Chinese Museums

– by Zhao Zhe –

A museum is an ideal place to store historical information and precious recovered exhibits, to recreate or represent ancient times and maybe to reproduce people’s lifestyles and cultures. A museum is also a public place for people to learn, to gain knowledge and to enjoy the experiences of global civilizations and arts. Therefore, many outstanding architects contribute their time and energy to design such repositories of the past, trying to bring the antique life and exhibits to life. Many museums are designed to echo the functions within, allowing visitors to know the theme of the museum from the façade; while others are designed to minimize the dominance of the architecture as such, in order to emphasize the artefacts. Yet others try to be landmarks of the city – standing out as opposed to integrating into the surroundings.

Here we take a look at a number of different museums around China and their different approaches to design.
Liangzhu Museum
-Zhao Zhe-

Liangzhu Museum, designed by David Chipperfield, is located in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Built in 2008, the 9500 m2 museum displays large quantities of jade artefacts which were excavated during the Liangzhu Neolithic civilization 2,000 – 3,000BC). This display aims to show off the prowess of the Liangzhu culture.


In order to integrate the museum within the natural surroundings, Liangzhu Museum has been constructed on a man-made island enclosed by wooded mountains and a small lake. Consequently, visitors need to cross a bridge to get to the building. On approach, the building is hidden within trees and hills, seamlessly blending into the local environment.


Adopting the concept of integration, the architect has designed a large museum in a minimalistic way. The architecture consists of four parallel rectangular masses 18m long, which serve as main exhibition halls. These interlaced masses differ in height and increase the layering effect of the space while echoing with the surrounding water. These four areas are connected to the building with three separate courtyards which also act as the beginning and end of the circulation of the building. Large openings within the wall connect the courtyards to outside scenery permitting surrounding views to flow into the museum. The strong contrast between the dark and solemn exhibition hall compared with the bright and relaxing courtyards enhances the sense of space for the museum.


Inside the exhibition halls, the architects’ main focus was the circulation ensuring a well-functioning building. In order to make economic use of the space, the circulation snakes across the room and emphasizes movement in one direction. Therefore, tourists are guided by the sinuous walls to visit all the exhibits efficiently. Furthermore, incomplete wall partitions and well-placed exhibits emphasize the sense of meandering circulation, obscuring the view creates curiosity about later showpieces encouraging movement, augmenting the mystery of the museum.


Liangzhu Museum not only presents contemporary architectural design, but also reflects the continuity of Liangzhu civilization through history; it is not only designed with strong and distinguished individual architecture, but is also well integrated within its natural scenery.
National Palace Museum
-Bian Zhifan-

5 The Palace Museum is located on Zhishan Road, Shilin District, Taipei, and was constructed between 1962-1965. The museum is in the Chinese formal and traditional palace style; but is fundamentally different to Beijing’s Forbidden City, for example.



Starting from the Memorial Gate, the visitor is taken along a long central axial arcade lined with palm trees to reinforce a sense of formal solemnity. The Palace Museum is set at the end of the arcade and elevated by its surrounding terrain. Decorated with green tiles over a corn-coloured wall the timber brackets are primarily used as ornaments under the roof rather than as structural elements. The museum houses around 700,000 pieces in its collections.

In Taipei, there exist a number of traditional buildings imitating Chinese palaces for obvious reasons: that Chiang Kai Shek, the Republican leader preferred ancient architectural form. Therefore, this museum has been created specifically for political reasons to be representative of traditional palace buildings in Taipei.


The museum interiors are both mysterious and luxurious. In the middle are large main staircases that divide the exhibition halls in two. Inside each exhibition hall, the visitor’s route is clear but compared to the grand and traditional external appearance, the interior is more modern, utilizing light and shade. It is also more capacious that suspected on first appearances, but even so, so many tourists swarm around the main exhibition hall, that queues – even in this huge space – form up the staircases.
Taiwan 9.21 earthquake museum
-Xie Minghuan-


Located in Taizhong, Taiwan, Taiwan 9.21 earthquake museum is designed by Wenjie Qiu and constructed in 2001.

As one of the best earthquake museums in the world, it expresses a unique concept of binding a natural wound in the earth. It was built on an abandoned primary school which went through the devastating 1999 earthquake, which registered 7.3 on the Richter Scale. The resultant loss of life and damage to property put it among the worst natural disasters of the past century in Taiwan. Here all the ruins of the school are kept as one part of the museum, and these bond well with the new architecture. The site is clearly fundamental to this museum and keeping the ruins is one way to have a direct educational benefit to locate, understand and learn from seismic faults.

The museum consists of five different partitions and each one has a different theme. When going into the museum, people will first go through a corridor which is established along the tragic school playground with the seismic fault within it. From here to the main areas and other exhibition halls. Along the way, visitors are taken past actual ground shift damage covered by the extended fabric roof, which in these locations resembles nothing more than an emergency shelter tarpaulin.


The architect treats the seismic fault as a physical and metaphorical gap in the site and the museum is built to resembled a needle and string to suture this tear. Fortunately, this concept is not carried out literally, but with some panache reflected by using a large number of steel supports with cable tensioning. Therefore, the museum provides three different spatial experiences: the indoor space  covered by concrete and glass; the semi indoor space covered by membranes; and the outdoor space. By taking “advantage” of the site’s seismicity, the architect successfully integrates the (literally) flexible architectural space with the natural topography, however erratic is that topography. This kind of architectural method makes a good combination with educational goal and architectural goal.
Shanghai Himalayas Museum
-Li Sheng-


Shanghai Himalayas Museum was originally established as Zendai Museum of Modern Art in 2005 before migrating into the Zendai Himalayas Centre. Being a non-profit art institution, the museum aims to enrich the cultural understanding of this area and explores the new ways of integrating the intangible cultural heritage within a modern society.

Designed by Isozaki Arata, Zendai, the Himalayas Centre shows its creativity in its facade. Comparing to the normal and simple box-shape buildings, it breaks the frames of straight lines and reaches a graphic representation of its mountainous namesake, The Himalayas. Irregular windows and open spaces form the unexpected façade: some say that the façade is “pinched by the wind”.


Diagonal columns inside mirror the exterior form well conceived as a combination of distorted wormholes in the universe, allowing artists and visitors to create and communicate with artwork in a dynamical space. It is also regarded as root of a huge forest, supporting not only the construction but also the artistry of the region. As such, visitors feel like wandering in a stone forest.

13As an important part of Zendai Himalayas Centre, the Shanghai Himalayas Museum shares an atmosphere of irregularity and variation in some of its exhibition areas. Except for some special exhibits that need strong light, soft, borrowed light is designed to provide a relaxing environment in the major exhibition area.



Some other exhibition areas are clear and simple, encouraging visitors to pay more attention on exhibits themselves rather than the surrounding environment, which is sometimes difficult given the distracting and overtly expressive interiors. Some workshops for children and fans of handicraft are held in regular intervals aiming at educating and sharing.



In 1949, China had 25 museums. By 2012, there were 3,866 (with 451 new museums constructed in that year alone). Statistics are dubious, but so is the intent of many of these buildings: are there, for example, enough artefacts that meaningfully fill these buildings?

All over China, large and small-scale museums − some no more than family homes − are cropping up, contributing to the official statistic that cites China as having more museums than the UK. But does the creation and existence of museums mean the same as the existence and value of culture? Discuss.