Rebecca Catching

Touring Exhibitions to China:
How to Create Exhibitions
that Land and Connect

Increased Demand for Touring Exhibitions

With an increasing number of middle-class urbanites having opportunities to travel abroad and over 662, 000 exchange students as of 2018, Chinese audiences are developing an increasing awareness of the objects and experiences offered by foreign museums. . . and they want more.

“Frequent international communications, as well as the development of museology, have encouraged Chinese Museums to go beyond China and look to the world. To introduce other civilizations and other cultures has become a common desire shared by many leading museums in China. Nanjing, for example, has added a new four-story wing dedicated to special exhibitions and travelling exhibitions. . . hosting a series of exhibitions from the UK, Italy, the Us and France,”[1] says Heng Wu, the former Deputy Director of the Cultural Exchange Center of Nanjing Museum and now Curator of Asian Art at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in Canada.

Evidence of this curiosity can be found across China’s contemporary art media. Just looking at the exhibitions page of art.yifeng one of China’s most prominent online news and information portals, we find many features on exhibitions happening abroad including “Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Frida Kahlo,” at Kunsthalle Frankfurt and “J.M.W. Turner: Quest for the Sublime,” a collaboration between the Frist and the Tate. In fact, more than half of the exhibitions page is devoted to foreign content. One of the reasons for this interest in foreign art is that Chinese museums naturally do not have their own collections, due to a lack of patrons and Sino-centric collecting policies.[2] In 2017, Shanghai alone hosted 100 touring exhibitions according to a government report and as second-tier cities become more active, the market will certainly be developing further.

Belt Road Initiative as an Important Driver of Touring Exhibitions

The Belt Road Initiative (a.k.a. OBOR), which is forging political and economic ties between Africa, Asia, Central Asia, and Europe, has made cultural exchange a national priority. Scholars Li Lin from the School of History and Culture at Sichuan University and Chen Yubin from the Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology at Fudan University mention that while BRI has helped drive exchanges, it has also put pressure on museums to change their interpretive stance, in an attempt to make a sincere effort to improve the public’s understanding of the world outside of China’s borders. “The trans-cultural strategy of the state has placed new demands on provincial and municipal museums, which is to encourage and promote international interaction, understating and communication with an open attitude.”

These kinds of exhibitions are vital in combatting stereotypes. “The words war, poverty, refugees, bombings, and terrorist attacks seem to be the main impressions of Afghanistan today. Everyone seems to have forgotten the glorious civilization of more than two thousand years,”[3] says Gu Ling head of communications at Shenzhen’s Design Society, who is a keen observer of the country’s museums. Beyond the opening of hearts and minds, the BRI plan means that the hosting of such exhibitions become a kind of “political task,” and while the museums are the foot-soldiers of cultural diplomacy, the upside is that such exhibitions, ones addressing strategic BRI countries are likely to get state funding, which means that admission fees can be low to allow many more viewers and increase the visibility of the loaning institution.

Practical Challenges Diplomacy

Even during the years when China was isolated from the West, cultural exchange played a huge role in China’s diplomacy. This can be as much of a blessing as a curse. (I speak as a national of a country which is currently in the dog house, for locking up a certain tech executive at the behest of the US.) Typically, China sees more outbound exhibitions than inbound exhibitions. “Despite the growth in outbound exhibitions, inbound has been much greater with 161 compared to 293 for 2016,” explains Heng Wu. She writes that China has an active touring exhibition practice, since the 1970s, with exhibitions which revolved around “ancient Chinese civilization” and often had the word “treasures” in their title—these exhibitions were aimed at promoting China, to promote national interest over promoting the brand of a museum.[4] This tradition of terracotta diplomacy means that touring exhibitions may mean different things to Chinese institutions. While blockbuster exhibitions might be seen as money-spinners for both host and lending institutions in the West, touring exhibitions at state museums are offered to the public at low cost, and are sometimes even free. Still, there were exhibitions such as “Pharaohs and Kings: Treasures of Ancient Egypt and China’s Han Dynasty” at the Nanjing Museum still managed to earn money, but traditionally museums are required to return these revenues to the state. This attitude, however, is changing, with the government encouraging museums to develop merchandizing and licensing schemes in order to be more self-sufficient.[5] Those seeking to tour exhibitions should be aware of not only the diplomatic climate but of bilateral sponsored events such as culture years and anniversary years as host institutions can apply for funding from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign affairs. By contrast, the touring exhibitions at private art museums and retail spaces can command top dollar, as much as 250 RMB at ticket for The Eternal Thread at the Long Museum, because private art museums employ models more similar to Western art museums.

