Modeling China: Business, Politics, and Material in China's Museum Industry

by Aleksandra Maria Lee

Institution: University of California – Irvine
Year: 2016
Keywords: Cultural anthropology; Asian studies; Museum studies; Business; China; Design; Material; Museum; Politics
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2135069
Full text PDF: http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/3pv606dm


This ethnography examines changing relationships between government and business through the emergence of a booming museum industry in developing, postsocialist China. Some sources estimate that in China a new museum opens every three days. Most new museums are built by local governments with public money, and they have become big business for privately held small museum production companies. This new industry provides services in researching museum content, curating collections, producing artifact replicas, designing exhibits, and constructing interiors. Building on studies of how state power is reproduced in the halls of public museums, this dissertation examines how political ideology intersects with small business concerns and design practices to shape new displays of Chinese history and culture in public space. This ethnography is based on participant observation conducted between 2011 and 2014 with one of the new museum production companies. It also draws on interviews with local officials and industry participants; visual analysis of museums of local history, ecology, industry, and urban planning; and analysis of news media and law concerning museums, cultural heritage, and corruption between state and industry. Models of development and postsocialist privatization frame the entanglement of state and industry as not yet modern. This dissertation examines the use of development models to measure China’s progress as a practice of modeling that echoes other practices of modeling, including the creation of museum scale models, the crafting of artifact replicas, and the design of museum exhibits that reference and recycle earlier designs. It argues that public and private, real and fake, original and copy are plastic categories that become meaningful as they are reshaped by everyday practices of governance, business, and design.