National Museum of Cambodia. Photo by kfcatles.

National Museum of Cambodia. Photo by kfcatles.

A heat map of museum activity in Asia would show the whole region aglow. At first glance, if you’ve been getting your story from mainstream American media, you might think Asian institutions are becoming just like us, or beating us at our own game: the National Museum of Cambodia recently put its collection online thanks to a grant from an American foundation, and the Mumbai airport recently unveiled the largest airport gallery in the world. Other stories might give the opposite impression: a museum in China was shuttered after nearly its entire collection of 40,000 artifacts was found to be fake; in some public museums in Southeast Asia, staff are government employees who have been demoted to what is seen as an undesirable role.

So what’s really happening? I have spent the last two years as Programs Director at a private ethnology museum in Laos, but I’ve been following these developments for much longer. During the three years I lived in China after college, I became interested in museums as a platform to share my growing appreciation of Asia with a wider audience. My interest deepened back in the U.S., as I researched China’s recent cultural policy changes and their impact on museums for a master’s degree in China Studies and then wrote more broadly about museum issues in Asia for a museum studies certificate. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the story is as complex as the continent, a medley of unique political systems, museum governance structures, geographies, human resource policies, levels of development, and education systems.

I can’t tell that whole story in a single post, but I do want to share some of what I have seen unfolding in museums across developing Asia.

The boom

Over the past several years, prominent news sources have reported the growth of museums in Asia: The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Economist. The focus is often on China. In 2011, at the People’s Consultative Congress, former President Hu Jintao announced China’s plans to become a world leader in the arts and to make cultural industries a pillar industry by 2015. To make good on its plans, Beijing earmarked more money for the construction of new museums and to make public museums free. But the government alone isn’t driving the growth. Affluent businessmen are opening their own museums to house the private collections they’ve amassed at auctions. All over China, even in sparsely populated regions, new museums go up at the astounding rate of about 100 a year.

But other places are beginning to share some of the spotlight. Further south in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country and fourth largest by population in the world, similar conditions for art museum growth exist: economic prosperity and strong competitiveness in the international art market, with Indonesian artists beginning to break local price records. Indonesia also has one thing to credit for the creation of new museums in general that China doesn’t: rapid political decentralization. Each province in the country must have a museum, and new provinces come into existence at a surprisingly frequent rate.

Thailand’s strong national interest in archeology and the sheer volume of artifacts being discovered motivate the building of new museums, although fewer than in China and Indonesia. Alongside these more traditional (albeit brand-new) institutions, a robust network of grassroots, community-based museums adopting unconventional practices has sprung up as the result of local training opportunities.

Though India has also seen a relatively modest increase in the number of museums, it has a growing network of international partnerships. Recent agreements signed with the Tate and the Metropolitan Museum may go further in raising the level of museum practice in the country through the loan of objects that will help keep exhibits fresh, research collaborations, and joint learning programs for staff and fellowships.

In Asia as elsewhere, museums come into being for a variety of reasons and through a variety of actors. Burgeoning economic prosperity is often the impetus for museum growth. Yet slower economic development does not preclude it. Because many national governments, occupied with meeting other development benchmarks, have been slow to invest in arts and culture for purposes outside of economic growth, other parties have stepped in. Organizations owned in whole or in part by foreigners, or grassroots artist cooperatives such as San Art in Vietnam or the Cemeti Art House in Indonesia, may fill the art-for-art’s-sake gap. Their unaffiliated status translates to more flexibility in hiring, fundraising, interpreting their collections, and setting their own budget and agenda. Private museums are still much less common in Asia than public ones, but they, too, are part of the boom.

Audience, outreach, and local impact

Tourism and the local audience

Tourism contributes significantly to the economies of Asian countries. This can be helpful in keeping up foot traffic for museums – but whose feet, and at what cost? Many Asian museums have geared themselves toward foreign visitors, for at least two reasons: money and education.

It’s not uncommon for museums to offer free entry for locals. These patrons’ lack of financial contribution, however, may lead to their neglect. In a country like Laos, in which tourists make up a large part of museum visitation, locals may be put off by the fact that the majority of guests are not like them – a familiar refrain for American museums struggling to reach out to underrepresented groups. When tourism drives the local economy, the tourist is king, and the quality of service provided to locals may receive little attention, if any at all, in programming and promotion.

In addition to having more money, tourists also tend to be better educated. One of the biggest shifts in my own thinking about exhibit design after moving to Laos was about assumed literacy and comfort with self-guided discovery. The same Asia that is home to economies such as Singapore, Korea, and Shanghai, envied for their top-ranking academic performance, also suffers from development-stunting education systems. Literacy statistics for Asia—especially South and Southeast Asia, which is most of the continent in terms of both population and landmass—look deceptively high when the reality is that they only measure basic, not functional, literacy. As museums in Asia have added less familiar objects to their collections and adopted the Western model of explaining them with labels, some have risked losing connection with their local audience. What good are labels and panels if your audience can’t read well enough to understand the signage?

