Representing and ‘Consuming’ the Chinese Other at the British Museum

Marzia Varutti
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, (IHEID), Geneva, Switzerland

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Ingår i: National museums in a global world. NaMu III; Department of culture studies and oriental languages; University of Oslo; Norway; 19-21 November 2007

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 31:6, s. 69-79

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Publicerad: 2008-07-16


ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


In this paper; I propose to analyse the way in which the British Museum perceives; interprets and addresses cultural diversity. As a case study; I consider the museum representation of the Chinese ‘Other’. Building on an analysis of the Chinese permanent gallery as well as of the temporary exhibition “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army”; I set to investigate how the Museum portrays China and Chinese culture. What is exhibited and what is omitted? How is the image of China constructed? What forces – political; economic; social or other – contributed to shape it? Through these questions; I aim at pondering how the representation of China in the British Museum articulates with the expectations of its multi-cultural and increasingly globalized public.

The colonial past is often a key factor in the museum representation of other cultures; and as such it has legitimately been at the core of the reflection on museums’ approaches to alterity. However; I want to argue that the analysis should not be confined to colonialist or post-colonialist historical perspectives; but remain open to include contemporary socio-political and economic factors. The British Museum case study suggests that the economy of travel; the evolution of consumer tastes and demands; renewed opportunities for commercial exchange and business enterprise; an important Chinese community in London and the UK; and global scale media events such as the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games (hosted by China); are all factors that affect museums and museum representations; to the extent that they impact on audiences; on their tastes; interests and expectations. It is of crucial importance to acknowledge that museums are becoming increasingly receptive vis-à-vis such patterns of change; all the more if of global scale.

Methodologically; the arguments put forward in this paper rest on an analysis of the museological choices underlying the displays in the Chinese permanent gallery and the temporary exhibition “The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army” aimed at disentangling the narrative lines underlying the exhibitions.

Through this analysis I wish to suggest that the museum representation of the Chinese ‘Other’ at the British Museum rests on two different; though complementary; narrative lines. On the one hand; in the permanent gallery; the Museum is carrying on its ‘traditional’ function as a public education institution. On the other; in temporary exhibition; the Museum is responding to the demand for cultural consumption of its increasingly consumption-oriented audiences.


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