature and tradition of practice than the Chinese, in spite of their 5,000 years of continuous culture. But the big question for me is: Are our questions the same as our Chinese colleagues’ questions—and should they be? And the sequel: Are our solutions interchangeable? Do they need to be?

We live in a fundamentally different society, one that prizes individualism and freedom of choice. In our consumer society, leisure activities fight for attention and museums have an uphill battle in claiming mindshare among all the commercial inputs and “infohaze.” The Chinese might have us beat in the smog department, but they also seem to have a clarity of direction and a mandate from above. The question arises: When President Xi Jinping mentions museums 36 times in speeches over four years, does that register in the consciousness of the Chinese people in any way remotely akin to the way it registers on the balance sheets of the burgeoning Chinese museum industry? If so, with what attitudes do they approach their museum visit? What are their expectations?

Are people more docile, more compliant, still more respectful of the “inherent good” of museum culture there? Are they where we were in the 1970s, when museums here, too, were accepted as an inherent good by a largely white, middle-class, educated audience, and museums’ cultural authority was unquestioned? As opposed to where we are now when we bend over backwards to prove our relevance to people in a far more culturally diverse, free-choice world? What are the implications of our visitor-centered approach for China?

However, cross-cultural connections can pay dividends down the road in many different ways.

Deborah Clearwaters
Director of Education, Community Programs, and Interpretation
Asian Art Museum

I see this convening as the first step in any relationship that might develop in future. I have been in touch with a few Chinese contacts by email after the meetings and feel much better informed about whom to reach out to as my counterpart in China.

Prior to this convening, I would have gone through colleagues in curatorial or the director, but now have my own direct contacts at major Chinese museums with whom my museum is highly likely to do business.

Anne Manning
Director of Education and Interpretation
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

One of the primary benefits of this kind of gathering is cross-cultural dialogue and global understanding. These are things that we as museum educators strive to foster the programs and resources we create. As museum educators, we and our staff, help our visitors appreciate cultural similarities and differences, see things from new perspectives, and think critically about human experiences. Having this experience for ourselves—encountering the new, unfamiliar, unexpected—will enable us to be more sensitive to our visitors’ experiences and design opportunities for rich learning. Pushing through language barriers and cultural differences to understand the nature of each other’s values, choices, and decisions will make us more informed and empowered as cultural leaders in our own institutions and communities.

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