Redrawing borders – Building Asia’s museum culture in the digital age
Adriel Luis, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, USA
The modern museum has been a global concept since the 1700’s. However, in the 20th Century, Europe and the United States saw a great surge in museums and museum culture, which wasn’t shared in other parts of the world. In the West, museums have spent the past few generations becoming tenements for cultural and historical understanding – but in most parts of Asia, this role has been fulfilled by temples, monuments, folkways, and other vehicles besides museums. Today, South Korea is home to 500 museums and galleries – just a fraction of the 2,000 in New York City alone. And while Asia currently experiences a “late bloom” in museums – opening thousands in just the last few years – this phenomenon is occurring within a digital age instead of an industrial one. Today, Asian countries such as China, Singapore, Japan and even North Korea are heavily investing in their national museum infrastructures. But while the tendency is to follow the West’s blueprint, establishing societal embrace of museums now presents vastly different implications than it did a century ago. Meanwhile, the ways that people across the globe create, receive and share content is evolving as rapidly as technology itself. How will the museum world and its approaches evolve in response to a growing Asian audience? In this presentation, we will compare Asia’s budding museum renaissance with that of the West’s in previous centuries. We will also survey how different Asian societies have traditionally approached cultural and historical scholarship, and how technology can be a bridge to contemporary museum approaches in the region. Additionally, we will explore how shifts in migration, tourism, and content sharing are crucial elements to consider while museums rethink their role in global society.
Keywords: asian, contemporary, art, democratization
1. Dilemmas and opportunities for museums in Asia
Ever since museums were introduced to Asia in the late eighteenth century, they’ve occupied a complicated position in the region’s cultural imagination. While the earliest museums in Asia were built to display the cultures of their respective locales, they were also a show of the West’s presence there. For example, despite the India-sourced content inside the Indian Museum established in Kolkata in 1814, the construction of a museum in the first place—with all its English edifices—was a declaration of the British Empire’s influence over India. This historical challenge for Asia to claim authority over a Western-introduced notion of museums is exacerbated by conversations on art, history, and culture that seem to have developed all but independent of the region’s experiences. The result has been ambiguous dynamics between museums and Asian societies—asking whether Asian museums are meant to define their cultures or respond to external notions of them; whether modern art museums are reflections of their societies’ modernizations or instigators of them; and how institutions built on values that are fundamentally foreign to a region can serve as bedrocks for that region’s defining of itself.
These paradoxes help explain Asia’s timid adoption of museum culture in past and present eras, and perhaps why the recent boom in museums in China and other Asian societies has been sometimes baffling. Historically, Western museums have had the privilege of setting the tone for museum culture—and by extension, cultural exhibition—which Asian museums have followed almost without aberration. Even if they display Asian content and curate with Asian audiences in mind, they still taste like the West in aesthetic and approach. This poses a daunting obstacle for museums to fully integrate as parts of public identity.
Yet with the ascension of digital culture, we arrive at a moment when new players can excel in advancing notions of cultural exhibition. Across the globe, museums of all ages and sizes are considering the values of makeshift, DIY (do-it-yourself), and temporary spaces as valid (and even crucial) counterparts to their traditional tenets of preciousness and permanence. This empowers societies that have historically been disadvantaged in high-brow museum discourses to benefit from digital culture’s inherent principles of accessibility, and to reinterpret their lack of institutional museum infrastructures as opportunities for nimbleness, experimentation, and individuality.
In this investigation, I’ll explore how the past centuries’ history has shaped museum cultures in different Asian societies, and how the recent emergence of digital culture can allow for Asian societies across economic and experiential spectrums to access a new era of self-definition in unprecedented fashion. At long last, we witness an opportunity for Asia to not only explore museum frameworks beyond templates set by the West, but lead global conversations about innovative cultural exhibition.
