UK hitches ride on Chinese bandwagon

Heritage sector welcomes memorandum of understanding that will support cultural exchange between the two countries
Profile image for Gareth Harris
Gareth Harris
A recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the UK government and China will forge new cultural partnerships between the two countries, helping national museums such as Tate and the British Museum to make inroads into the Chinese market, the government hopes.

Culture secretary John Whittingdale and arts minster Ed Vaizey met with their Chinese counterparts in late September to agree the deal, which includes more than £4m of UK government funding designed to support cultural exchange between the two countries.

Some culture professionals say that these developments, which will attract Chinese audiences, are long overdue.

Philip Dodd, the chairman of Made in China UK, which facilitates partnerships between the two countries, and the chairman of the Global Private Museum Summit event, says: “The truth is that the UK is coming to the table a lot later than other European countries.”

Exhibition funding

Tate will receive £1.3m to support a Chinese tour of its Landscapes of the Mind: British Landscape Painting (1700-2007) exhibition, while £750,000 will go towards staging the British Museum’s exhibition A History of the World in 100 Objects at the National Museum of China.

An additional £500,000 has been awarded to London’s Southbank Centre towards
a new festival called Love China, which will take place annually from 2016-19, while £300,000 will support the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) creation of a bilingual English-Mandarin database of pre-1900 Chinese cultural and literary sources.

Gail Lord, co-author of new publication Cities, Museums and Soft Power, says: “The UK is playing catch up, as many European countries have done this. But the fact that this is a tourism memorandum of understanding makes great sense. The idea of an annual festival is a positive soft power initiative.”

Regional support needed

Under the new partnership, £700,000 will be put towards encouraging more Chinese visitors to explore the north of England. But Lord believes that even more could be done to foster links between regional museums in the two countries.

“There are plenty of smaller exhibition centres in China, outside the main cities, with huge display halls that have a hunger for UK exhibitions,” she says.

“It’s disappointing that most of the funding and resources will go towards London museums,” says Dodd. He adds that to obtain the best modern and contemporary works, the government needs to work particularly with private museums in China.

“Regional cities and institutions in both China and the UK should have been included in the MOU agreement.”

Museums and galleries were previously missing out on attracting Chinese tourists, who needed to obtain a separate visa for entry to the UK. But in July, the government simplified visa applications for Chinese visitors through a partnership with Belgium.

The UK-Belgian Visitor Service allows travel permits for Britain and Schengen Area countries across Europe to be processed in centres in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Bernard Donoghue, the director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, said that organisations “must ensure that sites are “China- ready” in terms of signage and language provision.

“We saw a rise in Chinese visitors from 5% in 2013-14 to 7% in 2014-15,” says a British Museum spokeswoman.

“We did have two Chinese shows last year – Ming: 50 Years that Changed China and Gems of Chinese Painting – but the number of visitors to the museum from China has been steadily increasing over the past few years.”

But at the V&A, the number of visitors from China fell 10.4% to 26,554 between 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Ultimately, the government initiative is a good thing, says Dodd, who stresses that “we should be interested in culture even if we don’t pursue the opportunities in commerce [with Chinese counterparts]. It does mean that we are looking beyond the Cool Britannia label and being less insular.”

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