Top Tips – Working with Museums in China


Jade Burial Suit loaned from Nanjing Museum for the exhibition ‘Treasures of China’ at Colchester Castle


Tom Hodgson is Colchester Museums Manager for Colchester and Ipswich Museums. In 2008 he managed the loan of 43 Han Dynasty terracotta figurines from Xuzhou Museum for the Guardians to the King exhibition at Colchester Castle, which was part of the Essex-Jiangsu Festival. In 2012 he was involved in managing a loan, including a jade burial suit, from Nanjing Museum for the Treasures of China exhibition at Colchester Castle. He is currently involved in organising a return exhibition to Nanjing Museum on the theme of Life in Georgian England.


The written word
The Chinese, as with everyone around the world, are better at speaking and writing English than we are at their language. However, it is still important to keep e-mails concise, avoid slang, and be aware of writing anything that could have an ambiguity of meaning. When you respond, use the same phrases to avoid creating additional opportunities for confusion.

The spoken word
We have found that even when Chinese couriers are said to have good English, some are quite shy about using it. So, when hosting couriers, we have arranged for representatives from our local Chinese cultural society to be present on a rota basis in return for a payment to the society. This is much cheaper than using a professional translation service, and the society members have been keen to meet people from mainland China. Likewise, the couriers seem to have appreciated this more informal arrangement.

Han Dynasty terracotta figurines loaned from from the Xuzhou Museum, China for the exhibition ‘Guardians to the King’ exhibition at Colchester Castle

Say what you mean
There have been occasions when we have been waiting for responses and have agonised over how hard to press for an answer. Sometimes, the response may be slow in coming because the answer may be “no” and there is a cultural reluctance about causing offence with a negative answer. However, don’t be afraid to be direct and, if there is an issue, you will get a response quick enough.

Happy New Year!
At the end of January, everyone in China takes about a fortnight’s holiday for Chinese New Year. Expect radio silence and don’t plan on finalising vital decisions with your Chinese partners at this point.

A question of class
Chinese museums generally grade their objects into three classes that equate to: 1 – outstanding; 2 – important; 3 – other. If you are requesting a number of objects, the museum will likely agree to loan only a very few class 1 objects, a few more class 2, and the remainder will be class 3. If you are loaning to China, it’s useful to think about your own collection in the same way.

Couriers, Colchester Chinese Cultural Society and Museum staff eating out in Colchester.

Couriers, Colchester Chinese Cultural Society and Museum staff eating out in Colchester.

A courier abroad
The courier trips, beyond the requirement to install or demount an exhibition, have involved an itinerary of excursions. If you are setting up an itinerary for Chinese couriers, make sure that you allow time for shopping as well as cultural activities. If you are anywhere near Oxfordshire, you are in luck, as Bicester Shopping Village is legendary in China!

It is better to give
Gift-giving is a very important Chinese custom, so much so that there is an industry dedicated to producing gifts and gift packaging for foreign visitors. When you go to China, make sure that you take a range of gifts with you of different values. The most valuable should be earmarked for the most important person/s that you meet and the rest distributed on a scale according to the status of the person. Do ask your hosts in advance about the important people that you are likely to meet; they will be asking the same of you when they visit. You will need to repeat the gift-giving process when your hosts come to visit you.

Food for thought
At lot of business in China is conducted around the dinner table. If you are taken out for an official meal, it is likely to be around a large circular table in a private room or booth at a restaurant. I have found drinking at a formal meal to be an unusual experience as a substantial amount of the activity is achieved by toasting, which means that you are drinking in fits and starts. It’s important to return toasts if someone makes one to you, or at least to make sure the ‘UK’ side makes a toast to the Chinese side at some early point. A top tip is that when the fruit course appears on the table, the meal is about to end. So, if there is anything important you still need to say, make it quick as everyone leaves promptly at the end.

Treasures of China opening

‘Treasures of China’ opening at Colchester Castle

Ask the experts

The exhibition offer of 43 Han Dynasty terracotta figurines by Xuzhou Museum came almost out of the blue to us. Up until then, we had never even considered hosting a prestigious loan from a Chinese museum, so we needed to find people who knew about such things. As is the way in the museum world, help and advice came quickly and generously. The British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum were particularly helpful in our case, but other museums, I am sure, would do the same.

The Negotiating Process
Museums in most cities in China will report to the local Municipal government and the Provincial government.  They in turn report to the national level in Beijing.  If very precious artefacts are being sent abroad from China, potentially all these levels need to be engaged and you may not want to leave this to your partner museum.  Essex County Council helped us by negotiating at City and Provincial level for the Xuzhou exhibition. In fact, Peter Manning, Head of International Trade for Essex County Council, who was involved in those negotiations, has said he is happy to offer advice to other museums in the UK, not just Essex ones!