2. Definitions and considerations
Before moving forward, I’d like to acknowledge that museums have not been solely responsible for the global conceptions of Asian cultures: one would be hard-pressed to name a single exhibition that had a greater influence on Western perceptions of India than Rudyard Kipling’s writings, or of China than Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. It should also be recognized that Asia is not the only non-Western region that has shared a complicated dynamic with museums. In his critique of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern”—which juxtaposed artifacts of the amalgamated “Third World” with the art of Western Modernists—art critic Thomas McEvilley (1984) noted that “the myth of the continuity of Western art history is constructed out of acts of appropriation.” While this study focuses on Asia, I invite readers to reflect on its implications for museum cultures in Africa, Latin America, and other non-Western regions.
I would also like to set the grounds for how the terms Asia and museum are used here, as to avoid miscommunicating that either concept is monolithic. While much of the preceding study in this matter frames Asia as the geographic region historically labeled the “Far East,” this doesn’t do justice for the diversity of cultures and histories that span the fluid borders of geographic Asia—leaving out regions such as Central Asia and the Pacific Islands. But moving forward, perhaps we can take some liberties with the notion of what defines a museum, as the potential for transforming this notion has implications for China, Japan, Thailand and Myanmar, as well as eastern Turkey, Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and beyond. Even though I mention particular societies in this investigation, my intention is to demonstrate that common histories, economic situations, and cultural trends within Asia can inform museums as much as geography or nationality. Throughout the course of this investigation, I’ll be increasingly liberal with my use of the term museum, beginning with the rigid parameters set by Western founders, then incorporating concepts such as pop-up galleries, art festivals, and online space in the latter sections. Since one of my key arguments is that the increasing fluidity of museums can help Asia grasp its self-identities in all their complexities, my hope is that arenas within the larger Asiatic discourse that have historically been undermined will find entry points, even if not specifically mentioned in this article.
3. Asian museums: A foreign affair
In order to understand the dilemmas and opportunities Asian museums face today, we must first acknowledge that museums were introduced to Asia as byproducts of Western occupation. First brought to colonial India and Indonesia by the British and the Dutch, the early Asian museums established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are monuments of brick and stone, donning Roman-style pillars and European-inspired architecture (Lewis, 2014).
Collections and exhibitions were seeded by Western curators, creating oases that honed a vision for valuing, displaying, and experiencing culture in a way that was at odds with the atmospheres of theaters, temples, and public spaces more familiar to Asian people. In order to deem certain cultural artifacts worth collecting, value systems were implemented; art was canonized; and facets of tradition were monumentalized (Mitter, 2014). New concepts such as curators, acquisition and museum labels followed suit. In fact, entire understandings of what distinguished culture, art, and history were refined through the spread of Western culture. For instance, curator Shihoko Iida (2010) describes just how far removed Japan was from concepts foundational to museums:
In Japan, the term and notion of “art” did not exist until the early Meiji era, in the late 19th century. The Japanese word “bijutsu” was based on the translation of the German word for art, “Kunstgewerbe,” and used on the occasion of Japan’s participation in the Vienna Exposition in 1873.
Establishing museums was a form of colonial indulgence—to usher societies once deemed as “barbaric” into the civilized world through the display of their cultures with a Western gloss. National heritage museums in particular consolidated a social narrative conducive both to the vision of Western colonial powers and the Asian elite who stood to benefit (Wu, 2006). Inevitably, early Asian museums were foreign in their own lands, exoticizing collections from the very nations they were exhibited in.
Unlike their American and European counterparts, Asian museums began from an external perspective—about their cultures, but not of them. For some societies, this dynamic had perverse consequences. In the early twentieth century—as the National Museum of the Philippines was opening its doors—the United States presented the St. Louis World’s Fair, whose most popular attraction was an exhibit displaying 1,100 people of various tribes from the Philippines, which was currently under American occupation (Pilapil, 1994; National Museum of the Philippines, 2011). Filipinos were introduced to the notion of exhibition, both as a mechanism for the displaying to and the displaying of them. This is among the starkest allusions to the slow and tumultuous rise of museum culture in Asia throughout the twentieth century.
4. Modern art museums: Ahead of their time
The era of modern museums was an opportunity for Asian societies to claim greater stakes in their museum approaches, but by the time Asia entered the conversation in the mid-twentieth century, the West had already defined “modern” in its own terms and for the rest of the world to follow.