Exhibitions Lost in Translation

The Belt Road Initiative favors exhibitions that foster intercultural dialogue, but there is still much work needed in crafting effective interpretive strategies. For instance, “Across the Silk Road: Gupta Sculptures and their Chinese Counterparts: 400-700 AD,” curated by the Palace Museum, involved objects from nine museums in India, but due a poor interpretive approach, it produced poor learning outcomes. Chinese scholars Li Lin and Chen Yubin reported that “Visitor surveys of 120 respondents revealed that 84.2% of people felt that there were barriers at various levels from the theme of the exhibition, to the content, and 51.7% of respondents felt that due to their lack of background in art and history, there was no way for them to really understand the exhibition.” They attribute its failure in part to the overuse of jargon be it unfamiliar western art terminology or esoteric Buddhist references. This is a common problem especially when interpretive materials provided by the loan institution are merely translated instead of re-worked or re-written. For instance, a label going into intense detail about a 17th Century button, crafted in Scotland, created by a Scottish textile merchant, or references to things such as Iconoclasm or the Protestant Reformation, may require too much background knowledge to be effective for a Chinese audience. “The main goal of information interpretation for international temporary exhibitions is to eliminate or reduce cultural barriers between exhibitions and audiences,” write Li and Chen, “In the process of changing this context, the curator needs to grasp the cultural differences and grasp the ‘same’ and ‘different’ between different cultures.”

The Learning Curve of Cross-cultural Interpretation

Wan Ying, founder of the excellent Chinese Museum podcast Museeologue, explains that Chinese museums are still working through these issues. For instance, she mentions an exhibition of African masks at the Nanjing Museum (“Mask”) which she described as cringeworthy, “For normal Chinese for museum-goers, we know nothing about these masks. What we should not do is take on stereotypes and then enforce them, by playing tribal music in the background.” On the other hand, she was greatly impressed with an exhibition curated by Quai de Branly Jaques Chirac, “Arts of the Great Ocean: Pacific Art Collections from musée du Quai Branly-Jaques Chirac,” at Shanghai Museum which featured artifacts from Oceania. “It was in the Shanghai museum it was very well done because they took the time to really explain where these people came from, why these artifacts are important and how they used them. Instead of just putting the masks on mannequins and putting less than 100 words [on the labels].”

What Voice to Use?

The Issue of interpretive tone can be a challenge to navigate in bi-cultural partnerships. Speaking with us about the blockbuster exhibition “Golden Afghanistan–the Crossroad of Ancient Civilization,”[6]Wan Ying felt that the exhibition failed to connect with Chinese audiences due to a Eurocentric frame of reference. The exhibition, which had previously traveled around Europe and America was, well-polished with well-chosen artifacts and a clear narrative but because the exhibition was curated from a French point of view, Afghanistan was seen as “the East” and was often compared to Rome. Host institutions had limited opportunities to tailor the list of objects or narrative. However, the flip side of this Eurocentrism brings its own challenges says Wan, “If you do not adopt a Eurocentric point of view, then you have a China-centric chauvinistic point of view. Chinese visitors are educated that they are part of the greatest civilization in the world with 5,000 years of glorious history. It is difficult to change the perspective to take a neutral position. Because to tell a story you have to be somebody. So, as a curator you have to try to really hard, to show that all people are the same.”[7]

This sense of neutrality was perhaps one of the reasons behind the success of the British Museum’s blockbuster, “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” which attracted a total of 720,000 visitors. The exhibition took on a decolonizing approach, not only by asking host institutions to add in one object of their own selection but also in the tone of the interpretation. “They tried to be neutral; part of it was to decolonize the British Museum,” says Wan, or as Li and Chen write, “The exhibition has constructed a magnificent world view and a number of ‘mirrors’ of civilization through 100 items, so that audiences from different regions and ethnic groups can find the shadow of their own civilization in the exhibition, and recognize the differences and connections between their own culture and other cultures. . . In this atmosphere of cultural equality and mutual respect, the cultural identity and cultural self-confidence of domestic audiences are naturally established.”

There is obviously a need for a kind of paradigm shift one which privileges the role of the local interpretive planner or as Chen and Li explain, “The process of creating context for the curator is not to inculcate culture from the top down, but to try to arouse the audience’s interest in learning and communication through the clever use of language, words, and situations which creates positive psychological, emotional responses such as identification, communication, understanding, and resonance.” 

The Rise of the Multi-Perspective Cultural Exchange Exhibitions

In 2018, the Hunan Provincial Museum curated: “Finding a Homeland at the End of the Word: The Trans-Cultural Exchanges and Interactions Between Italy and China from the 13th Century to the 16th Century.” Li and Chen write that from the subject matter to the individual exhibits, the exhibition pursued a bilateral approach. For instance, one section looks at the merchants, missionaries, and diplomats who facilitated exchange between China and Italy, employing clever use of storytelling and the premise of “What did Marco Polo bring in his suitcase to Italy” as a kind of narrative device. It also explores the life of Peter, a Tartar servant brought by Marco Polo to Italy, asking what life was like for him as an Asian person in Italy. The exhibition provided an analysis of the impact of Asian painting aesthetics on Western painting as part of the cultural exchange which was going on at that time, contrasting the Fontainebleau School and the “mumeiren” 木美人 paintings—two women wearing Ming Dynasty clothes but with Western features,” says curator Li Jun, “No one has really studied the connection between the Fontainebleau School and the “mumeiren,” and our exhibition is the first to see these two placed together. The didactics were praised for being fairly down to earth, avoiding the esoteric and even incorporating some elements of “gossip” in order to arouse the interest of the public, to create different entry points.

