Wednesday, January 15, 1997

The New Shanghai Art Museum

It doesn't take a museum buff to appreciate the visual, educational and psychological impact of the new Shanghai Art Museum. A recently built and imposing city hall with tall white columns is badly upstaged by the museum building with a dark beige, marble facade, a dominating circular band that renders a roundness to the entire structure and two pairs of arches on the roof. The two structures face each other on Shanghai's People's Park.

The architecture of the museum suggests a synthesis of Egyptian, Southwest American Indian, and neo-European influence. The bare hint of Chinese influence seems to be derived more from the ethnic minorities in China than from traditional mainstream Han culture. The arches on the roof seem to suggest that they are two pairs of handles to a modern rendition of the rich array of ancient bronze ritual vessels on display inside. Whether the visitor immediate takes to the building, the visual impact is similar to the Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum on New York. It is striking and unlike any other structure in China.

Rainer Thomm, an Australian author now residing in Beijing, was awe-struck by the building at first sight. "This museum structure symbolizes Shanghai, a city striving to regain the cosmopolitan stature of a great international city that it once had," he exclaimed and insisted on having his picture taken in front of the building for his next book on China.

Inside the visitor faces a huge rotunda in the middle of the building bathed by light from the glass dome on the roof four floors up. On one side of the rotunda is a cascade of latticed stair cases that are capped by a pair of bright brass lions at the base. On the other side of the rotunda is a series of escalators to convey the visitors the modern way. All the display halls are on four sides of the building surrounding the open foyer that looks down at a multi-colored marble insignia in the center of the rotunda.

All the objects are displayed in cases that are generously spaced apart so that each viewer can set his/her own pace and not feel jostled. Major pieces are displayed in free standing cases with plenty of room to stroll around. The ample lighting is designed to highlight the object d'art to their respective best advantage. Vertical wall cases containing rare Chinese paintings are kept dimmed but light up when viewers approach.

While bronze, porcelain and Chinese calligraphy and paintings represent the strength of the collection, sections are also dedicated to displays of ancient sculptures, jade and ivory objects, chops and seals, coins from antiquity, fan collection, Ming and Qing dynasty furniture and a special hall on the art and handicraft of China's ethnic minorities.

Presented with the displays are overview introductions and explanatory notes that are informative and easy to understand. Absent are references about nobilities exploiting artisans from the enslaved peasantry that used to be commonplace. From the overview statements that head each major period of China's history, a viewer can trace the continuum of the Chinese culture dating back to 2100 B.C. The museum even offers a multi-media, touch screen terminals that answers questions about the museum and those relating to the displays.

Open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM, the admission price is ¥20 (or about $2.40) per person, which is affordable to most of the local population, and is free to student groups on Saturdays between 5PM and 7PM. One of the concerns when the museum opened in mid-October was whether it would gain the support of the local citizens. Judging from the many local Chinese that were there on a Friday in December, this should no longer be a concern. From their obvious enthusiasm, I could tell that the Shanghainese have taken great pride on the inside and outside of this edifice.

Shanghai can not compare to Beijing and Xian or even nearby cities such as Suzhou and Hangzhou in the variety of attractions available to the tourists. Now, at least, the city can offer a first rate attraction in the museum that rates an extra day of stay and justify more frequent lay-overs for the business travelers that used to not find enough to do.

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