History, Memory, and Identity in the National Museum of China


A review of The National Museum of China: Building Memory, Shaping History, Presenting Identity, by Anne Hennings.

In her dissertation about the National Museum of China in Beijing newly created in 2011, Anne Hennings researches what was pursued with its new design. Are the memory, history, and identity it represents a change from or a continuity of its former stages? Hennings approaches her topic by showing in which way architecture and museum display were used in “building memory, shaping history, presenting identity” (her title). Descriptions and analyses of the designs of and exhibitions in the museum and its predecessor institutions constitute the larger part of the dissertation. Moreover, Hennings explains how these play different roles with regard to the creation and the maintenance of memory, history, and identity.

In the Introduction, Hennings poses her research questions, explains the methods by which she approaches her subject, briefly introduces her readers to the state of the art of museum studies and museum history in general and in China in particular, and gives a chapter outline. In Chapter 1, she defines her key concepts (history, memory, and identity) and provides an historic overview of the development of museums, explaining the influence of Western understandings on Chinese ideas of museums. In the remaining two chapters, she aims at answering her research questions by analyzing both the architecture (Chapter 2) and the collections’ displays in the National Museum of China (Chapter 3). In her short Conclusion, Hennings concisely summarizes her results.

In Chapter 1, Hennings explains the changes in the concept of ‘history’ in the context of Chinese states and dynasties. Traditional Chinese models of official historiography, initiated around 100 BCE by Sima Qian’s Shiji (Record of the Grand Historian), changed, according to Hennings, when Liang Qichao advocated a national history 2,000 years later. It underwent further alteration under the influence of Marxist historical materialism which became the basis for the CCP’s master narrative. Although the “CCP interpretation of Marxism-Leninism has continuously lost its ability to bridge the gap to today’s social reality” (p. 15) which caused some historians to search for explanatory approaches elsewhere (i.e., modernization theory), the National Museum of China stays close to the official narrative and its readjustments.

Hennings uses the term ‘memory’ based on Jan Assmann’s ‘cultural memory’ concept, which again is based on Maurice Halbwachs’ ‘memory communion’ concept. In contrast to history, which looks for differences and discontinuities, memory stresses similarities and continuities. The National Museum of China represents a “hoard of cultural memory” (p. 17), shaping memory, but at the same time becoming a memorial itself.

The concept of ‘identity’ is used by Hennings in terms of national identification theory, which understands it as socially constructed. She makes use of this definition for her understanding of national museums which are “places for the creation as well as the presentation of national identity” (p. 19).

Following her definitions, Hennings tells the history of the development of museums in Euro-America and in the PRC and its predecessor states. Her focus is on national museums used to create national identity (p. 25). She continues with the history of the National Museum of China itself, which resulted from a unification of the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution (p. 38-50). The roots of the former lie in the imperial collections of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912), which were turned into state property in 1912 and became “the quintessence of the Chinese national culture” (p. 34). A first Museum of Chinese History was established in Beijing and became “the most influential museum of the new Republic of China” (ROC) (p. 38). The collection of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution was based on objects retrieved by a campaign to collect relics with regard to CCP history in the 1950s. After they opened to the public in 1959 and 1961 respectively, both museums faced several closings and re-openings until they were finally united in 2003.

Today, the National Museum of China stands under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, reflected in its dual state-party leadership. In 2007, the museum was closed for renovation, and it was to be rebuilt as the “supreme hall of culture and art of the Chinese nation in the 21st century,” as well as “a comprehensive museum” giving “equal attention to history and art” (p. 49-50, quoted from “new” on the museum’s homepage in 2007).

In Chapter 2, Hennings introduces the winning architectural design from 2004 and the finally implemented design from 2011 of the National Museum of China revamping project. According to Hennings, in the architectural form “traditions and memory are created and national identity finds shape” (p. 51). With regard to the National Museum of China, she asks which factors shape and reflect identity, and how these factors can be analyzed in the context of national self-image. She aims at clarifying these questions by providing, first, a chronological description of the project, starting with the original building’s construction in 1958/1959 (p. 53-58); second, a general, physical description of the museum complex of 2011, briefly placing it in the broader context of museum architecture (p. 58-60); third, a description of certain aspects linked to the revamping project like building style, general setting, reconstructed and added parts of the project, and the role of clients and architects (p. 60-82); and, fourth, a detailed analysis of the inner and outer design of the building (p. 82-114), which makes up the largest part of Chapter 2.

The original building of 1958/1959, erected in only ten months according to plans by architect Zhang Kaiji (1912-2006), was part of the Ten Great Buildings state program at Tiananmen Square. Housing the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and the Museum of Chinese History, it was built in the “monumental form, deriving from international museum design, Beaux-Arts principles and Socialist building traditions” (p. 90) symbolizing the modernity of the PRC. Although the Ministry of Culture already made plans to reconstruct the building in the 1980s, its renovation and expansion was approved by the State Council only in 2003. By comparing the implemented design of 2011 to the designs of previous stages as well as to other contemporary examples of museum architecture, Hennings aims at understanding “the search for the perfect form by both the client and the architect” (p. 52), “the client” being the board of directors of the museum, its higher authorities on state and party level, that is, the Ministry of Culture and the Propaganda Department of the CCP, and last but not least the National Development and Reform Commission. When the design proposal by von Gerkan, Marg and Partners (gmp) was selected, gmp together with CABR became “the architect”, however, the design decisions were made by gmp while CABR was mainly responsible for the realisation of the structure.