Contrasting Foreign and Domestic Artistic Traditions

This approach of contrast was also employed by the Nanjing Museum in order to help re-contextualize Egyptian artworks from a Chinese perspective. The Nanjing museum borrowed 110 pieces from the Royal Ontario Museum and combined them with 200 Han Dynasty objects from their own collections and other institutions in China. “The initial idea to have this exhibition was driven by our visit to ROM seeing their collections of mummies, not only the human mummies but also the various mummified animal bodies, which reminded us of the animal-shaped tomb figurines of the Han dynasty,” says Wu Heng. “A comparative approach on the topic of the afterlife was taken with this project. The Han Dynasty, which is familiar to the local audiences, became a medium or a bridge to connect audiences with the topic, making the exhibition more interesting and more accessible to them. The exhibition turned out to be a great success with over 300,000 visits in total. “When you first entered the hall,” write Li and Chen, “you can see the mummies and the jade burial suits on two sides. Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul would live on in the form of the corpse or the sculptures; the Ancient Chinese felt that Jade would ensure immortality . . . Chinese audiences may not know much about ancient Egypt, but they used their understanding of this funerary culture to understand ancient Egypt.”[8]

Larger Museums May Prefer Co-Curation Model

From loaning only objects to fully-prepared turnkey exhibitions, with didactics, objects, modular display cases, and digital interactives, there are a variety of different models. Full turnkey exhibitions tend to command a higher touring fee (for a reference on touring exhibition fees see here), but they also tend to be very resource-heavy, especially for smaller museums that don’t have the economies of scale of a large institution or a touring exhibition company. The other downside is that they are not easily customized to the Chinese market.

Museums such as the Shanghai Museum or the Hunan Provincial Museum may have different needs than smaller regional museums. Many of these kinds of institutions prefer the co-curation model or simply borrowing objects so that the exhibition is tailored to their own unique audiences. For example, in “Pathways to Modernism: American Art, 1865–1945,” a collaboration with the Chicago Institute of Art and the Terra Foundation, the Shanghai Museum participated in selecting the artworks and helped to craft the narratives constructing a bespoke public education programme around the exhibition. The exhibition was one of the most methodical and logical exhibitions I have seen in China, which sought to outline the themes in a coherent way with clearly-defined sections, creating strong connections to the political and historical events of the time, condensing history and art history into a tightly-curated show. Perhaps what Western institutions don’t realize is that these kinds of survey exhibitions can be a great vehicle for introducing historical themes. But of course, these kinds of collaborations working across different time zones, languages, regulatory frameworks and working cultures can sometimes be challenging, but then again this is how relationships are forged. Says Heng Wu, “We can benefit and learn from the diversity of storytelling and curation practices. Before, Chinese museums were really focused on objects, not so much on stories. With international exhibitions, museums are inspired to present collections in a more interesting or more audience-friendly way and to make them more accessible to the general public.” Co-curation can take many forms depending on the needs and desires of the host institution. For instance, the V&A’s “Fashioned from Nature,” will include 15% new Chinese content curated by the Design Society in-house team when it tours to Shenzhen, according to Nick Marchand, head of international at the V&A.[9] This aspect of localization should be seen as a brand-building exercise. For instance, the British Museum tends to pursue co-curation models so that institutions can tailor the experience to local audiences. “What is important for us is to understand what our international audiences want to see touring in their home cities, and then creating exhibitions from our world collection to match,” says Olivia O’Leary International Engagement Manager at The British Museum. [10]

Creating Successful Partnerships

When working within vastly-different museum ecosystems, it is vital that we chose the right partners. Institutions with plenty of experience in China, always talk about finding the “right partners” rather than “how they made a killing” on a particular a project. Katie Childs, CEO of Chawton House Library, has some sage advice on touring exhibitions: a) chose partners with common interests, b) make sure that the partnership is a consensus rather than an edict being handed down, c) share both risk and rewards equally and build in plenty of contingency into your timeline to avoid stress.

It’s important to carefully consider the real appeal of your exhibition to Chinese institutions. How many museums would be a good match in terms of subject matter and how many museums are likely to have the funds to pay for an exhibition? What demographics would be interested? For instance with “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” which toured several cities in Greater China, the exhibit was pegged to a movie, “but the movie was not successful,” says Gu Ling, “and given that Pikachu is a well-known figure, that people grew up with, they did the wrong marketing strategy focusing only on young kids and families, instead of people my age.” Anna Flecher of Lead—Touring Exhibitions at the V&A recommends that museums, “Question every assumption. Every project is a learning curve for us really, in terms of the exhibition and the host institution, whether in China or elsewhere.”[11]

This learning curve can be greatly overcome by face-to-face interaction and a strong institutional will says Heng Wu, “The most important thing is for people to have a shared will to create something together and the shared belief that they can succeed. Once both sides have this strong belief, they can overcome any obstacle. And for this to happen, it is important for people in different countries to get to know their counterparts in other countries. By ‘to know,’ I mean seeing things with your own eyes and meeting your collaborating partners in person. Once you have eventually travelled to China and visited the museum facilities and talked with museum colleagues there, I think you will totally change and build a different view on what it means to work with the Chinese museums. Meeting the partner team in person and seeing the venues in real life really helps to build trust.”

