Jan STUART 司美恩
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 弗利爾與賽克勒藝術館
Presenting China in Western Museums
Museum professionals in North America and Europe often raise the questions "how can museums engage the visitor," "what should museum displays look like in the 21st century," and "how do we stay relevant?" These questions are a focus of directors, curators, educators, designers, public affairs specialists, and the like, all of whom play important roles in the success of the modern museum. The same questions apply equally whether an institution is an encyclopedic museum holding a collection that represent a wide breadth of human civilization, or is more specialized, holding a collection dedicated to a specific culture or time period, such as a museum of Asian art or a contemporary art museum. In all cases, museum professionals have similar goals, protocols, and needs-that is to attract and serve their audiences, including by offering enjoyment and education, and also to develop a sustainable plan to support the staffing needs and infrastructure of the museum building at a level to physically preserve the collection and extend the objects' lifecycle into the far distant future.
While care and preservation of the collection is the core responsibility of a museum, its heart lays in the power to use the collections to reach people, and hopefully to sometimes profoundly touch them. As the museum scholar, Stephen Weil puts it, "Museums matter only to the extent that they are perceived to provide communities they serve with something of value beyond their mere existence." (Stephen E. Weil. Making Museums Matter (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 2002), pp. 4, 5, 41). This paper will look at some of the implications of this view of museums. How do museums provide for a community, and specifically how do they do this in the context of holding collections of Chinese art, and how do museum staff work together to accomplish this large goal? The paper will in particular address the curatorial role with some specificity.
At the outset, it is worth noting that Weil's comment is widely accepted and represents a prevailing view in museum communities, but I it is also worthwhile to point out there may be a danger in his use of the words "matter only" if they provide beyond the importance of their physical existence, because this points to a shifting balance towards prioritizing community service over preserving the collections themselves. A view I find untenable. Preserving, and also researching the collections, are time consuming, expensive, and mostly behind-the-scenes endeavors that have enormous gravitas, but which are losing position to other concerns of the museum world. The hidden nature of preservation and research has perhaps made it hard for museum Directors to champion these aspects, but we must keep these as an unwavering goal of institutions. This paper explores the role of museum staff in upholding Weil's broader perspective for museums, but aims to also emphasize the importance of staff, primarily curators, who can serve as an active interface between the two sides of the museum-collection care and research and people-to-people engagement.
It is laudable, and in fact, obligatory, for museums to want to share their collections in ways to inspire interest and appreciation for the objects they hold and expand viewers' understanding of them, as well as to find new ways to engage visitors and make them feel actively engaged in the museum experience. Displays should connect and communicate with the viewer, and when a museum is successful at doing this, its builds its viewer base, which is necessary for income generation and sustainability. More visitors streaming through the door translates into greater profits from tickets and merchandise sales; and for museums with free admission, more visitors can translate into greater private or government support. In Western museums that have important collections of Chinese art, there is almost universal agreement among staff that the greatest wish is for visitors to leave the museum (or end a website visit) feeling enriched, finding themselves more interested or thoughtful about Chinese art, and possibly even thinking differently about China itself.
Using art to connect people with a better understanding of China in general is a goal that most museums today see as part of their relevance to modern society. This sounds good, and even obvious, but tensions can arise, since there are differences in opinion about what achieving relevance means. There are different points of view about whether historic art collections, or even contemporary art, should be used as a direct means to understand the modern political and cultural entity of China. For example, can a presentation of Ming/Qing imperial art be used to inform visitors about China today? The answer is perhaps a very guarded "yes", in the sense that when visitors who previously had no knowledge about historic China learn through seeing Chinese artefacts of the 15th and 18th century that have stylistic connections to Middle Eastern, Himalyan, or European cultures, they gain a greater understanding that China was not historically insular. This knowledge may be enlightening for them when looking at modern China's international position. But the danger is that increasingly some museum staff members are trying to use historic art to make direct connections to modern politics and life. Museums seem to be walking a tightrope-should they host programmes with political commentators, or is this perhaps an arena in which they should collaborate with other academic institutions, such as a college or think-tank like the Brookings Institutions. This paper will examine some of the approaches that museums are taking today to ensure that visitors in a Western society will feel attracted to displays of Chinese art.
What are some of the practicalities of how museums can accomplish this? Museums have always been, and are increasingly, reliant on teamwork to accomplish these goals as there mandate becomes broader. Therefore, there are inevitably questions about which individuals and which departments should be represented on which teams and who (if anyone) should lead each team, and how to communicate internally and externally. Different museums have different approaches to this complex question and a few prototypes will be examined.
One of the questions that always comes up in this type of discussion is what is the role of a curator, and can/should a curator be a project/team manager. Decades ago curators were likely to be the person-in-charge, beholden only to the Director's higher judgment, but today they are usually placed as just one of many highly regarded staff members. Institutional structures are nobly trying to nurture all types of staff and thus benefit from diverse and disparate talents. It has become common to talk about curators as "content providers," and value them in exhibition, and other, teams the same as the members of other departments. Much is gained by being certain to avoid a monopoly by curators, but it is worth questioning the validity of a now not uncommon view that holds that curators are generally removed from the public they serve, and are mostly ivory tower academics or even prima donna. While there may be the occasional curator of that nature, I would suggest that this a largely unfounded view that has spuriously come into play, perhaps partly as a kind imaginary foil to give other newer roles in the museum, such as interpretation officers, more validity and urgency. I propose the newer job roles are critically important to the success of the modern museum, but this in no way diminishes the key importance of the curator, nor should we should we collectively buy into the myth that curators are disconnected and disinterested in the public. Curators are invaluable not only in providing and shaping content and fact-checking content generated by others, but it often remains unsaid that curatorial passion (which is also knowledge-based) for the objects they study and care for can make the curators the most informed and energetic team leaders.
Without knowledge and passion, it easy for museum objects to become just "things". This paper takes a look at what curators can provide in the modern museum setting. Keeping in mind the comment by the famous Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who said "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place," I will also address the practicalities of how curators can improve their communication with other museum staff, and will review the scenario in which a curator as team leader is paired with a project manager, whose role in entirely administrative, and can assist in team management. I will also address the issue of the size of committees, since there is a trend to increase the membership of committees, disregarding what many business leaders note that the smallest reasonable membership is strongly advised. Art collections are brought to life by the collective expertise and imagination of museum staff, as well as by close coordination with collaborators, who may include the museum visitors themselves, living artists, performance centers and academic institutions. In all this, the curator plays a critical role worth examining in some detail.