Based on her analysis, Hennings concludes that “the National Museum of China is a showcase of Chinese culture and identity and its building, located in the heart of China, the Tiananmen Square, is an exhibit in its own right” (p. 114). Whereas the original building had been a “careful shifting of the cultural and political center from the Imperial Palace to the new core of the People’s Republic of China” (p. 115), the 2011 design is a “memorial to the nation-state” (p. 114).

In Chapter 3, Hennings analyses the collections on display in the National Museum of China. The bulk of the chapter is made up by descriptions and analyses of two permanent exhibitions, “Ancient China” (gudai Zhongguo) and “The Road of Rejuvenation” (fuxing zhi lu), and of the first international exhibition in the new museum, “The Art of the Enlightenment” (qimeng de yishu). Hennings begins by putting the exhibitions into the context of the museum’s general exhibition concept and explaining the historical development and the ideological background of the two permanent exhibitions. Their arrangement of objects practically follows the concept of “permanent material-based masterpiece exhibitions” (p. 119), using classifications according to material groups, and a chronological approach, whereas ideologically it follows the “master narrative of the People’s Republic of China” (p. 126).

“Ancient China” uses the formidable archaeological collections of the former Museum of Chinese History. In 1959, the “General Chinese History Exhibition” (Zhongguo tongshi chenlie) based on Marxist concepts of historical materialism, but also on structural patterns of traditional Chinese historiography had been opened in this museum, closed in 1966, and reopened from 1978 to 1999. It forms the basis of “Ancient China,” which “features Chinese history from prehistoric times, […] until the end of the last Chinese dynasty in 1911” (p. 137). In contrast to the “General Chinese History Exhibition,” the new exhibition “Ancient China” puts less emphasis on revolutionary topics, whereas it still stresses “ethnic unification and the progress of society” (p. 141).

“The Road of Rejuvenation” is based on the collection of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, which illustrates the history of the CCP. It also features oil paintings specially produced for the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and its successor. The exhibition in the Museum of the Chinese Revolution did not cover the time after 1949, because “the master narrative for this period seemed not to have been decided about” (p. 156). Since its opening in 1961, it was constantly altered, closed and reopened “in order to adjust to the official party line,” until it closed for the last time in 2001. In 2011, “The Road of Rejuvenation” (p. 152) finally opened. Although the exhibition applies a less open approach than originally intended, Hennings interprets the display of two versions of the oil painting “Founding Ceremony of the Nation” (kai guo da dian, 1953) by Dong Xiwen in the newly created Masterpiece Exhibition as marking a changing approach towards memory among Chinese youth. One version dates from 1973, after Dong had erased the images of Liu Shaoqi and Gao Gang. The second version is a copy of the pre-1973 painting. However, the subliminal meaning of these two paintings’ display is only understandable for viewers with a certain knowledge, as there is no explanation given.

The last exhibition Hennings analyses is “The Art of the Enlightenment,” held in 2011 and 2012. This was the “first long-term international loan exhibition” (p. 122) in cooperation with the three most important German museums, the Dresden State Art Collection, the Berlin State Museums, and the Bavarian State Painting Collections, Munich, and featured the involvement of art and artists of the 18th and 19th century in the social changes of the Enlightenment period. The challenge was to present European art to a Chinese audience, and it attempted to “create a Western context and exotic atmosphere […] without neglecting Chinese viewing traditions” (p. 185). Hennings also covers the critique the exhibition met in German media, which she links to parallel events, the denial of a visa for sinologist Tilman Spengler who was supposed to attend the exhibition’s opening ceremony with foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, and the detainment of artist Ai Weiwei.

Hennings closes her dissertation with a short summary of her findings, which she provided in the conclusions to chapters 2 and 3. Her assessment of the revamping project of the National Museum of China in general is that whereby it shows a certain interest by the government in modernizing the presentation of Chinese culture and history, it employs a slow and careful approach towards change. In Hennings’ opinion “the continuity of theme and form bears the risk of losing the ability to bridge the gap between real life and real experience and the official party line” (p. 195).

Hennings’ dissertation is mainly located in the area of art history, combining museum studies and architecture history, but she also establishes a link to political history. This approach provides a fresh insight into the mutual relations of these academic fields. Hennings manages to show what she aims at in her title, that is, how the National Museum of China, which is an institution closely monitored by the Ministry of Culture and effectively under the ultimate control of the CCP, attempts to build a certain memory for and to present a certain identity of a ‘Chinese nation,’ and furthermore to shape a certain understanding of a ‘Chinese history.’ Hennings comprehensively shows how architecture, museum exhibitions, and the choice of subjects reflect these attempts to establish the “imagined community” of a ‘Chinese nation.’

Julia C. Schneider
Department of East Asian Studies
University of Göttingen

Primary Sources
Interviews and correspondence, i.e., with the architects from the winning bureau, the director-general of the National Museum of China, etc.
Surveys and questionnaires (included, as well as their analysis and evaluation)
Illustrations: photographs, architectural plans (included).

Dissertation Information
University of Heidelberg. 2012. 397 pp. with 166 illustrations. Primary Advisor: Lothar Ledderose.

Image: National Museum of China, main façade, courtesy of gmp / Christian Gahl 2011 (photographer).

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