Smaller Museums Have Different Needs

Expertise within provincial and municipal museums is still developing according to a report by BOP Consulting. Smaller museums, given their lack of knowledge and exposure to these topics, face a similar barrier as small regional museums in the West. Staff not only face a lack of knowledge about artifacts and cultural backgrounds but also access to academic materials. A tight curatorial timeline and poor tools for sharing data, including the fact that many file transfer systems such as Yousendit or Dropbox do not work between China and the West, and the general poor internet access in China stifle their efforts. Compared to the regular in-house exhibitions, temporary exhibitions also have shorter design cycles and lower production budgets. This means that there is little funding for digital interactives or multimedia installations. In this case, the user experience involves basic tools of communication such as didactics or perhaps a documentary video, rather than an immersive, wholistically-designed environment.

Who Will Pay for Touring Exhibitions?

The market for touring exhibitions at the moment is not very well defined. For instance, institutions such as CAFA or NAMOC in Beijing, have been known to charge a venue rental to touring exhibitions, even charging for exhibitions of official government artist associations (which is basically passing money from one state organization to another.) But it completely depends on the outbound institution. A famous institution or artist who can bring some reputational gain to the host institution may not charge to host an exhibition—they may even offer to pay—but if it is a lesser institution, collector, or company or an artist of middling merit who is sponsoring the exhibition, then there will be a stiff price. Even if there is an artist of legitimate art historical value, if there is a collector somewhere behind the scenes there may be a charge from the host institution. There is always a delicate dance as institutions suss out the finances and motivations of their partners. It may seem counterintuitive to charge to host a touring show, but many institutions recognize their power as legitimators of culture, and they understand that a show in a museum draws the eyes of collectors and brings access to the China market. Galleries and artists recognize this too and are often willing to play the game. There is also sometimes an expectation of reciprocity. If I give you a show at my space, then perhaps you can give me, my friend, my father a show at your space? It’s important to understand that everything is on the table and to know how to respond tactfully to such requests.

What Kinds of Exhibitions Do Chinese Audiences Want To See?

When it comes to art exhibitions, the Chinese market tends to be dominated by survey shows introducing major artistic movements. Such exhibitions can be really transformative for those who have had little exposure to foreign art. For instance, Gu Ling recalls an exhibition of French Modernism held in 2004, “French Impressionism from the Musée d’Orsay,” “It was very impressive and very educational if you didn’t know what Impressionism was. At that time there were not so many art museums and people would be queueing all day, with lots of students doing sketches. It was a real phenomenon at that time. To be honest, I don’t think they have enough introductory exhibitions.” Wan Ying expressed an interest seeing alternative takes on the survey show: “I hope there can be more exhibitions with new ideas, and strange perspectives. I wish that exhibitions could be braver and more out of the box. Most of the exhibitions we see are textbook exhibitions, like chapter 1, chapter 2, from a written text to a space—no translation in between.” “A successful touring exhibit is similar to a great recipe–many ingredients must come together in the hands of skilled professionals in order to produce a fabulous product,” writes Hugh Spencer senior consultant and president of Museum Planning Partners. In terms of subject matter, “There is an old exhibition tour adage: success comes with sex, death or gold. So, the object(s) must exhibit some of these factors, usually through a compelling narrative about the objects; the framing of the experience creates buzz.”[12] This can include romance, conflict and of course exquisite jewels.

In terms of subject matter, Egypt, India and European Painting have been big draws, but it’s important not to ignore the demand for popular culture. Wan Ying, a self-described lifetime Potter-head, and also the host of a Harry Potter podcast, is casting her vote for “Harry Potter: A History of Magic”, if anyone at the British Library is listening. Though not a Potter fan myself, I think there could be a genuine interest in this type of exhibition such as this with both popular and educational appeal, which leverages multiple entry points.

Understanding Local Demographics

While cities like Shanghai and Beijing are now seeing plenty of international shows, there is still much potential within both first and second-tier cities. Understanding regional demographics is in fact quite important. Even a large city such as Shenzhen may have different characteristics says Gu, “Some museums like the Nanshan Museum, they put a lot of money into doing international touring shows, which is part of Shenzhen’s strategy as a city.” For instance, there are the various strategic regional focuses within the Greater Bay Area, and the Greater Bay strategy, from ‘made in China’ to ‘Created in China,’ while other provinces or cities might focus on industrial design. It’s important to understand the state museums and their purposes, their reasons for collaborating. It’s a branding strategy.” She explains that Design Society has been riding the city’s tech boom, with shows such as “Minding the Digital” which was “80% design and 20% art, with interactive pieces, and collaborations with Ars Electronica the Austrian electronic arts festival for “40 Years of Humanizing Technology – Art, Technology, Society.” At the same, time Gu Ling explains that Shenzhen does not have the same tradition of exhibition viewing found in other cities. “Exhibitions are comparatively new in Shenzhen; it’s 5-6 years behind. Just like [before in Shanghai or Beijing] there were very few people coming to the museums. Going to an art museum did not used to be a default option, now there is a lot of art media. There are over 20 or 30 platforms to push your information and tell people what to do this weekend, a whole atmosphere. Shenzhen is still that silent [version of] Shanghai. It’s even worse because Shanghai started from a fine arts standard; we formed our concept of arts from that French exhibition or the Shanghai Biennale, but Shenzhen started from commercial exhibitions. We’ve been open for two years. When we opened, there was only the Shenzhen Museum. People had no idea what an exhibition was; they had a traditional understanding, of a museum which was like Shenzhen Museum, an old place. These years we have many exhibitions, but most are in shopping malls, so then they are TeamLab shows or projections like Van Gogh and Dali.”

