Wood Auditorium opened its doors on Friday, Oct. 14, for a panel on the “Museum Boom in China.” Organized by Jeffrey Johnson and John Rajchman and supported by Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (Columbia GSAPP), the panel aimed to discuss the recent phenomena of rapid museum growth in China.
The discussion centered around points of intersection between the specialties of the two collaborators. Johnson is the director of China Megacities Lab and was an experimental research unit at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, while Rajchman is a professor of 20th century art and philosophy at the University’s department of art history and archaeology.
The talk opened by looking at China’s current “museumification”, Professor Weiping Wu of GSAPP gave an introduction to China’s intense urbanization in recent years: Over 400 museums have been built throughout the country in the last decade with an output of 100 a year, a huge increase in contrast to the 30 museums created per year in the United States.
“What is fueling this desire for museumification?” Wu asked. “How many museums does an ideal society need? And, as art in China is often tied to politics, how do art and museums contribute to China’s economic and political presence as it continues to elevate itself as a global power?”
A range of architects specializing in China then took the stage. The first session featured Pei Zhu, a leading Chinese architect, who teaches at both GSAPP and Tsinghua University in Beijing; Steven Holl, another GSAPP professor who has executed numerous projects in the United States and abroad; and lastly Aric Chen, who serves as the curator of art and design at M+ Museum for Visual Culture in Hong Kong. Each speaker introduced their latest projects for nearly 15 minutes, followed by related panel discussions.
Johnson led the first round with questions bordering on the philosophical. He asked the speakers to define the physical notion of context in China, which Rajchman claims is in a state of flux.
“How do each of you define context in the condition it's in where it’s always changing? How do you frame that context? Is China different?” he asked.
For Holl, the context was China itself.
“I wanted to anchor my museum in space,” he said. “East versus West. I want to hold down the space and have it adapt to the change. ... That is how I see my museum functioning.”
Zhu and Chen had different responses, however. While for Zhu, the context was China’s nature and climate, for Chen the context was the country’s real estate. Such diversity in elements of context highlight the changing nature of China that Rajchman touched upon, where the country remains in continuous flux as it strives to consolidate its national and cultural identity.
An audience member went on to raise the issue of how—in many cases concerning private museums in China—people must make reservations to view private art spaces. In doing so she drew attention to the growing contest between private and public museums in the country, where over the years private enterprise has dominated the state.
“What is your vision for Chinese museums? Should it be part of the public?” she asked.
Holl was adamant that they should be for the public, but Pei was more contemplative in his answer.
“China has a new policy now,” Pei said, referring to the government’s five-year plan from 2011 to 2015, which recognized culture as an important force affecting the country’s economic development.
With China’s rapid urbanization came the increase and ascendancy of private museums, particularly contemporary art museums, over government-funded museums. This has benefitted China by contributing to the progress of the country’s cultural cultivation. But the dominance of private museums raises the question of whether this is detrimental to educating the masses if not everyone can access these private spaces in the long term, as brought up by the panelists.
All three architects agreed that museums should be a hybrid of public and private enterprise, where governments aren’t completely supporting their development but are still able to determine whether these private spaces should be accessible to the public, according to Holl. The panel ended to rapt applause.