Order of Multitudes

Object Lessons with Denise Y. Ho

Denise Y. Ho is assistant professor of twentieth-century Chinese history at Yale University. Her research interests focus on the social and cultural history of China during the Mao period (1949-1976). She is the author of Curating Revolution: Politics on Display of Mao’s China (2018). In this interview, she contextualizes China’s museum culture in a global context, and discusses the politics of display and remembrance in contemporary China.  

Yi Lu: You’ve written about museums in the context of China, where exhibitions have long been sites of political activism. What is a museum in China, and what concrete lessons does the study of China offer?  

Denise Y. Ho: Thanks so much for this question, and for including me as part of this exciting dialogue! We often take the idea of plurality in Western museums for granted, but Chinese museums offer a different experience. For example, when I first visited the War of Resistance Museum in Beijing, I remember being completely overcome by my Chinese teacher’s explanations of the dioramas, the drama of the art installations, and the solemnity of the memorial hall where I found myself alone. While museology and commemoration culture around the world has much in common, I realized that I was encountering something I had never experienced before.  

In my first book, Curating Revolution: Politics on Display in Mao’s China, I write about the various functions of a museum or an exhibition in Mao-era China (1949-1976). I argue that museums function as collections and as sites of historical narrative—the idea of a museum as a textbook—but that in the Mao era exhibition halls served as space for participatory propaganda. So museums not only reflected history, they also made revolution: by teaching visitors about how to participate in political campaigns, from identifying class enemies to how to write denunciations. Museums in China today have come a long way from the rhetoric of class struggle, but they maintain the imperative of supporting the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.  In other words, the state museum in China is an ideological space.  

Yi Lu: At a time when museums in the US reckon with institutional racism, and when Western museums face calls to decolonize their collections, the Chinese government is increasingly centralizing its official narrative. I’m thinking of, for example, cases from Xinjiang to Hong Kong.  Can museums ever be neutral custodians of cultural heritage?  

Denise Y. Ho: This is a great question. One of the great transformations in museology is the role of museums in truth and reconciliation. Growing up in the 1990s, I witnessed first-hand the building of such museums. I visited the Museum of Tolerance when it opened in Los Angeles in 1993 as part of a school field trip. I later volunteered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum before grad school. One way of reckoning with racism and imperialism is re-inscription. The Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris is built on the site of the 1931 colonial exhibition. While the original building, with its Art Deco bas-reliefs of colonial peoples and products, and interior murals depicting colonial rule as a form of enlightenment, have been preserved, the exhibitions within reinscribe the site, including a permanent exhibition on the history of immigration and special exhibits on the role of immigrants in French society.  The resulting juxtaposition acknowledges the legacy of imperialism while underscoring today’s values. 

Whenever I see a museum like this, I wonder about what alternatives might exist for a museum in China. This is something that Jie Li envisions in her recent book, Utopian Ruins: A Memorial Museum of the Mao Era, which she concludes with an epilogue entitled “Notes for Future Curators.”  Here she makes suggestions for how China’s Mao-era past might be memorialized, referring to both practices without, such as Germany’s “stumbling stones” and to practices within, such as the Mao-era practice of doing grassroots history. Of course, she calls these “future” curators, because in the present political environment in China we have a constriction of academic freedom and public discourse, which has altered the landscape of possibilities.  

In the case of Xinjiang, we have the internment of more than a million Uighurs in so-called reeducation centers.  It is a gross human rights violation, to say nothing of a form of cultural, linguistic, and religious erasure. It is hard to imagine what “decolonization” would look like in the context of the Xinjiang Provincial Museum. Likewise, the Hong Kong Museum of History has a permanent exhibition called the “Hong Kong Story,” which only led up to the handover in 1997 and is currently undergoing renovation.  How it will look will be an important indicator of contemporary political tensions. To return to your question, “can museums ever be neutral custodians of cultural heritage,” I would say the answer is no.  Insofar as culture is political, museums will be shaped by current politics. But I think that there is a continuum: the more democratic and pluralistic a society is, the better it will fare on the spectrum of neutrality. 

The Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris, Formerly site of 1931 Colonial Exhibition
Photo by Denise Y. Ho

Yi Lu: Together with Professor Jennifer Altehenger at Oxford, you have curated an online teaching and exhibition portal “The Mao Era in Objects“. How did you put together this collection? Is there a narrative about the Mao era that you want to offer? Do digital surrogates diminish the experience? Finally, given the popularity of Mao era objects in China, I ask: can we democratize memory without democratization?