Mapping Out Success in China: Which Exhibitions Were Successful and Why?

A History of the World in 100 Objects: Strong Institutional Brand, Famous Works, Strong Educational Offer, and Unique Framing

A History of the World in 100 Objects,” has all the ingredients of a blockbuster, a great collection, attached to a world-famous museum, a historical theme and a bit of a “something for everyone” approach. Says Heng Wu, “These institutions are well known in China. And they have powerful collections with works from great masters; names with which Chinese audiences are familiar. Cultural institutions in China are looking for these major profiles and for iconic original objects that have the potential to interest local audience.” Wan Ying also mentions that there were many Mainland followers who were familiar with the Museum’s podcast series on the BBC or had read the publications, but that this familiarity brought advantages and disadvantages. “You have a lot of listeners from BBC and readers of the books who are looking for these great treasures from the museums, but then you have substituted these for less interesting artifacts because some artifacts are prohibited to travel by law.” Still, the exhibition provided a solid educational offer, and the framing and overall narrative were also appealing to audiences. The option for institutions to select their own “101st” object, (for instance a QR code or the gavel used to signal China’s entry into the WTO), though not really a full-blown collaboration, this gave partner institutions a curatorial cameo and helped generate media attention.

Tango Gao’s Doors: Strong Name, Strong Fan Base, Good Design, High Value for Visitors

“Doors” is on the other end of the spectrum, almost a kind of an experience rather than an exhibition, but the overtly visual approach (over text) make sense given that it is showcasing the work of a Chinese cartoonist who possesses a kind a kind of arch, New Yorker sense of humor. (See exhibition video here). This exhibition is an interesting case in that it was a private endeavor. “Tango, an American Chinese is quite famous. He had many fans, and they sold a lot of tickets,” says Gu Ling, “He has a smart personality and he designed the show himself. He’s like a star, and he knows how to maintain relationships with his fans.” Gao also exhibited some keen business sense, securing Kohler as a sponsor and a shopping mall in Shenzhen Bay which sponsored the space in exchange for the increased foot traffic. Tickets were only 30 RMB as opposed to the usual 100-150 RMB for a touring exhibition. The added publicity also earned him contracts at his advertising firm.

The Artist is Present at the Yuz Museum: Recognized Names, Immersive Atmosphere, and a Provocative Concept

This exhibition, which riffs on Marina Abramović’s iconic performance, features work by a number of international artists including Wim Delvoye, Philippe Parreno, Sturtevant and Chinese artists such as Xu Zhen and Yan Peiming, to comment on the concept of copying and imitation. Curated by Maurizio Cattelan, “the show explores how originality can be reached through the act of repetition, and how originals themselves can be preserved through copies. It consists of physical immersion in the reign of imitation, a land where the core values that used to identify with an artwork in the Western world, such as originality, intention, expression, and authorship, are dismantled.” Gu found that the exhibition combined a strong academic premise with good marketing, communications, and excellent exhibition design, which, in her opinion, surpassed Han Ulrich Obrist’s “14 Rooms” which was shown at Long Museum, down the road. “Catalan really brings all the worlds together. It’s like a journey in wonderland. Each artist’s work is presented independently but with a very interesting relationship to the other, even for those who have no knowledge of art or art history . . . he succeeded to find all of these pieces which are really attractive and engaging.” Another element that helped the exhibition develop a following was the inclusion of selfie spots says Gu, “It’s not a commercial exhibition which encourages you to take photos. He has a way of setting up selfie spots to make you think about the action of taking selfies,” namely a backdrop of the Hollywood sign which seems designed to frustrate the process of selfie-image making. The exhibition was a partnership with Gucci which of course have a huge interest in the topic of copying and counterfeit. Gucci supplied the 25 million RMB budget, and the museum was allowed to keep the proceeds of the 60RMB tickets.

David Hockney: Works from the Tate Collection, M Woods Hutong, Established Name, Selfie-Friendly, and Fostered Cross-Cultural Dialogue

Contemporary art museums in China have no qualms about creating-selfie friendly exhibitions, and Beijing’s M Woods Hutong is no exception. “David Hockney: Works from the Tate Collection,” took an artist who has a strong following in China and created a large three-dimensional re-creation of a Hockney-esque swimming pool in the middle of the museum. “He’s a figure that already has some audience base,” says Gu, “but then they did not only show his works but included some pieces influenced his works, and some of his works which influenced some other works and put his works alongside Chinese antiques, with other classical works to build cross-cultural connections.” (For instance, the exhibition features a video about Hockney’s fascination with the Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour.) M Woods has also been successful in creating interesting merchandize, for instance, a series of derivatives—adorable felt and fabric fish, (a symbol of plenty during Chinese New Year) as part of their Lucy Sparrow’s “Felt Art Imaginarium.

