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China Exhibitions from International Exchanges

Written by Leslie Swartz

As China began to open its diplomatic doors, it started forming sister city relationships. The Boston mayor's office was already working with the museum on Kyoto-Boston Sister City exchanges, and perhaps this made it logical for them to seek our assistance in forging a similar relationship with China. In 1982, I served as technical assistant to the Boston delegation, led by then Mayor Kevin White, that traveled to Hangzhou to establish a sister city relationship. Following that trip, I helped organize many sister-city exchanges: sponsored study tours for Boston Public School students; art shows for Hangzhou artists; scholarships for Hangzhou students to Boston colleges; Boston artist residencies in Hangzhou; and trade shows in Boston. In the optimistic early days of friendship between the United States and China, exchanges were full of potential. But fundamentally, there was a major disconnect at the city-to-city level: while Hangzhou devoted part of its municipal bureaucracy to fostering international trade and good will, Boston considered international protocol a sideshow and had limited influence over the business sector. After Mayor White, no subsequent Boston mayor treated Hangzhou mayors with the respect and hospitality they expected. Eager, young, and naïve, I was often caught in the middle of this culture clash. However, I did achieve some equity, such as winning an American Association of Museums International Committee (AAM-ICOM) Exchange Award, which funded exchange visits between the Children's Palace in Hangzhou and TCM.

Most major cities in China have what are known as "children's palaces" (this is the literal translation from the Chinese phrase xiao nian gong) that screen, train, and promote talented children in arts and traditional sports. They also provide afterschool recreational activities. For upwardly mobile families a coveted slot in a training program gives their kids a competitive edge. In 1983, I spent three months in Hangzhou, and Mr. Xu Zhixiang, the Children's Palace party leader at the time, spent three months in Boston. During this six-month exchange, I worked with Mr. Xu to develop exhibits for TCM about China, the city of Hangzhou, and the Children's Palace, as well as exhibits for the Children's Palace about Boston. The exhibit for The Children's Museum was called A Market in China. TCM also created an exhibit for the palace, which included signature TCM exhibit stations, Bubbles and Raceways, plus photos of Boston. In 1984, when the Market exhibit opened in Boston, free markets newly opened in China were the leading edge of dynamic economic and social change that has since transformed that country. At its core, the Market was a typical children's museum exhibit, but with added cultural cues: straw baskets, abacuses, bamboo hats, store and street signs in Chinese, huge woks for cooking, and photographic murals of the real and revolutionary markets popping up all over China at that moment.

The Market exhibit, small traveling installations on Chinese folk art from an American collector, and a show of Chinese children's paintings from Beijing came and went in the museum. China existed as a content area through public programs, teacher workshops, and educational resources, but there was no exhibit base on a scale similar to the Japanese House. Chinese and Chinese American friends and visitors to the museum often asked why there was no Chinese house in the museum. African Americans, Latinos, Irish Americans, Italian Americans and people from many other ethnicities also began asking similar questions. Allocating permanent space to one culture sparked representatives from other cultures to ask for the same treatment and museum territory. As TCM devoted more energy to multiculturalism and to building a museum in its new downtown wharf location that reflected the population of Boston, explaining the major presence of the Japanese House became harder, especially with Boston's small Japanese population. While it may have been the museum's intention to use the Japanese House to teach audiences how to learn about cultures in general, the point was too subtle and the counter questions were becoming too deeply political.

Next: Cultural Exhibits in the Twenty-First Century