A practical guide to tour exhibitions to China – Part 2

This article was first published by British Council China Now

Exhibitions Lost in Translation

The Belt Road Initiative favors exhibitions that foster intercultural dialogue, but there is still much work needed in crafting effective interpretive strategies. For instance, “Across the Silk Road: Gupta Sculptures and their Chinese Counterparts: 400-700 AD,” curated by the Palace Museum, involved objects from nine museums in India, but due a poor interpretive approach, it produced poor learning outcomes. Chinese scholars Li Lin and Chen Yubin reported that “Visitor surveys of 120 respondents revealed that 84.2% of people felt that there were barriers at various levels from the theme of the exhibition, to the content, and 51.7% of respondents felt that due to their lack of background in art and history, there was no way for them to really understand the exhibition.” They attribute its failure in part to the overuse of jargon be it unfamiliar western art terminology or esoteric Buddhist references. This is a common problem especially when interpretive materials provided by the loan institution are merely translated instead of re-worked or re-written. For instance, a label going into intense detail about a 17th Century button, crafted in Scotland, created by a Scottish textile merchant, or references to things such as Iconoclasm or the Protestant Reformation, may require too much background knowledge to be effective for a Chinese audience. “The main goal of information interpretation for international temporary exhibitions is to eliminate or reduce cultural barriers between exhibitions and audiences,” write Li and Chen, “In the process of changing this context, the curator needs to grasp the cultural differences and grasp the ‘same’ and ‘different’ between different cultures.”

Understanding Local Demographics

While cities like Shanghai and Beijing are now seeing plenty of international shows, there is still much potential within both first and second-tier cities. Understanding regional demographics is in fact quite important. Even a large city such as Shenzhen may have different characteristics says Head of Communications of Design Society Gu Ling[1], “Some museums like the Nanshan Museum, they put a lot of money into doing international touring shows, which is part of Shenzhen’s strategy as a city.” For instance, there are the various strategic regional focuses within the Greater Bay Area, and the Greater Bay strategy, from ‘made in China’ to ‘Created in China,’ while other provinces or cities might focus on industrial design. It’s important to understand the state museums and their purposes, their reasons for collaborating. It’s a branding strategy.” She explains that Design Society has been riding the city’s tech boom, with shows such as “Minding the Digital” which was “80% design and 20% art, with interactive pieces, and collaborations with Ars Electronica the Austrian electronic arts festival for “40 Years of Humanizing Technology – Art, Technology, Society.” At the same time Gu Ling explains that Shenzhen does not have the same tradition of exhibition viewing found in other cities. “Exhibitions are comparatively new in Shenzhen; it’s 5-6 years behind. Just like [before in Shanghai or Beijing] there were very few people coming to the museums. Going to an art museum did not used to be a default option, now there is a lot of art media. There are over 20 or 30 platforms to push your information and tell people what to do this weekend, a whole atmosphere. Shenzhen is still that silent [version of] Shanghai.”

It’s important to carefully consider the real appeal of your exhibition to Chinese institutions. How many museums would be a good match in terms of subject matter and how many museums are likely to have the funds to pay for an exhibition? Anna Fletcher, Lead of Touring Exhibitions at the V&A [2] recommends that museums, “Question every assumption. Every project is a learning curve for us really, in terms of the exhibition and the host institution, whether in China or elsewhere.”

The Rise of the Multi-Perspective Cultural Exchange Exhibitions

In 2018, the Hunan Provincial Museum curated: “Finding a Homeland at the End of the Word: The Trans-Cultural Exchanges and Interactions Between Italy and China from the 13th Century to the 16th Century.” Li and Chen write that from the subject matter to the individual exhibits, the exhibition pursued a bilateral approach. For instance, one section looks at the merchants, missionaries, and diplomats who facilitated exchange between China and Italy, employing clever use of storytelling and the premise of “What did Marco Polo bring in his suitcase to Italy” as a kind of narrative device. It also explores the life of Peter, a Tartar servant brought by Marco Polo to Italy, asking what life was like for him as an Asian person in Italy. The exhibition provided an analysis of the impact of Asian painting aesthetics on Western painting as part of the cultural exchange which was going on at that time, contrasting the Fontainebleau School and the “mumeiren” 木美人 paintings—two women wearing Ming Dynasty clothes but with Western features,” says curator Li Jun, “No one has really studied the connection between the Fontainebleau School and the “mumeiren,” and our exhibition is the first to see these two placed together. The didactics were praised for being fairly down to earth, avoiding the esoteric and even incorporating some elements of “gossip” in order to arouse the interest of the public, to create different entry points.

Engagement Can Take Many Forms: V&A

Beyond touring exhibitions, there are lots of ways in which UK institutions can get involved in the Chinese market, Nick Marchand [3] says that the V&A has been quite active in fields such as licensing, in particular their collection of William Morris patterns which have been used as prints for dressing gowns, caps, and jewelry. Partnering with Alfilo Brands they have launched numerous pop-up stores in conjunction with K11. This partnership with Alfilio has helped them build numerous commercial relationships within China. The museum has also had a strong relationship with Swire properties which hosted the exhibition “Shoes Pleasure and Pain,”

This and the partnership to provide consulting services, and management training for Design Society, created immense learning opportunities or the organization, partially through the secondment of Louisa Mengoni. “One of the most beautiful things,” to come from this cooperation says Nick Marchand, “was a small show, ‘Unidentified Acts of Design,’ curated by Louisa Mengoni, which reflects on design culture and Shenzhen, which showed at UABB, in Shenzhen. It was so tiny and beautiful to understand the creativity that was there and why we were in Shenzhen.” This arrangement provided mutual learning opportunities, and we are now seeing similar arrangements with the Tate’s Collaboration at Pudong Museum of Art. While bringing benefits to the Chinese institution it’s also like a practicum for the curator. Offering a chance for western museums to have a crash course in China.


There are currently a lot of museums who may be looking for content and many UK players have not yet entered the game; according to research conducted by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2016 only 43% of the institutions surveyed in the UK were touring exhibitions to China. Though the museum system can be something of a fortress, there are certainly many other private sector opportunities. There are several companies in China that have brought exhibitions to non-institutional spaces, for instance, the Barbican’s “Game On 2.0” which was presented by Blooming Investment. It’s also important to recognize that Chinese institutions are more likely to put their weight and finances behind a true collaboration, rather than just acting as a landing strip for your brand in China. That’s why it’s worth spending serious time getting to know China, to arrange opportunities for visiting scholars or curatorial exchanges which last more than a few days. For those who really willing to try to understand China and collaborate on an even footing, there may be a good niche waiting to be filled, and certainly interesting things to be learned.

[1]From an interview with Gu Ling, conducted by the author on March 14, 2020.

[2]From an interview conducted by the author with Anna Fletcher on March 10, 2020.

[3]From an interview with Nick Marchand, Head of International at the V&A Museum, conducted by the author on March 24, 2020.

The Article is written by Rebecca Catching.