Working with China creates many benefits

Andrew Mackay, Issue 115/11, p15, 01.11.2015
It requires time and face-to-face contact
In 2013, Tullie House Museum and Art on the other side of the globe with a community that
Gallery entered into a fairly loosely agreed partnership with the Imperial Decree Museum (IDM) in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, China.

The first two years focused on staff exchanges to help establish an understanding of the collections, governance, audiences and business models.

Through this process, we identified that developing audiences through learning and engagement was a priority for the IDM.

As a result, two of our staff took a small collection of Roman artefacts from our collection to China with the intention of running handling sessions with primary schoolchildren and university students.

The activity was hugely popular, gaining national press coverage and opening the eyes of Chinese museum curators and government officials to the benefits and opportunities of using collections to engage and develop audiences.

The IDM made the initial approach and, at first, it was unclear what our new partners wanted. It is an independent and privately run museum, and wanted “to improve its museum management” by exchanging staff and collections.

 However, there was a lack of focus from the IDM over the direction of travel, so we suggested an agenda for the next two years – the engagement activity in China followed by the loan of collections to the UK later this year.

The benefits of working with China far outweigh the difficulties, but being involved with a country has a vastly different culture is challenging. Aside from the language barrier, you have to contend with the Chinese government’s restrictions on Google.

This may sound insignificant but it is surprising how much digital work in the west is based on Google operating systems. The communication difficulties have probably contributed most to the slow development of our partnership.

There is a need to establish trust, common working practices and benefits to both partners, requiring time and face-to-face contact. We now have a strategy for international working
that not only identifies China as a key market, but also other countries such as the US and Germany.

A strategy helps to establish aims and objectives, and can also be an invaluable tool when it comes to persuading stakeholders of your intentions. All of Tullie House’s costs associated with working with China have come from grants and sponsors. We want to generate income and audiences, but see this as a long-term goal.

Working with China has been fantastic for staff development, confidence building and profile raising. But ultimately, we’re doing it because we want to inspire people by making our collections accessible to the widest possible audiences.

Andrew Mackay is the head of collections and programming at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle