Modeling China: Business, Politics, and Material in China's Museum Industry


Aleksandra (Leksa) Lee

PhD defended at: 

University of California, Irvine


Some sources estimate that a new museum opens in China every three days. By building new museums, local officials comply with state directives to incorporate “cultural” components into their development projects, and to rebalance the economy toward skilled labor. As a result, museums of local history, industry, and urban planning have proliferated rapidly across the country. While scholarship has long examined the politics of completed museums, China’s museum boom calls for analysis of the business of museums, as well as the brass tacks of how they are made.

In one museum production company called Jiangnan Design, employees research content for museums, produce graphic designs for exhibits, construct museum interiors, and negotiate with local officials. This ethnographic dissertation is based on participant observation in Jiangnan Design’s office, interviews with museum industry practitioners and local officials, and visual analysis of new museums. Jiangnan Design’s supply chains extend back to subcontractors who produce licensed replicas of historical artifacts and scale models of cities and buildings for exhibits. These objects are controversial in the museum industry, with some deriding them as mere fakes and copies, signs of China’s inability to transition to an “innovation economy.” Likewise, for some observers, companies like Jiangnan Design that grow on public capital cannot be understood as authentically private companies.

Yet in their daily work, participants in China’s museum industry draw on competing notions of public and private, and of real and fake. Just as industry participants model replicas on historical artifacts – reinterpreting them into new but recognizable forms – so they also reinterpret what kind of ideologies, markets, contracts, and bribes belong in the new economy. That is, they are in the business of modeling, but they are also modeling China. Joining studies of late capitalism and material authenticity, this dissertation points to changing understandings of real artifacts and real capitalism.