Today I went to the Sichuan University Museum, which, according to reviews, is one of the better museums in the southwest of China, with a good ethnographic section.
Peh! This does not make me want to visit other museums in southwest China.
I found the collections to be rather sparse and superficial. I suppose it was, perhaps, worth the 10 kuai student admission (about USD 1.50—I actually had a conversation with myself to convince myself that it would be worth that much to take a look even if it sucked), and their “ethnicities” section dutifully displayed artifacts and clothing from Tibetans, Qiang, Miao, Naxi, and Yi, but it hardly does justice to the complex ethnographic and linguistic make-up of southwest China. The language that I’m studying, for example, is not even mentioned (since it’s subsumed under the general category of “Tibetan”, even though the language isn’t Tibetan at all). The English descriptions posted on the walls were passable at times, and utterly nonsensical at others.
There’s a kind of interesting archaeology section in the basement, but it too is superficial. It briefly introduces various archaeological sites that have been excavated in Sichuan, displays some artifacts from them, and shows you the innards of a scaled-down model kiln. I still have no idea how a kiln actually works. (Maybe you stick bricks in one end, and plates and bowls come out the other…) But there’s so much more they could have said. What was significant about these discoveries? How did they change our understanding of history and pre-history? How does modern development, e.g., the building of the Three Gorges Dam, affect archaeological excavation? For the ethnography section, which groups have become more Sinicized, and which groups have maintained their own language and culture? How are people dealing with the loss of language and culture in the face of Han expansion? Are there efforts being made to preserve or at least document these cultures? None of these questions are addressed in the museum exhibits.
I expect the party line in tourist brochures and web sites. But from a museum affiliated with an academic institution, I expect better.
(To be fair, the shadow puppets were pretty damn cool.)