University museums, or museums managed or affiliated to universities, are the latest trend, and a recent survey showed that China had over 400 such museums. In Hangzhou alone, at least three university museums opened last year.
But the museums suffer from a shortage of manpower and funds despite the fact that they have more responsibilities, especially connecting the academia with the public.
“Universities lack a working mechanism for running museums,” Hang Jian, vice president and chief director of the Art Museum of China Academy of Art, had said when the design museum was inaugurated in April.
“We do not have adequate experienced staff like those at Palace Museum or Zhejiang Provincial Museum, nor do we enjoy tariff exemptions on import and export of artwork, or even a stable art fund from the government,” Hang said.
The academy is one of the few in China to have three different art museums on the campus. The art museum at Nanshan campus has a long history dating back to the 1930s. The folk art museum and the design museum in Xiangshan campus have been built recently and are part of the campus landscape designed by world-renowned architects.
But it cannot meet the growing demands from its faculty and partners. The Nanshan museum alone organizes around 20 exhibitions a year, each of them lasting less than a month.
“Every year, exhibitions that are curated entirely out of our own will are never more than five. We receive a lot of applications from our faculty (to hold exhibitions in our museum),” said Xia Shangzhou, a staff member from the Nanshan museum tasked with public programs.
“From next year we will reduce the proportion of the commissioned part and extend the duration of each exhibition and prepare more stuff for our visitors.”
To deal with the issues, an alliance of university museums in China was established in Hangzhou. Directors and administrators from 26 university museums and art museums, and officers from central ministries met for the alliance’s first meeting at China Academy of Art.
Initiated by Central Academy of Art, the alliance aims to establish standards for university museums and gain support from national government bodies, including from Ministry of Education, Ministry of Culture and Tourism and National Culture Heritage Administration.
“We are stuck in a system between education and cultural heritage, and can’t enjoy benefits from either of them,” said Wang Shen, assistant to the director at Zhejiang University Museum of Art and Archaeology.
“For example if we receive cultural relics from our alumni overseas, they need to pay extra tariffs. That’s because we are not on a tariff exemption list. I think this is where the alliance can step in and help us with the situation.”
The Zhejiang University Museum of Art and Archeology is another heavyweight player. After six years of construction, the museum is expected to open in May this year.
It will also boast the first History of Art department in China.
“History of Art is a course that is available in Western universities at undergraduate and graduate levels. But in China it was separated from Studies of Literature as an independent discipline in 2011,” said Lou Kecheng, deputy director of the museum.
The decision to establish a teaching museum within the university was brought into practice when the university made contact with Wen C. Fong, a professor of Art History and historian of East Asian art at Princeton University in 2007.
Fong agreed to leverage his own network and resources to help the university start a center for teaching East Asian art, in particular Chinese art.
The museum, designed by Richard Gluckman who specializes in museums, is located at the southwestern end of the Zijingang campus, and connected to downtown with a road and a canal.
With a floor area of 25,000 square meters, it is divided into two functional areas, which not only contain commonly seen exhibition rooms, a gift shop, and the cafe, but also a specialized art and archeology library with a capacity of holding 160,000 books.
A very important purpose of the museum is to incorporate object-based learning into undergraduate studies, in major-related or general education courses.
“We have three materials labs in the museum. Once a lecturer from the university applies, he/she can take his/her class to the museum. Students can observe from a close distance, and even touch the antiquities and artifacts that are a great part of our civilization,” said Lou.
He further indicated that researchers from other universities can also apply to access the museum.
Till now, the museum has a collection of more than 5,000 cultural relics, which by Lou’s standard is “a fairly small number.”
“Funds from the university are scarce,” said Lou.
In last May, an art and archeology fund, operated under the Zhejiang University Education Foundation, was established with capital donated by three alumni. It will be used exclusively for the development of the museum.
The museum has established various councils, pulling in patrons, experts, faculty members and also the general public, to decide on a series of matters from identification of archaeological objects to the appointment of the museum director.
“I hope that one day students from the Xuejun High School opposite us will be able to take a class in our museum,” Lou said.