When the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT) opened its doors in 1952, it was a declaration of Japan’s democratization. Established at the tail-end of the United States reconstruction of Japan, MOMAT was founded not only as the country’s first national museum for contemporary art, but as one of Asia’s first steps into the “modern” world (Kuraya, 2014). Today, a room in MOMAT is dedicated to this period in its history. Entitled In the Shadow of America, it includes Kojima Nabuaki’s Boxer—a life-sized, faceless sculpture of a man engulfed in the American flag. It evokes a topic that remains contentious: how can an Asian society, such as Japan’s, leverage its identity amidst a discourse on global modernity so tightly wound around Western civilization?
Modern art museums marked an opportunity for cultures to redefine themselves. But unlike the West, Asia did not have the museums and institutions to substantially enter conversations about modernity until after the World Wars. In his analysis of capitalist influence over non-Western art, Carlos Salazar (2006) explains that “the Anglo-Saxon victory in World War II represented the triumph of its traditions and regressions over global culture.” Though Salazar speaks from a Latin American perspective, his perspective can also be applied to how the modern narrative was carved without public participation in Asia.
After all, if the mainstream art world has reached consensus that the “modern” period spans from the late 1800s to the 1970s—where does this leave China and Vietnam, which began their “modernizations” after this period? As with its first museums, Asia’s modern art museums tailgated the West, engaged in a conversation whose terms and tone had already been outlined.
Lisa Lowe (2003) reflects on this complexity:
The emergence of the modern world is a complicated story that braids together promise and destruction, humanity and inhumanity, barbarism and civilization. Modernity varies in time and location, it takes place differently in rural Vietnam than it does in Tokyo or Berlin; there are multiple modern spaces related through logics at once political, economic, and cultural… It cannot be captured simply, or totally, by a single perspective on who, what, or where is the modern, but requires more complicated reflection on how a singular vision has come to predominate, how a certain model of humanity has come to be accepted as the ideal of cultivated personhood in the modern community.
While Lowe’s offering of “modernity” may be fluid, the concept across global institutions has not been as forgiving. To participate in conversations on the topic, oftentimes a non-Western society must undermine its own local/personal experience. As art historian Partha Mitter (2012) points out, “What may appear to be inclusive may actually be the hold of the Western modernist canon, which tends to undermine local voices and practices, destroying the polyphony of expressions.” Following this vein, Asia’s relationship with “modern” is distinct from the West, with Asia’s role not as the modernizer but instead the modernized. Instead of possessing the authority to define, facilitate, and dictate, it must conform, emulate, and subject itself to.
This is not to say that modern Asian art and culture existed at the helpless mercy of Western influence; actually, reappropriation and reaction against dominant Western narratives through modern art offered some of Asia’s most radical instances of self-identification. The loophole in modern art was the element of anti-traditionalism, which allowed for considerable open interpretation. For Asia, anti-traditionalism in an institutional context wasn’t necessarily the same as anti-traditionalism in a cultural context. If the museum’s tradition was to prioritize a Western-rooted, exoticized perspective of Asia, anti-traditionalism gravitated towards a more genuine, locally rooted—and traditionally non-institutional—approach. While Western avant-garde was about reinvention, Asian avant-garde involved reclamation.
Tatehata Akira (2005), the director of the National Museum of Art, Osaka, illustrates this dynamic in Indonesia’s adaptation of Cubism:
In the period just after independence had been achieved in Indonesia, Cubism represented a rejection of the orientalist view of Asia, which had contributed to the colonialist oppression of Indonesians, and contributed to the formation of a new national identity. This newly imported artistic language, even if it did not retain an avant-garde purpose, was employed to destroy exotic clichéd images of Indonesia and was effective in providing a new vision of local customs and cultural traditions.
It’s hard to ignore the irony in adopting a Western-born art language as a means of cleansing oneself of a Western-born image, but it’s this very spirit of turning a mechanism on its head that ushers the opportunity for innovation in the digital age.
