An exclusive interview with Chen Zenglu, Curator of the Museum of Wu
Situated on the bank of the Grand Canal in Suzhou’s Wuzhong District, the Museum of Wu, also known as the Wuzhong Museum, was built just two years ago. This local museum is positioned as a "high-level and distinctive regional cultural complex" to create a "leading platform for the exhibition, research and learning of Wu culture."
For "The Look of Civilization: An Exhibition of Ancient Cultural Relics in Eurasia," the museum gathered more than 190 representative cultural relics from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and various countries in Eurasia. These ancient cultural relics from foreign countries show the characteristics of the formation and development of civilizations in the Mediterranean region and western and central Asia. Visitors may experience the characteristics of Asian and European cultures from different angles, as well as their integration.
Why would a local museum that focuses on Wu culture display foreign cultural relics? What are a local museum’s responsibilities in promoting cultural development and prosperity? In an exclusive interview with China News Service’s "East-West Quest," Chen Zenglu, curator of the Museum of Wu, explained from the perspectives of cultural communication and international exchange
Excerpts from the interview:
CNS: Museum construction in China has gained rapid development, and a large number of local museums have sprung up. For example, 102 open museums (memorial halls, exhibition halls, and art galleries with ancient paintings and books) had been built in Suzhou, which is called the "City of Museums," by the end of 2020. Some people think this is too hasty.Do you agree? What do you think are the responsibilities and mission of a local museum in promoting cultural development and prosperity?
Chen: There are 158 museums and 96 art galleries in Shanghai, with an average of one museum for every 100,000 people, far higher than the national average. However, Shanghai still lags behind many overseas cities. For example, Seoul, with a much smaller population than Shanghai, has more than 600 museums.
Quality is more important than quantity. It is meaningless to simply pursue quantity without quality. But how can we talk about quality if we don’t even have quantity? Therefore, the explosion of museums in China is not hasty construction. Instead, China does not have enough museums to meet the growing cultural needs of the public.
We find another issue: museums in China, no matter what size, tend to be homogeneous. The core of avoiding homogenization is to have their own characteristics. In particular, local museums should find their own position and create their own characteristics to become a window for the external communication of local culture and provide a space for local people to be exposed to culture.
In addition, we hope to add more international elements to promote internationalization of the city. For example, the Suzhou Museum’s newlybuilt West Hall is positioned as the cultural exhibition and experience center of "people of Suzhou see the world," with the slogan of "building South China and seeing the world." Suzhou is known as the "City of Museums." A city needs several cultural institutions to launch international exchange projects, which will connect the city more closely with the international community. Considering the needs of the city, local museums have the responsibility, mission and duty to carry out more international projects.
CNS: Museum of Wu is also known as the Wuzhong Museum, both of which reflect the museum’s strong regional characteristics. Why not focus on the local Wu culture of Suzhou instead of holding such an exhibition of Chinese and foreign cultural relics? This exhibition is titled "The Look of Civilization." What do you think the look of civilization should be?
Chen: SouthChina culture or Wu culture is a core of the Wuzhong Museum, which is our characteristic. Therefore, our exhibitions, whether "Archaeological Exploration of Wuzhong" or "Elegant Ode to Wuzhong," tell the stories of Wu land and Wu culture. SouthChina culture has always been the root, soul and core of our entire exhibition system.
However, when we build the exhibition system, we should expand outward, not just stick to the core land. Wu culture is not a "no" culture. To really understand culture, we must know everything. Only when we have a thorough understanding of other cultures can we have a deeper understanding of our own culture and know the similarities and differences between different cultures.
From this point of view, China’s regional culture is the second circle of our outward expansion. The third circle is Eurasia.
The reason I talk about Eurasia is that China is an open civilization, not a closed country. Looking back on history, we can objectively say that the more open and inclusive China was, the stronger it became. We hope to see China clearly through Eurasia so that everyone can know the diversity and splendor of Chinese civilization, from which they can have a deeper understanding of the whole process of Chinese civilization from its birth and development to glory.
In this exhibition, we show several statues from Levant in the 20th century B.C. These statues come from different regions, but all contain elements of bulls, showing some similarities. There are also Gandhara Buddha statues from India. Through Alexander the Great’s crusade, some Hellenistic elements were brought to India, making these Gandhara Buddha statues look like Greek sculpture.
Through these exhibits, it may be seen that a civilization does not exist alone. Civilizations in different regions and at different times attract, learn from and communicate with one another. This kind of harmony in diversity among civilizations is linked, which is the look of civilization.
CNS: Western museums started early and have been accumulated for hundreds of years. The collections in these museums cover a wide range of civilizations from all over the world. As a rising local museum in China, how should it present foreign civilizations to visitors in China? What is worth learning from the development of Western local museums?
Chen: Compared with Western museums, Chinese museums still lack worldwide collections. Of course, some Western museums have a dark side to their collections. However, there are also many collections obtained through legal channels, which Chinese museums can use for reference.
As far as I know, some museums and collectors in China have taken action. For example, there is a collection of Gandhara Buddha statues and grassland gold wares. Cultural relics from Southeast Asia are gradually receiving attention.
When I was working at Shanghai Museum, I invited experts from museums all over the world to give lectures and write monographsevery year. To make a worldwide collection, we should also gain the power of knowledge from all over the world. To develop museums, we should also make experts and resources from museums around the world available to us.Working with overseas museums to hold exhibitions and borrow collections for exhibitions is a good method of cooperation and exchange. For example, in this exhibition, we borrowed exhibits from the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum in Japan.
We have to admit that Chinese museums can’t compete with foreign museums in terms of collections. However, with the rapid development of information technology, the items of museums are becoming less important. Many museums are now turning to digital means to display exhibits from other parts of the world. We don’t want to own cultural relics, but we want to use them.
With a population of more than 1 billion, China has a huge demand for culture. Now China’s museum industry is unknown. Our relationship with foreign museums is not a competitive one, but a win-win one. China is rising peacefully, and so are Chinese museums.
The slogan of British Museum, "A World Museum for the World," is also the direction of Chinese museums.