Controversy in Museums

For my research project, I intend to research the portrayal of controversial topics in Beijing’s museums. Museums serve as a locus of academia and the public, and are one of if the primary means of dispersing information to the masses. As such, museums, especially those run by the state in a statist country such as China, can exercise considerable editorial power on the public’s perception of history. Within a museum, there are three major groups of people involved in this dispensing of information. First, the museum’s management helps decide the overall course of the museum, and due to their managerial position would be able to provide a unique perspective as to how involved the government is with a museum’s message and content. Second, the museum’s staff is the most direct interface between the management’s plan and the public’s reaction. These staff, such as exhibit designers and tour guides, have the most power to shape a given exhibit’s perception, and would be very interesting to interview, especially whether they intentionally editorialize the exhibits themselves. Finally, the public would provide the most useful perspective on museums in China. Within the public, I plan on interviewing two major groups, museumgoers and non-museumgoers. At a museum, I would like to interview people as to their opinions on exhibits and tours, as well as their perspective on the museum’s political message or lack thereof. In addition, the non-museumgoers might have a very different perspective, and might have political or reasons for not visiting museums.

As for the museums themselves, I plan to focus on history museums and the Cultural Revolution and art museums and political artists, such as Ai Weiwei. While science and technology museums might slightly overstate China’s role, pride in technology isn’t the most complex research topic. Instead, it is better to focus on China’s art and history museums, and whether they conflict with China’s culture of political unity. Incidents such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and the countless deaths associated with the Cultural Revolution would be understandably subversive points, and the museums’ portrayals of these events would be the perfect topic to explore the peoples’ relationship with China’s disapproval of dissent. Similarly, it would be interesting to explore if art museums discriminate against politically subversive art, and how the people react to that. For history museums, I would like to research The Capital Museum, The China Ethnic Museum, and The China Museum of the Chinese Peoples Revolution. These museums, in order, provide a look at a general portrayal of China’s history, and specific portrayals of China’s attitude towards minorities and the Cultural Revolution. For art museums, I plan on researching The National Art Museum of China and the 798 District. The National Art Museum provides a perspective on how the State presents art, and the 798 District represents a more independent, modern perspective on art.

My research method will largely focus on surveys, interviews, and independent research. In order to reach a large subset of museumgoers at once, I plan on using surveys to collect information on the public’s perception of museums. I will also conduct interviews with both the public and the museum staff, and use these interviews to humanize the raw data I collect from the surveys. In addition, I hope to research exhibits myself by taking tours, visiting museums, as well as researching American museums such as the Laogai museum in order to effectively contrast Chinese museums to American ones. Technologically speaking, I plan on using a camera, tripod, and voice recorder in order to document my travel and interviews. I will also have a notepad for observational logs. I plan on collecting statistical as well as ethnographic data, for example finding the average time a visitor spends on a politically sensitive exhibit, an apolitical one, and then interviewing a visitor to each about what they thought about either. Through my research, I hope to explore a holistic perspective of China’s political thought by writing an ethnography on the public and government’s reactions to depictions of dissent in museums.