5. Digital culture and media art as recalibrators
Here’s where I’ll start using the term museum more fluidly to encompass general concepts and approaches for exhibitry, collecting, and fostering cultural study. I admit that this is controversial, and one could swiftly dismiss some of my points as wholly irrelevant to actual museum study. But consider this: Merriam-Webster’s dictionary still defines a museum as “a building in which interesting and valuable things are collected and shown to the public.” Meanwhile, digital culture increasingly questions the need for a building as a prerequisite for museums; institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Cooper-Hewitt, and The Broad have demonstrated that a pending physical space doesn’t necessarily mean nonexistence or invalidity. And by now, I hope that I’ve demonstrated why terms such as interesting and valuable are problematic when addressing non-Western perspectives for art and collections. We’re actually investigating what the “soul” of a museum is, if even foundational elements such as buildings and value are questionable. Meanwhile, some of the entities I mention in this section prefer terms like “kitchen,” “laboratory,” or “project.” Moving forward, I will consider these non-traditional formats as part of an open notion of museums.
This new frame offers unprecedented opportunity for the role of art and culture in countries which have historically had less access to the resources for traditional museums. Unlike terrains reserved for certain levels of class and wealth, the Internet is a way for societies across economic spectrums to engage in democratized cultural exhibition. Even in countries like China and Vietnam, where Internet access is largely controlled, artists and audiences alike have enjoyed a vaster canvas for the creation and consumption of content than ever before (Yong, 2014; Palatino, 2014). A certain “freedom of expression” has surfaced, in that traditional museums have decreasing power as gatekeepers for art and culture. Emerging perspectives for what’s considered “worth” exhibiting are able to adapt to local circumstances and preferences rather than global, Western-driven standards.
For aspects of emerging museum culture such as digital curation and DIY practices, Asian societies are able to enter new conversations from a relatively level playing field with the West—at least compared to past museum discourses like modernism. This shouldn’t be confused as an assumption that Internet access is widely accessible, or that the West doesn’t have considerable resources that afford it technological advantage. But extravagant technology or resources don’t necessarily equate to a greater ability to engage in contemporary concepts such as “media art” or “virtual space.” As anti-traditionalism was embedded in modern art, the digital era understands and embraces contextual limitations. While mobile devices and fiber-optic networks may still be largely inaccessible in many parts of Asia, the spirit of the “hack” born from the digital age can be adopted, adjusted, and owned. This is a dynamic that allows societies to engage in a new cultural discourse, even if digital technology itself is extremely limited.
For those who think of media art in the realms of sophisticated technologies like three-dimensional projections, motion sensors, and augmented reality, it may seem counterintuitive to imagine the genre thriving in settings with limited technology. But consider the perspective of Hiroyuki Hattori (2014b), curator of Media/Art Kitchen, which specializes in under-resourced spaces throughout Southeast Asia: “Depending on the country and region all manner of things can be understood as media art… creating a new situation through appropriating and modifying existing resources could be another means of relating to media.” If the question of the modern era was, “What is art?,” the question of the digital era is, “What is media?,” and while there are certainly scholarly exercises that address this question existentially, we can also opt to see it as a new palette of creative possibilities.
For example, media art in Indonesia is informed by the resources and limitations of daily life, both in practice and presentation. Through DIY technology, the limitless potential of online distribution, and the adoption of pop-up forums as the choice means of exhibition, such societies are simultaneously adapting art to their environments while honing new cultural communities unique to their local circumstances (Darmawan, 2014). In a recent conversation, Hattori (2014a) pointed out to me that characterizing technological and economic limitations in art can in fact be what distinguishes media art coming out of regions like Southeast Asia from that of more affluent societies such as the United States. For some artists, the struggle for basic electricity, equipment, and attention are entry points for social commentary, humor, and creativity that would never surface in more resourced arenas.
