(W.E. Talk) Liu Shuguang: How Can We Promote Mutual Learning Between Civilizations by Building Cities of Museums?

2024-05-19 Editor : Wu Xinru ECNS App Download

By Liu Wenxi and Du Yan from China News Service (CNS)

September 14, 2023


Museums are places for the protection and inheritance of human civilization, and also an important platform for mutual learning and exchange between civilizations. In museums, human wisdom is highly concentrated. Building a city of museums can better allow museums to play their role in inheriting the city's civilization, thereby fostering its character, expressing its spirit, shaping its image and enriching its life.

At present, there is a total of 6,565 museums in China, placing the country high in the world rankings. There is also a boom in building so-called cities of museums across China. How can museums develop in harmony with the growth of a city? How can they help spread Chinese culture at home and abroad? And how will Beijing, China's capital, build itself into a city of museums? On the occasion of the convening of the 2023 Beijing Culture Forum, Liu Shuguang, Head of the Chinese Museums Association, gave an exclusive interview to "W.E. Talk" at China News Service to offer his analysis of how museums can realize their important value in the new era.

Here are excerpts from the interview:


CNS: In your opinion, what role do museums play in mutual learning and exchange between civilizations?

Liu Shuguang: Museums are important places to protect and pass on human civilizations, as they are a worldwide language system and a global cultural institution, having a common definition around the world. As a bridge connecting the past, present and future, museums play a special role in promoting mutual learning and exchange between civilizations. 

In my view, museums are most conducive to the dissemination of culture. The collections preserved in various museums cover all aspects of mankind's natural and human heritage. As a public cultural institution that uses physical objects as cultural media, space as a communication field, senses as an educational pathway, and the general public as the target audience, museums themselves have muted ideological attributes, and the historical authenticity and objectivity they embody make it easier for people of different countries, nationalities, and educational backgrounds to develop trust and have a lasting impression. This particularity determines that museum exhibitions are more likely to realize the effect of touching people's hearts and dissolving differences.

Over the past decades, especially in the last ten years, Chinese museums have played an important role in spreading outstanding Chinese culture abroad. Through foreign exhibitions, museums have enriched the forms of global cultural exchange and enhanced the international influence, dissemination and attractiveness of Chinese culture. The Forbidden City, the Terracotta Warriors, and the Silk Road are all shining cultural calling cards. Some foreign visitors even regard the presence and number of the Terracotta Warriors as an important standard for the scale and level of Chinese exhibitions. 

Although such a standard is debatable, it is worthwhile to ponder how to tell the story of the Terracotta Warriors. For example, how can we transform the scientific, artistic, historical and cultural values of Chinese cultural relics, as well as the Chinese people's outlook on nature and humanity and the values embodied in the relics, into an exhibition that can be presented? In addition, how can we design the exhibition sections and tell the story in an internationalized narrative, and how can this be more in line with both the realities of ancient China and the present reality that China is committed to exchange and mutual learning between civilizations and to the building of a community with a shared future for mankind. If the above work is done well, museums can do a better job as the main channel for the dissemination of Chinese culture.

In September 2023, the 13th China Tourism Industry Expo was held at the National Convention and Exhibition Center (Tianjin). (Photo: Tong Yu/China News Service)

CNS: Could you please tell us about the current status of China’s construction of cities of museums?

Liu Shuguang: Museums can accommodate all the cultural heritage resources of a region or city. To continuously promote the high-quality development of China's museum industry, China has elevated the construction of cities of museums to an important part of the national cultural development strategy, and put forward the idea of "attempting to build cities of museums in areas rich in cultural resources." 

The "city of museums" is a foreign concept. Some scholars use this name for cultural areas with a concentration of museums, such as Rome in Italy, Paris in France, and London in the United Kingdom. The core object of protection and exhibition includes the collections displayed in the museums and the historically significant cityscape. 

Take Rome as an example, the world's most famous historical and cultural city. In addition to its museums presenting its history and culture, Rome has well-designed display signs and explanatory devices for all its cultural relics to give the history and cultural value behind them. 

In China, version 1.0 of the cities of museums began around 2008 with the museum boom brought about by the free admission to museums and memorial halls in the culture and cultural relic system. At that time, many cities focused mainly on quantitative growth, and they set having 100 museums as a goal in their efforts to build a city of museums. 

I think that the building of museums can be a good way of mobilizing and gathering the cultural resources of a city, and the development of museums can lead to the improvement of the entire city's level of civilization as well as its splendor and cultural image. This represents the most essential change in the construction of the 2.0 version of cities of museums. 

