For the past decade, China has been on a museum-constructing binge, tossing out new buildings for art and culture the way a sailor on leave tosses back beers. From 2000 to the end of 2011, the People's Republic of China added 1,198 museums, nearly doubling the number it had at the start of the millennium. Some were commissioned by ambitious politicians hoping to advance their careers. Some were put up by developers as ill-conceived amenities for enormous housing projects. Many remain empty much of the time, their institutional software lagging years behind their building hardware. But a growing number are bringing innovative architecture and sophisticated art to a country hungry for culture.
Clare Jacobson, an American writer and contributing editor to RECORD who has lived in Shanghai for the past five years, has witnessed this remarkable boom, seeing dozens of new museums open in her adopted city. She watched one of them, Perkins + Will's Shanghai Nature Museum, emerge from the ground and take form literally before her eyes from her 25th-floor apartment. (It is scheduled to open later this year.) She brings a journalist's eye to the subject, acknowledging the odd and sometimes amusing aspects of China's newfound love of museums. She cites, for instance, the recently opened Russian People Museum in Enhe, Inner Mongolia, a small town that “has little else to offer tourists, save for a couple of souvenir shops and a Russian bakery.”
Jacobson understands that in 21st-century China, museums represent more than just a healthy interest in culture. “New museums in China are not simply anonymous buildings,” she writes; “they are designed to make a statement.” She explains that many of these buildings don't work very well as museums, and a good number don't have staff properly trained as curators or museum administrators. But China has been importing some of the biggest names in architecture to design these projects, with eight Pritzker Prize—winners having built or in the process of building museums there. Museum commissions have also served as launching pads for homegrown talents proving themselves and starting to attract worldwide attention. So it was with Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker laureate, who secured his reputation with the remarkable Ningbo History Museum, completed in 2008. And an emerging generation of Chinese architects are getting the chance to cut their teeth with these jobs. Browse through Jacobson's book and you'll be introduced to many of these rising stars, including Pei Zhu, Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, Hua Li of Trace Architecture Office, Liu Jiakun, Xu Tiantian of DnA Design and Architecture, Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, and the firm Urbanus Architecture & Design. Because they have the opportunity to build frequently and build creatively, these architects will probably become more familiar to us in the near future.
In her introduction, Jacobson provides an overview of the rising wave of new museums, offering statistics and observations to put it in perspective. Then she presents 51 examples from around the country designed by both foreign and Chinese architects. The great majority are completed buildings, while a few-such as the Zhang Daqian Museum by Miralles Tagliabue EMBT and the China Comic and Animation Museum by MVRDV-are still in the works. Each case study provides readers with a concise text explaining the project and the architect's design strategy, and most include floor plans and sections. The plans, though, don't have legends, which would have made them easier to understand. The book was designed by Jan Haux, who gives it a clean, modern look and uses vertical text for chapter titles and museum names as an abstract allusion to traditional Chinese writing.
Bringing together all these projects in one volume, Jacobson gives readers a sense of the range of China's current museum boom. Digging deeper, though, into what this says about the country, its aspirations, and its place in the world of art and culture will probably have to wait until we have a longer-term perspective on the topic.