Denise Y. Ho: Thank you for the opportunity to highlight The Mao Era in Objects!  We hope that it will be a broadly useful tool for teaching both about China and about material culture. The website is part of a grant funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Jennifer Altehenger. All the objects are curated from a network of academics—historians primarily but also art historians, architectural historians, scholars of cultural studies—and museum professionals. My contribution is an essay on “big-character posters.” As you can see from the list of “object biographies,” the website features items that are iconic, like the Little Red Book and Mao badges, but also objects of the everyday, like fabric and washbasins.  The narrative is thus one that both accompanies and departs from textbook periodizations of modern Chinese history.  If you look under the “aggregated timeline,” for example, you’ll see how some events—like the campaign to produce particleboard—mapped onto a campaign like the Great Leap Forward. But others—like the brick and wall reform—preceded events like the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. I think the purpose of the website is to start a conversation and to serve as a point of departure for inquiry.  

Yi Lu: Can we democratize memory without democratization?  

Denise Y. Ho: One phenomenon we’ve observed in China over the past decade is a proliferation of museums, from local museums to private museums. I think that the appearance of private museums was at first a hopeful sign that memorial culture would be more diverse. But we have to remember that private museums exist with the blessing of the state, so there are limits to the narratives they are permitted to hold. And privatization is not the same as democratization. Some years ago, I was visiting the Jianchuan Museum Cluster in Sichuan Province, regarded as the largest private museum in China. I ran into a group of students studying tourism and we sat around talking about what they had seen. One young woman explained that she had come looking for the past that her grandmother had experienced, but could find no trace of it at all.  So no—unofficial, private memory does not equal democratic memory.  

Yi Lu: You are working on a new book project on China’s southern frontiers—Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Instead of stories of high politics, you emphasize the flow of people, ideas, and commodities during the Cold War: the Iron Curtain was more a bamboo curtain. Is there an object that illustrates this dynamic? What can objects tell us about Chinese history that regular sources—from written documents to visual records—cannot?

Denise Y. Ho: Yes! There is an object, though it is actually an object with more objects in it, and it is a type rather than a fixed thing: luggage or the care package. At the Hong Kong-China border, people would fill up luggage with items available in Hong Kong but scarce or more expensive across the border in China, from baby formula to branded goods. “Foreign domestic helpers” would send these care packages to their families in the Philippines, too. You could trace the history of a family through care packages: in the beginning, the boxes contain toys and clothes; twenty years later, the boxes are filled with makeup and handbags. In the process, a little girl has grown up. I found this incredibly poignant, the history of an intimate relationship—and words perhaps unspoken—through material things.  

During the Cold War, we had a phenomenon in Hong Kong after 1949 when parcel posts between Hong Kong and China ended, called the “small packet” (xiaobao youjian).  The Hong Kong Post and the Macau Post accepted two-pound “small packets,” and there were also small packet middlemen who carried packages across the border to be mailed in China, from Shenzhen. At the same time, an entire industry of small packet companies sprang up, from street stalls to major department stores. It worked like this: you could go to a shop, purchase food or other items, and they would be mailed to China on your behalf. This system existed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but it reached its peak during the years of the famine, when Hong Kong people would mail one or two million “small packets” through the post each month. 

To me, these packages—or the luggage that sometimes contained them—illustrates the dynamic of the so-called “bamboo curtain.” You see the persistence of familial ties and expressions of care and concern, the juxtaposition of one world of plentiful commodities with another world of privation, and the response of the diaspora, which came up with a solution when states could not or did not. Can these “small packets” tell us something that other sources cannot? Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a “small packet” as an artifact, or even—beyond the newsreels—photographs of the packages.  But I think the objects can tell us about how people communicated beyond letters—actually letters were not allowed in “small packets”—and it can also tell us how objects produced or sold outside of China circulated within China during this era. It can supplement our historical record, one that would include things like customs documents, newspapers, and memoirs.  

Yi Lu: In the wake of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, one of the most telling barometers of politics is the Lennon Wall: once filled with messages calling for universal suffrage and political freedom, these mosaic walls now contain sticky notes without words. Objects can communicate what words cannot. Beyond symbolism, how can the protest movements in Hong Kong be preserved, especially in light of the new national security law? Are there still ways to protect—and enlarge—spaces for collective memory and creative expression?

Denise Y. Ho: Your question points to a bigger one: how do we preserve ephemeral objects? I don’t have a direct answer to how to preserve the art of protest movements in Hong Kong, but I do know that conversations about how to protect leaflets, sticky notes, and larger artworks were part of the protest movement from the beginning. Archiving becomes itself a political act. There has been a tremendous amount of photography of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement of 2014 and of course, the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019. It is hard to capture what these items look like in their context without this visual record. So I hope that the various organizations working on this are able to preserve not only the objects but a record of the context in which they were presented, because this makes them all the more powerful. 

But as you mention, the National Security Law calls such preservation into question, especially because some of the slogans can now, retroactively, be construed as violations of the National Security Law. When words are crimes, one can only post the blank note. In this way we find ourselves back at one of your earlier questions, “Can we democratize memory without democratization?” Perhaps one takeaway is that memory can also be the proverbial canary in the coal mine, that museums—and the historical narratives they present—are a measure of democratic and pluralistic society.

Street posters from Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement
Photo by Denise Y. Ho