At present, the development of cities of museums in all parts of the country is in the ascendant. Some 30 cities across China have put forward their goals of and plans for building a city of museums, including the capital Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, Nanjing, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, Changsha, Taiyuan, Luoyang, Suzhou and Datong. Instead of focusing only on numbers, cities now regard the construction of a city of museums as a driving force for its transformation and development, as well as an important part of its cultural strategic layout. 

Therefore, in terms of fundamental attributes, the building of a city of museums is related to the cultural development and modernization of that city, and it is a question of what kind of development path a city chooses, and through what urban characteristics this takes form and manifests. In other words, this is a question of how to build a happy city. 

On March 27, the “Qin and Han Civilizations” exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Photo: Liao Pan/China News Service)

CNS: What are the important factors to be considered in the building of cities of museums? 

Liu Shuguang: As an important public cultural asset of a city, the development level of the museum reflects the degree of civilization of the city. Throughout the world, a city museum system with rich categories and distinctive features is an important factor that makes the city in which it is located a world-class metropolis, and an important part of the international cultural city and mutual learning and exchange between civilizations. 

From my perspective, the building of a city of museums requires the consideration of the following factors. 

First, there should be a master plan that takes into account the integrated development of a city's past, present and future. Second, the focus should be on the public. The building of a city of museums has a bearing on the interests of all the citizens of a city and requires their active participation. Third, it requires interdisciplinary talent. In the past, museums mainly recruited people specialized in history, archaeology and museology, but nowadays it is also necessary to recruit experts specializing in sociology, psychology, pedagogy and art to participate in the public cultural services of the museums and to enhance their level of specialization. Fourth, an international vision is needed. An international metropolis like Beijing can learn from Rome and Paris to improve the level of museum-based displays of cultural relics, sites and spaces in an innovative way. This will create an open-air living museum system in which multi-modal cultural heritage is organically unified inside and outside the premises, and in which the museums and the city coexist and grow together.

The famous Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy. (Photo: Yan Xiangqun/China News Service)

CNS: As the capital of China, Beijing started relatively late in becoming a city of museums. As a national cultural center, how should Beijing further promote this? 

Liu Shuguang: All kinds of museums in China not only systematically present the historical lineage of the origin and development of Chinese civilization, including its splendid achievements and significant contributions to human society, but illustrate the unique creations, values and distinctive features of Chinese culture. They provide a solid and rich foundation for telling stories about China and presenting the country's real image to the world in a three-dimensional and comprehensive manner.

To build a city of museums, efforts should be made to integrate museums into all areas of the city's economic and social development, so that the entire city can become a living museum. It is necessary to establish a close link between museums and give play to the role of different types of museums. Only in this way can museums make bigger contributions to urban development and meet people's new expectations for a better life. 

Although Beijing did start relatively late in becoming a city of museums, it has formed the largest and strongest urban museum cluster in the country thanks to its unique geographical, historical and cultural advantages. By the end of 2022, there were 215 museums registered in Beijing, and state-owned cultural relic collection units had 5.01 million pieces or sets of cultural relics in their collections. In addition, the city has representative sites demonstrating both the essential development of Chinese history and the richness and profound multiculturalism of that civilization. It can be said that the quantity and quality of Beijing's cultural relics rank forefront among metropolises around the world.

Beijing should give full play to, and utilize the advantages of, existing museum resources, institutions and talent, and integrate both museum cultural resources and cultural spaces of different natures, attributes and themes with physical, figurative and experiential qualities all over the capital. This will enable it to better explain the culture of this ancient capital, including the revolutionary culture, Beijing culture and the culture of innovation.

At the same time, Beijing should draw on international success stories and experiences, so that museums can be integrated into the capital city's cultural system in the form of both "cultural carriers" and "cultural phenomena", and can coexist and grow together with the city. Beijing should highlight the diversity and uniqueness of its culture, strengthen exchanges and cooperation with other international cities, showcase museums with unique Chinese characteristics, spread the spiritual values of Chinese culture, and promote exchange and mutual learning among civilizations. 


About the interviewee:


Liu Shuguang, who graduated from the Department of History at Peking University with a master's degree in Chinese history, is currently the chairman of the Chinese Museums Association and editor-in-chief of Chinese Museum magazine. He is also the chief expert for Research on China's Maritime Heritage, a major philosophy and social sciences project of the Ministry of Education, and the chief expert on the Biography of the Grand Canal and the Biography of the Great Wall, two major commissioned projects of the National Social Science Fund of China. He is a visiting scholar at the University of Bologna, Italy, and a recipient of the Officer Medal of the Star of the Italian Republic. He was previously a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Leadership Group and deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration.


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