Going local

But the story may yet have a happy ending. I have noticed several hopeful signs that Asian museums may be paying more attention to local communities. Last November, I met Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the director of the encyclopedic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai, India, at a conference. I was impressed with the recent push in India for museums to appeal to all segments of society. Mukherjee was clearly interested in this topic: he questioned speakers at the end of every session, challenging museum directors from the West to rethink their audience.

It turns out Mukherjee’s commitment to orienting museums towards their communities is working for him back home. At the CSMVS, local participation increased by almost 50% over a three-year period, thanks to a mix of dynamic exhibits and unconventional programming. In the United States, we take for granted that a museum will display objects from other countries. By contrast, typical museum collections in Asia consist primarily of artwork or objects from that country’s own heritage and history, given their focus on preservation and guardianship of national heritage. India stands out in Asia for its ability to host blockbuster exhibits of artwork and artifacts from around the world. Both the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert have brought shows to the CSMVS, and other notable exhibits have featured paintings of Rubens and Van Dyck.

Mukherjee has also experimented with museum buses, which carry objects from the collection to neighborhoods throughout Mumbai and offer free access to locals. The program began as outreach to schoolchildren, but has since expanded its focus to reach suburbanites. The CSMVS has also begun to partner with NGOs to do programs with marginalized communities, such as sex workers and HIV patients.

The push in India for accessible art goes beyond the CSMVS, and it includes public art. Leading that initiative is Rajeev Sethi, the designer behind the T2 terminal at the Mumbai airport I mentioned at the start of this post. Though the idea of art in airports is not unique, the initiative is much broader. Sethi envisions the whole country as a museum and advocates bringing art dug up from museum basements “back to lived spaces—railway stations, bus stops, public parks, hospitals” – to serve a richer pool of stakeholders than he believes the Western view of museums supports.

Faced with a rapidly growing consumer class, museums in Indonesia are also trying to adapt their approach to their public. Until a few years ago, Indonesian museums were run by the Ministry of Tourism, where they enjoyed relatively high levels of financial support and attention. Their main audience under this ministry was foreigners or traveling Indonesians, which meant that exhibits changed infrequently — it matters less if your information is static if you have few repeat visitors. Museums were seen mostly as places of leisure, and money was poured into them to attract tourists.

In 2010, control switched to the Ministry of Education and Culture, which has a budget predominately allocated to education, and funding levels dropped. But this move also prompted museums to begin to think of themselves as serving the people of Indonesia and having an important role in informal education. A series of locally focused initiatives began then that included a Museum Visit Year campaign and revitalization projects. Most recently, in 2013, thirteen museums in Jakarta took their collections to that most public and popular of institutions, the mall. They hosted a museum week cosponsored by the Jakarta Post and the Ministry that featured an expo-style layout of booths with exhibits. Visitors were able to see exhibits and objects they might otherwise not have seen. The organizers hope to make this an annual event, and there is optimism that over time the event will bring more visitors to the museums in their own cities.

Human Resources

The Role of the Curator

Staffing has traditionally been a challenge for private and public museums alike in Asia, limiting the vitality and even sustainability of these institutions. With a glut of museums opening quickly and then having virtually no visitors, or even closing, China‘s example has shown that the success of new museums often depends on having the right people running and staffing them.

Museum professionals in the West take for granted that decisions about the collection and interpretation of objects—a principal function of a museum—will be made by a curator, someone with specialized content knowledge and appointed for that specific purpose. In China, curation has only emerged as a distinct role over the past ten years. In that time, though, it has taken off: it’s not uncommon for established museums to have hundreds of exhibits a year. Flexing its new muscles in this area, the National Art Museum in China sponsored its first international Asian Art Curator Forum last September, which gathered eighty curators from thirty countries.

However, less developed countries in the region still have a long way to go. In the most extreme cases, such as some government museums, curators may actually be seen as unnecessary, since exhibits may only change every five years. More often, where turnover is somewhat higher, curation may be outsourced to independent consultants.

