Chinese Buffet – Part 16: Shanghai’s Culture Square

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Shanghai’s People’s Square (Rénmín Gu??ngch??ng) is a manicured patch of green in Pu Xi, the western side of the city. If you’re a culture vulture, this is a good place to begin your tour of Shanghai’s museums. Several are concentrated in this area, and with some stamina, can surely be tackled all in the same day.

The haze was thick on the sweltering morning when I decided to attempt this museum marathon. It was a perfect day for hopping from one air conditioned building to the next.

But I got off to a bad start.

I began with a visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, where I quickly gathered that Beijing’s Planning Exhibition Hall (which I had visited the week before) was clearly the better of the two museums. Shanghai’s museum is older, and it shows. The architecture of the building is futuristic but uninspiring, and many of the displays were closed for repair and without English signs. The building was hot and had an unpleasant odor. As I sped through, I wondered if they are planning to spruce it up before the World Expo hits Shanghai in 2010?

Here are my photos of the urban planning museums in each city: Beijing and Shanghai. I give Beijing’s two thumbs up — it is a modern and stylish exhibit in a sleek contemporary building — definitely worth a visit. In contrast, Shanghai’s was an unimpressive disappointment.

Hoping that some artistic intervention would brighten my day, I headed next to the Shanghai Art Museum, located just a short walk around the corner:

I headed up the grand staircase of this beautiful old building, imagining what it must have been like years ago when it operated as a race horse clubhouse. There is no permanent collection here, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I was treated to several interesting exhibits, including one that transported me back home for a short while. There were old Westerns playing on a movie screen, and walls full of bright Santa Fe colors. Out West: The Great American Landscape was a delightful collection of pieces by American West artists that has traveled throughout China as part of a cultural exchange organized by the Meridian International Center. It was comforting to find this warm connection to home:

But I was also happy for the introductions I received to several Chinese artists, including Shen Roujian, a famous print-maker and water-colorist; and Xinle Ma, a contemporary painter from Xi’an. The visit to this art museum had restored my confidence in the day. It’s amazing what a little color can do to brighten the day!

Rejuvenated, I continued on, stopping briefly for a snack in the park, where I was approached by some of those “art students” I’d read about in the guidebooks. This young woman began chatting me up soon after I snapped this shot:

In both Beijing and Shanghai, tourists have been scammed by these “students” who attempt to get folks to visit art galleries or teahouses, where they are then swindled for money. I was approached by young Chinese couples (always a guy and a girl together) at least three times during my day roaming around People’s Square.

Since I was on to the scheme, after just a few minutes of talking to her, I gathered my belongings, politely excused myself and moved on. My next stop was the Museum of Contemporary Art:

This newer and smaller museum also lacks a permanent collection. It rotates one main installation at a time. I saw an exhibit called Reversing Horizons, which featured more than 30 artists reflections on the ten year anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. It was a funky modern display housed in an artsy space, with plenty of room for interpretation and imagination:

After about an hour here, I contemplated my next move. I’d been at it since 9:30 am and it was now pushing 2 pm. At this point, some folks might decide that they’ve reached their culture limit for the day, head back to their hotel and rest up before dinner.

But I pushed on, and often do when I’m on my own. I’d saved the largest museum for the afternoon, the one that all the guidebooks say is a must-see. There was some logical thinking behind why I had saved the Shanghai Museum for my last stop of the day…but that logic escapes me now!

By this time, I was definitely hungry for a first-class permanent collection and some traditional Chinese art. This was the place for it. Established in 1952, the Shanghai Museum is known for its comprehensive collection of over 120,000 pieces of Chinese bronze, ceramic, jade, sculpture, coins and calligraphy. There are also galleries dedicated to Chinese painting, seals and furniture:

The museum is well organized and provides fantastic English-language pamphlets on each of the ancient arts represented. If you’re a real art history buff, you could spend a full day or more here, but three hours was more than enough for me.

There are plenty of other pockets of culture throughout the city (like the Shanghai Art Gallery or 50 Moganshan Lu), but the People’s Square of Culture is a central location with several good offerings — ideally laid out for travelers with limited time in the city. The museums’ close proximity to each other make it easy to visit several in one day.

Be sure to look for the art beyond the walls of the museums as well. I spotted this reflection in the glass of the Shanghai Museum as I headed home, full from the day’s feast of ancient and modern Chinese culture.