The Museum Circuit in Contemporary China: The Institutional Regulation, Production and Consumption of Art Museums in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong


Ho Chui-fun, Selina

PhD defended at: 

University of Melbourne


This thesis questions the dominant analytical approaches in the study of China’s museums, which tend to privilege the structure and modes of production, the state and market factors, and limit the study of museum publics and visitor reception to the public-relations management approach and practical functions. This thesis suggests a new conceptual framework for studying museums in the context of China’s current political-economic transition and its related socio-cultural processes. It proposes the “museum circuit” as a model to examine the museal processes of institutional regulation, production and consumption, as well as relevant issues of representation and identity. Using this constructive and multi-perspectival approach, the thesis specifically asks why and how political and economic agents play a role in museum regulation, what meanings and modes of production are conveyed by cultural intermediaries, and how visitors can be differentiated based on their ways of appropriating or resisting museum consumption.

The study is illuminated by case studies of three art museums, namely the He Xiangning Art Museum (Shenzhen), the Hong Kong Museum of Art (Hong Kong) and the Times Museum (Guangzhou). The museums, each with their own institutional organisation form, demonstrate different circuit modes in mediating the relation between the interlinked political-economic, cultural and social spheres. They address the “politics of signification” in three different ways. Firstly, this thesis analyses the historical-institutional changes of the museum, which are the result of the central and special administrative governments and the state and private enterprises imposing their own agendas and values. Secondly, it analyses how different networks of cultural intermediaries have been involved in signification struggles, in their response to national, regional, local, global and post-colonial representational forces and agents, including the state, the market and the public. Thirdly, it analyses the visitors’ cultural orientations and social actions towards the museum based on their signification capabilities. It identifies the different segments of the public based on their modes of museum consumption, which are compatible or in conflict with the production models of the state or the museum.

In this thesis, the art museums surveyed are understood as multiple cultural circuits in which different institutional modes co-exist in complex arrangements. The circuits underlie the processes of regulation, production, and consumption and involve different agents for articulating representation and identity. The case studies interrogate the institutional boundaries that are established by political and economic agendas, and contribute to a research paradigm that highlights the socio-cultural processes in which the museums are involved. They also offer a comparative complement to aid understanding the different museum discourses and practices in the Greater Pearl River Delta Region of southern China. More importantly, the “circuit view” demonstrates that the study of China’s museums should incorporate reflection upon institutional-regulatory changes, processes of cultural production by networks of cultural intermediaries, and processes of museum consumption as practices of appropriation or resistance.