Digital culture doesn’t only remix the concept of museum content, but also poses a shorter leap for audiences to adopt exhibitry into their existing customs. While Western museums increasingly gravitate toward concepts like pop-up exhibitions to disrupt staling institutional approaches, these approaches actually align with models already customary to public life in Asia. After all, elements of pop-ups and DIY can be found in night markets, street fairs, impromptu performances and other means of public gathering that are ubiquitous across Asian cultures. Such settings can actually be more approachable than institutionalized museum structures (Keiko, 2014).
This is the case with 98B, a self-described “community + network + library + kitchen + shop” based in Manila that, aligning with museum tradition, seeks to “establish a convergence among artists, designers, curators… and the general public” (http://98-b.org). 98B is encompassed by exhibitions, artist residencies, and a repository of art, and is staffed by curators—yet, the term museum is never used in its website’s description. Its public events reflect less like traditional exhibitions and take on the form of forums such as its Future Market, advertised as a “bazaar, garage sale, thrift shop, black market and meeting place.” Considering the Philippines’ conflicted history of museums via Western occupation and the St. Louis World’s Fair, this may in fact be a tactical choice. 98B reflects a society aspiring to engage the public through museum-like activity, while negotiating the baggage of museums themselves.
If the Media/Art Kitchen is a case of repurposing, and 98B is a case of reclaiming, we can see Myanmar as having the fascinating potential for a completely new approach to cultural exhibition. The country’s past isolation from the international community posed dilemmas for its museum presence; if the fact that most of Myanmar’s sparse museum landscape is predominantly state-run doesn’t allude to the overbearing role of museums in the public psyche, perhaps the existence of a Yangon Drugs Elimination Museum will (Wood, 2014). In this instance, museums are presented more as government mouthpieces than reflections of a national community. Yet with Myanmar’s recent opening comes an influx of Internet access, mobile devices, social media, and entry into a global cultural dialogue, all in one swoop (Crampton, 2014). In the past century, late entry into the international conversation on modernity offered few options for standing out; yet while most societies continue to be wrapped up in the categorical differences between Internet versus social media versus mobile, for Myanmar to widely receive them all simultaneously with a dramatic rise in exposure to art and culture presents an exciting opportunity to jump-start museums with a digital foundation. If Myanmar takes advantage of de-isolation by separating from its past museum approaches—as well as recalibrating its colonial past—it may find its unique relationship with digital culture as a flagship for a newfound identity on the global stage. Beyond Pressure, Myanmar’s first international performance art festival, is an early adopter of this approach, established in 2008 “with the hope that local artists will do alternative art form [sic] after the transition period” (http://beyondpressure.org).
With under-resourced societies leading the way, the larger scope of Asia has begun to take note of the unique opportunities offered by digital culture. Iida (2010) offers this insight in contrast to her earlier statement regarding Japan’s adoption of Westernized concepts:
In the face of the radical nonidentity of Asians globally, we have developed new understandings of the role of Asians within transnational capitalism, rather than relying exclusively on earlier models of cultural or nationalist identity… the Internet has changed the way we communicate and accelerated the tendency for people to be self-referential.
6. Toward imitation or innovation?
While the examples I provided in the previous section are few among many, I must also acknowledge that these efforts are largely grassroots, which makes this emerging movement fragile and also vulnerable to being faded out by larger institutions. Indonesia, with its promise of innovation, is also the site of one of Asia’s oldest museums, and though the two approaches could potentially complement each other, they could also conflict. As digital culture has spread, so has global capitalism, with museums often indulging in both.
From a capitalistic perspective, Western civilization’s aesthetics, luxuries, and art are at the pinnacle of cultural presentation. For instance, China’s economic growth and capacity for building new infrastructures has led to replicas of English, French, and Italian cities (Langfitt, 2013). If you run a Google search for museums in Abu Dhabi, the top results include extensions of the Guggenheim and the Louvre. Across the greater Asian region, the fastest-growing economies are rapidly constructing museums, and the inclination is to look more like the West. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s creator, Jean Nouvel, actually describes the museum as “an island on an island” (http://saadiyat.ae)—not unlike the approach resulting in the Western capsules established centuries ago.