Institutional Branding

The two UK institutions which have been the most active touring their exhibitions in China have been the British Museum and the V&A, but they have occupied different sectors of the museum ecology, the V&A working with private art museums, and retail spaces and the BM working more with the state sector, hosting numerous exhibitions at state museums and also with the private sector through a collaboration with Sunmei group and the Lano hotel chain, where the BM created small exhibitions inside the hotel, and licensed 1-1 replicas of its objects. The BM does benefit from having certain objects which are in high demand in the global touring circuit. Their exhibition of Egyptian artifacts, “Eternal Life–Exploring Ancient Egypt,” at the Hong Kong Science Museum (2017) received over 850,000 visitors, the highest visitor figures ever for a British Museum touring exhibition,” says Olivia O’Leary.

Museums that do not have the brand power or resources to make touring exhibitions feasible can work together to maximise their potential. For instance, the Bury Art Museum lead a consortium of the Greater Manchester Museums Group to create “Toward Modernity: Three Centuries of British Art,” which involved 17 UK institutions and toured six venues in China in 2012 attracting over three million viewers, many of whom had minimal exposure to British art. But for museums with limited experience and resources, ongoing government support is needed to facilitate a long-term touring strategy.

Logistical and Strategic Tips Before You Jump in Head First

Anna Fletcher, cautions those who might be seduced by the possibilities of the China market, “I would say that although China appears a buoyant and exciting market it is always wise to budget for every eventuality—touring exhibitions is a costly business and not a quick way to generate big returns.”

Even on a global scale, financial wins seem to be the exception to the norm, “Chinese Terracotta Warriors and the various Tut exhibitions have been financial successes for their originating museums and for some of their host exhibition venues. But only about 1/3 of blockbusters make a net profit for their originators,” says Hugh Spencer. A proper plan needs to be costed out which includes all of the variables, for instance, re-curating or adjusting the exhibition for different venues, or storage between venues when the exhibition is not booked. A longer touring time of 3-4 years may be necessary to recoup development costs, but then again can the objects travel for that long? “A longer tour will reduce your financial risks if you do not achieve a fully-booked schedule, but you may incur more costs due to transport and storage according to guidelines provided by Castex. Spencer also stresses the challenge of amassing historical facts and information if you don’t have the in-house knowledge, the construction budget and budget for extra components to cover maintenance throughout the tour. Even details such as lighting can really make or break an exhibition, says Spencer, “A lighting designer is CRUCIAL to the development of the exhibit components and overall setting, to ensure that the maximum attention possible is given to the exhibits rather than to the surroundings.”

3-D Printing Brings New Affordable Possibilities

Transport and storage can quickly eat away any profits, but the Science Museum Group has come up with an innovative solution to barriers such as shipping, customization, and insurance with their Blueprint Pack exhibitions, which allow host institutions to have exhibitions 3D-printed on-site. Host institutions pay a licensing fee and can adapt the blueprints to the space of their museums and also include objects from their own collection. Examples include “Driverless: Who is in Control,” which explores the world of autonomous vehicles and “Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives,” which examines our complicated relationship with antibiotics. The exhibition was supposed to tour to Wuhan before Covid19 made the topic a living reality, but it will reopen will open in the next few months with a new section on Covid19.

Engagement Can Take Many Forms: V&A

Beyond touring exhibitions, there are lots of ways in which UK institutions can get involved in the Chinese market, Nick Marchand says that the V&A has been quite active in fields such as licensing, in particular their collection of William Morris patterns which have been used as prints for dressing gowns, caps, and jewelry. Partnering with Alfilo Brands they have launched numerous pop-up stores in conjunction with K11. This partnership with Alfilio has helped them build numerous commercial relationships within China. The museum has also had a strong relationship with Swire properties which hosted the exhibition “Shoes Pleasure and Pain,”

This and the partnership to provide consulting services, and management training for Design Society, created immense learning opportunities or the organization, partially through the secondment of Louisa Mengoni. “One of the most beautiful things,” to come from this cooperation says Nick Marchand, “was a small show, ‘Unidentified Acts of Design,’ curated by Louisa Mengoni, which reflects on design culture and Shenzhen, which showed at UABB, in Shenzhen. It was so tiny and beautiful to understand the creativity that was there and why we were in Shenzhen.” This arrangement provided mutual learning opportunities, and we are now seeing similar arrangements with the Tate’s Collaboration at Pudong Museum of Art. While bringing benefits to the Chinese institution it’s also like a practicum for the curator. Offering a chance for western museums to have a crash course in China.

