Northeast Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - Giving Shape to Time: Developmental History Genealogies and Museum Design in Contemporary China

Saturday, July 7
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Silveroak II, Ground Floor

This paper explores how space gives material shape to developmental narratives of time in Chinese museum design. China’s museum design industry has expanded rapidly in recent years with the growth of local government funding for cultural projects. To establish new public museums of history, ecology, and economy, local governments contract with small businesses that specialize in creating museum content and interior design. These companies bring a set of design conventions to each new project, building similarly structured exhibits that narrate the history of disparate locales in similar ways and often with particular reference to two developmentalist theories of history: Marxist historical materialism and British social evolutionism. These two narratives of history share early modernist ideals of teleological social progress, but they have been adopted and rearticulated at different times and to different ends by Chinese translators, reformers, and revolutionaries. This paper argues that the history of borrowing and cross-pollination between Marxism and social evolutionism in China is one that is ongoing in political, economic, and cultural discourses of development. It demonstrates how museum designers make these disparate narratives of history commensurate through spatial practice in museum exhibit design, by giving a tour of the new Incense Museum in southern China. Drawing on ethnographic research with the museum’s designers and the local government officials responsible for it, this paper describes the museum’s account of the history, circulation, and ecology of Chinese incense. It argues that through the museum’s process of taking on material form, developmental history is made real.

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1 - Giving Shape to Time: Developmental History Genealogies and Museum Design in Contemporary China



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