A continued tradition of Western emulation threatens innovative identity in Asia, and can also have economic and cultural ramifications. In the Philippines, where the commodification of art was internalized faster than the cultural value of it, the creation and commerce of forged Filipino artwork is rampant (Tejero, 2012). Monetary systems for art and culture are unsustainable without the context of heritage in a public’s imagination. A willingness to be driven by Western perspectives can also leave one susceptible to other external powers, as in the case with Cambodia, whose Grand Panorama Museum in Angkor Wat was funded and constructed by North Korea (McPherson, 2014). But whether an institution is exported from the United States, France, or North Korea, aside from the political consequences of this relationship is the fact that the societies that import a cultural perspective miss an opportunity to create their own. China, once known for its insistent isolation, only saw the development of the Western-modeled city of Shanghai after war and coercion (Brook, 2013). In this regard, China’s present-day serial reproduction of European cities suggests not only a dramatic prioritization of profit over culture, but also a relenting of national identity. In recent years, China has been constructing scores of museums, and these new institutions will set the tone for the national narrative moving forward. Amidst the temptation to follow globalization, it is up to members of local communities to usher a movement toward individuality, as described by the Himalayas Museum founder Dai Zhikang: “Instead of assuming the government to be our rival, we should try to figure out a way to gradually convert their concepts on culture and art… to create an open cultural environment” (Hoiden, 2012).
Though daunting, the struggle between innovation and influence may not necessarily be a David-and-Goliath match: Mr. Zhikang is actually a billionaire, demonstrating that monetary investment isn’t only on the side of Western emulation. The National Museum of Singapore recently backed a program called the Singapore Memory Project, intended to recall “everyday heritage” as a complement to its traditional post-colonial narrative (Jingyi, 2014). Similarly, the Manila Metropolitan Museum’s recent exhibition, The Philippine Contemporary, was seen as “a major shift in [the museum’s] own history and practices as a Filipino cultural institution,” declaring an “art for all” approach toward local artists and the general public, and stepping back from its reputation as a “fortress of pre-colonial fineries and colonial fine art” (Campomanes, 2012). That the previously mentioned Media/Art Kitchen is supported by the Japan Foundation is also a sign that long-standing institutions see the value in fostering identities both locally and collectively. Hattori notes, “We have similar situations in Japanese suburbs [as Southeast Asian communities]. Here it’s also not easy to get a perfect environment. But in this imperfect situation, you can still make your life rich if you learn the attitude (or creative mind) of Southeast Asian artists… I believe we can receive so many things from their creative and DIY attitude.”
The Koganecho Bazaar, a pan-Asian arts festival based in Yokohama, Japan, is supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs in Japan and also engages grassroots and DIY artists as a means of realizing a regional identity (http://www.koganecho.net/koganecho-bazaar-2014/e-index.html). DIY, pop-up, and hacked approaches are certainly not unique to Asia, and many practices are still arguably products of global influence. Still, Asia’s ability to enter the conversation in the digital era’s early stages allows it a much larger stake than in past movements.
Beyond museums, the key issue that Asian societies must address in this age is one of narrative ownership. While museums may have found their way into the region through colonization, centuries later museums across the globe are asking existential questions, experimenting with redefinition, and moving toward fluidity. While Western influence may indeed be embedded in Asian traditions—in some cases to the point of inseparability—this certainly doesn’t mean that cultures cannot find unique voices amidst globalization. Digital culture poses new opportunities for building heritage through innovation, and Asia’s identity will greatly depend the direction of cultural institutions of its future.
I would like the thank the following people for contributing their advice, references, and quotes for this project: Shihoko Iida, Hiroyuki Hattori, Mika Kuraya, Marika Constantino, Makiko Hara, Konrad Ng, Lovely Umayam, Ranald Woodaman, Michael Edson, Darren Milligan, Nina F. Ichikawa, Janet Fong, Ling-Yun Tang, and Alexandra Chang. I would also like to thank the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Japan Foundation, Museums and the Web, and Erick Kendrick of Piction for supporting my recent field studies in Asia.
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