Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum


A review of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum (Uy. Shinjang uyghur aptonom rayonluq muzéy, Ch. Xinjiang weiwu’er zizhiqu bowuguan) (Urumqi, Xinjiang, China).

Archives in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are notoriously difficult for foreign and local scholars to access. Ethnographic research in the region is often fraught with numerous roadblocks of both personal and institutional varieties. “The field”—anywhere in the world, and certainly in Xinjiang—often calls on researchers to be creative by constructing and pursuing research plans B–Z, plans that sometimes require searching for data and inspiration in unorthodox or unexpected places. It is precisely this reason that researchers working on projects within Xinjiang should consider incorporating materials and observations from the XUAR Museum into their research.

My own dissertation project, for which I’ve been conducting research since December 2012, is an ethnographic and historical study regarding the systematic construction of Uyghur performing arts. Local concepts of ethnicity, regional history, and the role of the arts in broader society all play key roles in my research. I made numerous trips to the museum in the past year, all part of an attempt to discern how regional ethnic groups, musical (and other) cultures, and history are represented in a state- and Party-supported public space.

The XUAR Museum is located on 581 Xibei Road, located roughly in the city center of Ürümchi (Ürümqi) and across from the north campus of Xinjiang University. The museum has its own bus stop, conveniently called Bowuguan zhan (Museum stop), and is serviced by buses 7, 51, 52, 66, 68, 303, 305, 309, 311, 518, 532, 906, 910, 912, and 928 (fare: one RMB). A cab ride from the main campus of Xinjiang University, located in the city’s southern Uyghur quarter, might cost roughly between 25 and 30 RMB for a one-hour ride during peak travel time.

Admission to the museum is free and open to the public. Domestic and foreign tourists, along with local residents, frequent the museum in great numbers. Admission is relatively straightforward, although museum-goers must pass through bag checks and a metal detector to gain entrance. There are storage lockers located both outside and inside the entrance, but museum employees often allow visitors to take their bags inside. Visitors should note that no liquids are allowed in the museum (one can opt to throw them away or to leave them sitting at an unmanned desk for retrieval upon exit).

The museum’s website lists summer (April 15–October 15) hours as 10:00am to 6:00pm Beijing time (8:00am to 4:00pm Xinjiang time), Tuesday through Sunday, with the last visitors for the day allowed entry at 4:30pm Beijing time (2:30pm Xinjiang time). Winter (October 16–April 14) hours are 10:30 am to 6:00pm Beijing time (8:30am to 4:00pm Xinjiang time), Tuesday through Sunday. Visitors should note that they stop admission at 4:30pm Beijing time (2:30pm Xinjiang time) in the winter, although those previously admitted may remain until closing. The museum closes on some local and national holidays, thus it is always best to call ahead to ensure the exhibits are open and that the museum hours match those listed online.

Two floors of the museum are open to public visitors. The first floor houses two main halls: one containing a nationality cultures exhibit and the other an exhibit of Xinjiang history. The former is a presentation of local material cultures, displaying objects (clothing, tools, musical instruments, etc.) from the everyday lives of Xinjiang’s thirteen ethnic groups, including the Han Chinese. The latter exhibit provides museum-goers with a historical narrative of the region, organized in terms of China’s dynastic periods. As of October of 2013, the history hall was closed for construction; I was unable to learn when it is slated to reopen.

The second floor contains one permanent exhibition—a very famous mummy exhibit—and two halls for temporary exhibits. (In the recent past, the second floor also had a patriotic exhibit, which was closed by October 2013 with no indication that it would reopen.) The permanent mummy exhibit is arguably the museum’s most famous, housing a handful of mummies uncovered from the Taklimakan Desert in a setting that attempts to reconstruct their natural environment and material lives. As of October 2013, only one of the temporary exhibit halls was open: a display of “Western regions clothing” consisting mainly of items from the Astana excavation site near Turpan (Tulufan), with signage in Chinese only. All displays throughout the museum generally include trilingual (Uyghur, Mandarin, and English) signage, though the English-language signs are often rife with grammatical and other errors.

The bright, spacious lobby is decorated with a large, glass-encased map of the XUAR with monumental-sized murals depicting the history of the region and its peoples in visual form. There are also gift shops on both the first and second floors. The common space on both floors contains numerous benches, which provide a great space to sit down and jot notes as you go from one exhibit to another.

In my numerous visits to the museum, I never encountered any trouble jotting notes or taking photos (most often with a smartphone and small external lens) in any exhibit. I even had the chance to talk at length with an employee and to tour non-public areas of the museum, thanks to a contact I made through one of my research collaborators. I highly recommend other researchers explore such contacts with their own collaborators in the region.

Anyone who finds him or herself in need of food or drink after a visit to the museum can make a several-minute walk to north Youhao Road, just one block east of the museum. The area has a large number of coffee shops, restaurants (including various local and international delights), and even luxury shops. There is also a large Xinhua bookstore there—though one should note that this particular branch has small minority language and Xinjiang collections, instead favoring Mandarin-language resources published outside of the XUAR. Additionally, there is a geology museum located nearby on north Youhao Road, roughly a block north of the bookstore; the XUAR Library, on north Beijing Road, is just a 15-minute (or less) bus ride away.

I highly recommend that researchers in Xinjiang consider incorporating the XUAR Museum into their projects. One of my most productive realizations over the past year of research was that dissertation projects should always include forms of work that no one can take away. For example, what can we fall back on when manuscripts and interviews prove impossible to access? What can we do when things do not work out as planned? I am of the strong conviction that “open” spaces like the XUAR Museum can provide productive ways of working and thinking in spite of research roadblocks—and, moreover, that these spaces can inform our projects with observations about the power of institutions, the selectivity of cultural and historical display, and ways of narrating a region to the public at large.

Elise Anderson
Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Department of Central Eurasian Studies
Indiana University-Bloomington

Image: Main hall of the XUAR Museum (Photo by Author).

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