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Kirk A. Denton, Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China,

Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2014, 250 pp.
Léo Kloeckner
Translated by N. Jayaram
p. 66-67

Full text

1This book offers an original analysis of official accounts by Chinese authorities of the nation’s past, with a special focus on museums. Kirk A. Denton, professor of Chinese literature at Ohio State University, seeks to understand and measure the state’s implication in elaborating and framing official discourse, as relayed through museums. His analysis treats the museum as a political object, noting that “museums and memorial sites in China are implicated in a highly politicized process of remembering and representing the past and are subject to multiple ideological forces, among which are Maoist, liberal, and neoliberal” (p. 3).

2The analysis covers all places, institutions, and practices identifiable as memorial sites in Pierre Nora’s sense. For instance, the author devotes an entire chapter to “Red Tourism,” examining the production of figures and exemplary personages (revolutionary martyrs, popular heroes, and model leaders) that are featured in these touristic practices and that legitimise the regime. Denton thus offers a precise insight into China’s memorial landscape marked by this “exhibition rhetoric” and composed of a great variety of sites. He makes a break with “new museology,” which regards the museum as a place where visitors’ subjectivities play out, thus turning it into a space for interpretation and collective construction of meaning. He sees the museum as a configuration serving the state’s discourse, but without negating visitors’ ability to criticise such official discourse.

3Using a Foucauldian perspective, the author adopts a resolutely “statist” approach and distances himself from the recent trend in certain currents of social sciences toward stressing the role of individual agents in the social process. In his view, this tendency obscures the state’s role in constructing the Chinese museal landscape. Although a vehicle of state ideology under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the museum is not reduced to a simple manifestation of monolithic propaganda or rigid institution. Museums, like the state itself, are pulled between “an old socialist discourse and a new market ideology” (p. 9). Retention of an official communist line and the strengthening of the CCP’s hold over civil society since 1989 in a marked context of passage to a market economy has, in his view, led to the production of an “ideologically ambiguous space” (p. 9), which the museum reflects.

4His analysis also rests as much on the study of the narrative, to put it plainly, presented to visitors, as on that of the discourse of actors producing this narrative. It rests on an examination of diverse materials (visual, textual, architectural) presented in the museums, as well as archival documents and records from different periods helping the author put in perspective the evolution of the rhetoric of historical exhibitions from the end of the empire until now. The discourses analysed are not only of actors who are part of museum institutions but also of visitors, some of whom deflect or reinterpret the visual rhetorical displays set up by the authorities. Therein lies the book’s finesse, succeeding as it does in going beyond a schematic and sterile juxtaposition of the points of view of the state and the individual.

5Each chapter in the book corresponds to a museum type, helping cover the complexity and diversity of the “ambiguous ideological space” (p. 9) that constitutes the museum. Most museums studied mainly seek to commemorate episodes in the nation’s past: history museums (Chapter 1); museums devoted to memory of the revolution (chapters 2 and 3); those dedicated to the memory of national martyrs (Chapter 4); military museums (Chapter 5); and those dealing with the memory of the Japanese invasion (Chapter 6). To this list the author adds institutions, memorials, and museums devoted to popular heroes and model leaders (Chapter 7) and to literature and major literary figures (Chapter 8). Another set of exhibition sites is devoted to the narrative of Chinese nation-building, the ethnic diversity of which is showcased in ethnographic museums (Chapter 9) and the contours of which come through in red tourism routes (Chapter 10). The last chapter focuses on what the author calls “museums of the future,” that is to say, exhibition spaces that some municipalities devote to the evocation of national and local urban areas (Chapter 11). In this regard, it is rather surprising that the author has not covered the 2010 Shanghai Expo in his analysis. Despite its ephemeral character, the Expo was nevertheless a developed form of the official visual rhetoric the author deals with in the book. The Expo was a space presenting the way in which China was positioning itself on the world scene and how Shanghai envisaged its role in the twenty-first century.

6The main issue the book brings out is that of modalities of evolution in the official narrative conveyed by museums regarding the nation’s past in the ambiguous and changing ideological context of China today. How are museums changing? How are they reacting to transformations in the world outside their walls? In attempting to tackle these questions, Denton avoids painting a monolithic portrait of institutions that remain marked by some permanent features since the end of the Maoist era, linked to the role of the state and the CCP in the formulating official narratives of the past.

7The main transformations examined in the book concern references to these narratives and to the forms of museal discourse. The analysis of history museums reveals swings in references to the pre-communist and revolutionary past. The author shows that the authorities seek to situate their legitimacy more in the evocation of a long period than in a revolutionary moment envisaged on the mode of historical rupture. The previously condemned imperial and republican past is partly rehabilitated, and the narrative of the CCP’s revolutionary glories takes a larger place than that of humiliations suffered during the War of Resistance Against Japan. In the author’s view, this new approach to the past reveals the CCP’s wish to project an image of its history in consonance with the policies adopted since the state’s conversion to neoliberal ideology.

8In relation to each type of museum studied, Denton underlines that in this context of liberalisation of cultural industries, the forms of museal discourse are marked by strong commercialisation. Policies with regard to museums increasingly tend towards entertainment or rest on the construction of a brand image and heightened marketing. According to Denton, this tendency reflects the globalisation of the cultural landscape and an economic model in which museal institutions are evolving and will henceforth engage in international partnership and be open to the circulation of globalised museum models (pedagogic and architectural). According to Denton, even if this commercialisation might seem to contradict the official narrative of Chinese history influenced by the CCP, it merely reflects the “ideologically ambiguous” nature of the contemporary “Chinese memorial landscape,” and at the same time reveals the fact that the state’s discourse is neither monolithic nor immutable.

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Bibliographical reference

Léo Kloeckner, « Kirk A. Denton, Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China, », China Perspectives, 2015/1 | 2015, 66-67.

Electronic reference

Léo Kloeckner, « Kirk A. Denton, Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China, », China Perspectives [Online], 2015/1 | 2015, Online since 01 January 2017, connection on 25 August 2019. URL :

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About the author

Léo Kloeckner

Léo Kloeckner is a contractual PhD candidate in geography at Université Paris 1. He is attached to the PRODIG laboratory (UMR 8586) and edits the online journal Urbanités (

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