Other collaborations include a series of photography exhibitions including one of Horst P. Horst with Modern Media, which has supported a curatorial position in the V&A’s photography center in the UK, through the Shao Zhong Art Foundation. Having a presence in China benefits museums in that they may see more Chinese visitors in their home country institution, but it can also have important implications for developing new patrons, donors, and strategic partners.

Pop-Up Exhibitions

Following a different strategy from most museums, the National Gallery has run several projects and pop-ups in China. Collaborating with Alfilio Brands, the gallery launched a pop up in the Shanghai Metro, which saw audiences of 200,000 a day, including 600 million commuters over the 30-day period. This strategy aims to generate 200-300 brand impressions throughout the campaign, but as many of the paintings on display are reproductions, and the fact that commuters tend to move quickly through the metro corridors, it is unlikely to make a deep impression. Still, when those commuters visit London and are scanning their guidebooks to create an itinerary, they may choose the National Gallery over other unfamiliar names. The institution is also trying to create an impression through an interactive pop-up store in Guangzhou, with video projections a replica of Van Gogh’s bedroom and lots of Impressionist-inspired merch.

China Specific-Hurdles

Shipping objects in and out of China is a science in itself. Experienced art handlers are really vital in helping navigate these issues, as not all transportation hubs may have customs clearance. Before anything leaves the gate, the hosting institutions need to apply for an exhibition permit which involves an evaluation of the exhibition contents by the local Cultural Bureau. The host institution will handle this. The strictness of censorship depends on many factors, such as the reputation of the institution, the nature of the work the nationalities of the artists and geopolitical events. For instance, one might think that Southern China would be more permissive, but currently, Shenzhen sees more strict control than Beijing. One minute a Japanese artist is welcomed, the next minute, Japan is in the diplomatic dog house and the curatorial team has to plead with censors to explain that he is, in fact, a French national with a French passport. All the hosting institution can do is try to explain the meaning of the artworks and objects to the cultural bureau officials, including the names of works and nationalities of artists which will be required along with images of their works. Even when an exhibition is given the all-clear, Cultural Bureau employees will come to check the exhibition once it is hung, and remove offending works if they see fit. Then once the exhibition is up, climate control monitoring must be conducted to ensure that the conditions don’t fluctuate, despite the fact that climate control in Chinese museums has made great strides in recent years.

China-specific Opportunities

Given the large number of museums in China needing content, there could be a market in the years to come for institutions who make the time to get to know China now. There are opportunities not only for touring exhibitions, but also for licensing and merchandizing. China has seen a huge boom in merchandizing, known in China as “cultural products” and the collections-based derivative industry has seen a huge push from the government. The Palace Museum, which has received ample funding, has a subsidiary company which develops over 300 copyrighted protected products per year. Says Wan Ying, “I have friends working in VC. If you want to have easy money from the government you could put something together. I don’t mean that they just came for the money, the designers of the merchandize, but there is no soul in the products. I wish I could see more sincere designers in this industry. There are these companies who study policies trying to find how to get money from government policies. But if you develop merchandize, and it has nothing to do with the story of the museum? You need product designers working closely.” That said, she has seen great improvements in merchandizing in recent years, “In China we have good examples such as Suzhou Museum; the Palace Museum used to be substandard but is now getting better. Most of the merchandize at museum shops is the kind of crappy souvenirs you typically find, the sort of beads stereotypically worn by middle-aged people, but it is getting better.” The BM, the V&A, and the MET all have online stores and Wan Ying, who has visited many physical museum shops abroad says that not all of the online shops live up to the quality of the gift shops she has seen abroad. She feels it’s a kind of missed opportunity and that foreign museums could be producing higher-quality products, to cash in the popularity of their brands. Many museums in the West are already developing a sophisticated digital strategy providing online content and videos in Chinese for a Chinese audience, so online marketing channels are already in existence.


There are currently a lot of museums who may be looking for content and many UK players have not yet entered the game; according to research conducted by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2016 only 43% of the institutions surveyed in the UK were touring exhibitions to China. For institutions interested to wade into this market, there is the very real challenge of finding partners with funds. For the state sector, diplomatic channels, diplomatic anniversaries and diplomatic relations are important. In terms of Chinese contemporary art museums, it’s much more common to strike a deal with a living artist, collector or institution, to have a bespoke exhibition. (I.e. don’t call us. We’ll call you.) It’s rare to see touring exhibitions make the rounds of art museums, but perhaps it’s because no one has found a way to disrupt existing patterns. Though the museum system can be something of a fortress, there are certainly many other private sector opportunities. There are several companies in China that have brought exhibitions to non-institutional spaces, for instance, the Barbican’s “Game On 2.0” which was presented by Blooming Investment. Commercial collaborations as these may have more favorable financial arrangements, as exhibition companies are in the business of business and can’t afford to “cry poor,” about paying for loan fees, but then again, institutions lose the element of exchange, relationship building and reputational advantages of working with a Chinese museum. It’s also important to recognize that Chinese institutions are more likely to put their weight and finances behind a true collaboration, rather than just acting as a landing strip for your brand in China. That’s why it’s worth spending serious time getting to know China, to arrange opportunities for visiting scholars or curatorial exchanges which last more than a few days. Just as I used to tell the many foreign artists who approached me about having exhibitions in China with the aim of attracting Chinese collectors, “This is not a one-night stand. This is a relationship and you should be prepared to commit yourself for the next few decades. If you’re not well recognized to begin with, it will be that much harder. Success is by no means guaranteed.” There is really no gold in them thar hills, but for those really willing to try to understand China and collaborate on an even footing, there may be a good niche waiting to be filled, and certainly interesting things to be learned.

