A Chinese Puzzle: The Representation of Ethnic Minorities in the Museums of Kunming, Yunnan Province of China

By Marzia Varutti.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In Kunming, capital of the Yunnan Province of China, almost every museum displays ethnic minorities’ artifacts. In such a context, we are given the privilege to observe how very similar items are framed in different ways, resulting in different and contrasting narratives. Museums, in China as elsewhere, have used the trust and the credibility of which they are endowed to validate their narratives as ‘scientific’, ‘objective’, ‘authentic’, thus authoritative and atemporal. Yet this is not always the case. It is my contention that the multiplicity of narratives and exhibitionary modes elicited by the case study, indexing the temporal, disciplinary and institutional heterogeneity of the Kunming museumscape, ultimately casts light on the role of governmental cultural policies in shaping the museum representation of ethnic minorities.
Theoretically drawing from the critical approaches to the museum representation of the cultural Other of Harrell, Jonsson and Gladney, I will analyse how museum objects are contextualized and how meaning is created at the Yunnan Nationalities Museum, Museum of Anthropology of the Yunnan University and Museum of the Yunnan Nationalities University.
I will show how the material culture of ethnic minorities is being alternatively framed as ethnographic, scientific, historical or artistic evidence, according to the various agendas in which it is embedded. However, it is not so much this plurality of modes of representation that is problematic, as the inconsistency of the narratives that these educe, as celebrations of the cultural diversity of the Chinese nation coexist with discourses on the ‘backwardness’ of ethnic minorities and the objectification of their culture for commercial purposes. The interstitial inconsistencies and the discontinuities among museum narratives and representations open up analytical spaces where the role of the Chinese government in orchestrating museum representations becomes visible and intelligible.

Keywords: Ethnic Minorities, China, Cultural Diversity, Material Culture, Narrative

International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp.35-42. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 621.896KB).

Marzia Varutti

PhD Candidate, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland

Marzia Varutti is a doctoral student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland. Currently based in Cambridge (UK), she is finalizing her doctoral dissertation on museums and the politics of representation in post-Maoist China.


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