- Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China by Kirk A. Denton
Exhibiting the Past is a riveting journey through the cultural geography of remembrance in postsocialist China. Taking a state-centered approach, Kirk Denton situates the recent boom in history museums within China’s changing dynamics of memory politics. Analyzing this spatial formation as part of the modern project of nation building, Denton draws attention to the ways in which the postsocialist state lays claim to national legitimacy under the conditions of neoliberal globalization. Thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated, the book offers a timely contribution to the growing field of Chinese cultural studies and points to a wealth of promising directions for further research, especially in such areas as consumer culture, performance studies, (place) branding, urban planning, and tourism.
Denton’s introduction and conclusion thoughtfully engage a 2011 exhibit at the National Museum of China titled Road to Revival; it was after a 2012 visit to this museum that the then newly elected Chinese President Xi Jinping first publicly introduced the hallmark of his administration, the now famous “China Dream.” Both Xi’s speech and Road to Revival, as Denton suggests, serve to fortify the role of the party-state in guiding the nation toward a future of glorious rejuvenation. The museum setting for the “Dream” speech—an emblem of official narrative—lends immediate support to the innovative approach that Denton brings to the study of the postsocialist state. That is, in order to better understand how the Chinese state operates within a neoliberal cultural climate, it is necessary to shift our analytical attention from repressive to ideological state apparatuses (in Althusser’s senses of the terms); the latter encompasses precisely the institutional form that is the museum.
Following a comprehensive introduction to China’s growing trend of museumification in the postsocialist era, the main chapters guide the reader through a diverse array of exhibitionary spaces in wide-ranging Chinese locales, from museums of premodern history (chapter 1) to those with a specific focus on the Chinese revolution (chapters 2, 3, 10), from sites memorializing martyrdom (chapter 4) to those dedicated to military culture (chapter 5) and the war of resistance against Japan (chapter 6). Also examined are spaces designed for the commemoration of exemplary heroes or national leaders (chapter 7), the celebration of literary figures (chapter 8), the representation of ethnic minorities (chapter 9), and the exhibition of urban futures (chapter 11).
In each chapter, Denton not only provides useful historical background about the planning, construction, and renovation of the museums under consideration but also skillfully details the (sometimes contradictory) cultural forces that help shape their curatorial orientations. For instance, chapter 6 looks at three museums that showcase the war atrocities inflicted upon China by the Japanese imperial army between 1937 and 1945. Identifying a shared self-victimizing narrative among these spaces, Denton suggests that such a framing “serves more than just nationalist purposes” and indeed reflects “the Chinese government’s desire to assert an [End Page 104] economic and political leadership position in Asia”—a position that can be reinforced by stressing China’s alliance with other Asian nations formerly preyed on by Japanese imperialism (135). Paradoxically, the representation of “the Chinese people as passive and powerless,” an inevitable component of this narrative of victimhood, conflicts “with present Chinese pretensions to national greatness” and may even threaten to delegitimize the long-standing trope in mainstream cultural productions that highlights the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party during such moments of “national resistance” (137). In addition to having to negotiate between these competing frames, these museums (and many others depicted in the book) are influenced by “global trends in museology and the changing technology of museum display” (139). One aspect of this influence is manifested in the curatorial design of several war-related museums, which seeks to transform historical violence into spectacles of popular consumption. Local tourism revenue, nationalist ideology, and a globalizing consumerist ethos, therefore, have combined to offer economic...