A List of Some Touring Exhibitions in China 2003-Present

“Anish Kapoor,” CAFA Art Museum, Taimiao Art Museum, 2019-2020.

Jean Schlumberger: Twentieth Century Treasures from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,”

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, National Museum of China, 2019.

Convex Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art,” WEILS, Tank Shanghai, 2019-2020.

“Pompei: The Infinite Life,” Jinsha Site Museum, Tianjin Museum, and Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Museum, 2019.

Van Gough the Immersive Experience,” VISIONIECCENTRICHE, National Museum of China, 2019.

“The Cave Paintings of Lascaux,” SPL Lascaux International Exhibitions, Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, 2019.

Universe of Water Particles in the Tank,” Tank Shanghai, 2019.

Louise Bourgeois Eternal Thread,” Louise Bourgeois Studio, Long Museum West Bund, 2018-2019.

“Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” V&A, SWIRE properties, 360,000 visitors, 2018.

Game On 2.0,” Barbican, Chengdu, 2019 and Shenzhen, 2018.

Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals in the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection,” Leiden Collection, Long Museum West Bund, 2017-2018.

“Inventing le Louvre: From Palace to Museum over 800 Years,” the Louvre and Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 2017.

The A History of The World In 100 Objects,” British Museum, National Museum of China and Shanghai Museum, 720,000 visitors.

Eternal Life – Exploring Ancient Egypt,” British Museum, Hong Kong Science Museum, 2017.

“Titanic: The Artifact,” Premiere Exhibitions Inc, the Guangdong Museum, 2017.

Italian Renaissance Drawings from the British Museum,” Suzhou Museum in 2016.

“Maharaja: Splendours of India’s Royal Courts,” V&A, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2013, 202,832 visitors.

Water into Art,” V&A, Shenzhen Museum, 2012, 190,000 visitors. 

“DECODE,” V&A, CAFA Art Museum, Beijing, 15,000 visitors, 2010.

“India: the Art of the Temple,” V&A and British Museum, Shanghai Museum, 2010, 682,900 visitors.

Olympic Posters,” V&A, Capital Museum, Beijing, 2008 Liaoning Museum, 70,100, Shenyang, 140,600 visitors.

Chinese Export Watercolours,” V&A, Guangzhou Museum of Art, 2003 100,000 visitors. 

[1] Heng, Wu, “Remote Local: Travelling Exhibitions and New Practices in China,” eds. Golding, Viv, and Walklate, Jen, Museums, and Communities: Diversity, Dialogue, and Collaboration in an Age of Migration, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2019, p. 164.

[2] That’s not to say that there isn’t a kind of intra-Asian dialogue. Chinese viewers often look to Taipei or Japan to see how antiquities are framed and exhibited. WeChat channels such as 展玩 Enjoy Art, cover exhibitions of Chinese art abroad, for instance at the National Palace Museum in Taipei or at the Imperial Household Agency in Japan. Wan Ying, who is the founder of the museum podcast 博物志 Museeologue told us that she personally knew more than ten friend who flew to Tokyo, just to see an exhibition of Tang Dynasty calligrapher Yan Zhenqing, due to the fact that the exhibition managed to collect an abnormally large number of original works.

[3] From an interview with Gu Ling, conducted by the author by phone on March 14, 2020.

[4] Heng, Wu, “Remote Local: Travelling Exhibitions and New Practices in China,” eds. Golding, Viv, and Walklate, Jen, Museums, and Communities: Diversity, Dialogue, and Collaboration in an Age of Migration, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2019, p. 162

[5] From a conversation with Wan Ying conducted by the author by phone on March 16, 2020. She was not sure what the actual percentages were for state revenue capture.

[6] Produced by a Japanese company.

[7] Speaking in the context of this privilege, she mentions the less scrupulous exhibition producers who will use famous names to attract visitors while producing substandard exhibitions, such as an exhibition featuring Michelangelo’s David (link), which was merely a replica with plenty of selfie, backdrops.

[8] Historical mirroring might be seen as a kind of curatorial direction of the Nanjing Museum which has curated a series of transnational themed exhibitions including “A Tale of Two Cities: Edinburgh and Nanjing,” (2013-2015 which showed in Nanjing and Edinburg Castle and “Age of Empires: Russia and the Qing,” which compared Peter the Great and Catherine the Great with Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong.

[9] From an interview with Nick Marchand conducted by the author on March 24, 2020.

[10] From an interview with Olivia O’Leary conducted by email on March 26, 2020.

[11] From an interview conducted by the author with Anna Fletcher via email on March 10, 2020.

[12] From an interview with Hugh Spencer and his team at Museum Planning Partners conducted by email on March 22, 2020.