It’s not just curators, either. Several roles in Western museums, such as marketing, fundraising, digital media, and visitor services, simply do not have counterparts in Southeast Asia, where job categories reflect an institutional focus on preservation or research on new archaeological finds.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, museum workers in parts of developing Asia come to the museum with very different training than what might be typical for young museum staff in America.  For example, those in parts of Southeast Asia may have studied history, art history, biology, anthropology or archaeology only up to the university level – and in some cases, maybe only at the high-school level. It’s highly unlikely that they have specialized museum education or experience interning or volunteering at a museum, so training happens on the job. For example, in Cambodia and Myanmar, the respective National Museums are charged with the professional development of the entire country’s museum staff after they are hired. What’s more, government museum staff may lack not only expertise but even interest. Because civil service positions are often coveted for their benefits rather than actual job responsibilities, motivating public museum workers can be especially challenging and those who are motivated may find themselves isolated.

This, too, is beginning to change. Thailand has taken a leading role in providing professional development in Southeast Asia through its involvement in regional networks such as the SEAMEO SPAFA Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts and with the support of members of the royal family through the Princess Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre and Museum Field School. Students from throughout Southeast Asia attend these programs, where instructors include regional experts and museum professionals from the U.S., Australia, and Europe. Add that to its relatively strong economic performance within mainland Southeast Asia and open government, and Thailand offers a possible vision of the future for museums in the region.

Leapfrogging into the 21st Century

We sometimes think of museums in the West as in search of their second life, a return to some – perhaps nonexistent – point in the past when they enjoyed widespread popularity. For the majority of museums in Asia, the second life they are building is really a first life: until recently, many of them were essentially public storage facilities and archives.

Development economists talk about technology leapfrogging, in which emerging economies bypass earlier stages of technology use. For example, rural villages may skip entirely over having landlines in their homes to use smart phones, or skip over dial-up Internet and start with wireless. With increased opportunities to collaborate on shared challenges, leapfrogging may catapult Asian museums directly into the future, perhaps with Western museums along for the ride. Institutions around the world can benefit from grappling together on issues such as cultivating first generation audiences, stretching limited institutional resources, enriching visitor experience, representing underrepresented or misrepresented groups, motivating reluctant staff to rethink the role of museums in society, promoting social inclusion and diversity, and creatively seeking funding.

Some organizations already facilitate this dialogue. Through the Asia-Europe Foundation, an international nonprofit based in Singapore with nearly forty member countries, the Asia-Europe Museum Network ASEMUS collaborates on the mapping of Asian collections, supports staff exchange, and hosts a biannual conference. Though no formal US-Asia museum-specific organization exists, the American Alliance of Museums, which has been involved in supporting international programs for over twenty-five years, is expanding its international museum work and now includes a US-China Exhibition Exchange. And a number of individual programs have been building valuable bridges. The Asia Society has hosted several events bringing together museum leaders from the West and Asia, such as the 2012 US-China Museum Directors Forum and last November’s Arts + Museum Summit in Hong Kong. The Asia Foundation sponsors the Asian Art Museum Fellowship in Asian Art, and the Asian Cultural Council supports artistic exchange between artists and arts professionals in the US and Asia.

How could we embrace even more collaboration? One possibility would be to create an international non-Western certificate track in graduate museology programs designed for American students who would ultimately either work in Asia or specialize in Asian art at museums in the West. In addition to general courses in museum studies, the track would involve coursework in cross-cultural leadership, non-Western heritage practices, and language study. Through partnerships with museums in Asia, students would have summer internships in the region; after graduation, some would have the opportunity to go back to work for the host institution as a visiting specialist. Local staff would then have the opportunity to receive training from the visiting specialists in their own countries from individuals with knowledge of the local context. American universities that already have satellite campuses in Asia might be a good place to start.

Another idea might be to set up an organization similar to PUM Netherlands Senior Experts, a nonprofit that provides consulting services to small and medium-sized enterprises in emerging markets. PUM’s 3,200 volunteer specialists are matched with assistance requests and deployed abroad for up to several weeks to work on discrete projects; host organizations just pay for local accommodation and food. The advantage of this model over a traditional museum consultancy firm taking on international work would be its affordability, allowing even financially-strapped museums to participate, and focus on overall self-sufficiency.

As attention focuses on the museum landscape in Asia, it’s important to realize that the changes taking place there are as diverse as the region itself. In some places, evolution is rapid; in others, measured. But across the continent, I have been impressed by the sparks of life that characterize many new museum projects and programs. Asia is home to some of the most remarkable economic growth stories of modern history, including Singapore, South Korea, China, and India. As momentum builds across the region, I look forward to the changes it will bring to the museum and cultural heritage landscapes here.

  • Sarah Franke

    Alicia, this was a fascinating read. I was really struck by the incredible sense of opportunity throughout the work, museums, and people you describe, both for deliberate best practices, and for organic, energetic engagement and innovation with the local community and for the rest of the world. Thanks for writing about these challenges and resources – hope to hear more.