Pioneering research by a University of Nottingham academic has transformed museums in China, laying the foundation for the exclusive Dinosaurs of China exhibition which is coming to the city.
The forthcoming exhibition has emerged from the research carried out by Dr Wang Qi, an Assistant Professor in Architecture, who specialises in exhibition and museum design. He studies architectural language and how buildings deliver meaning to the public through their space and entities.
Dr Wang’s research, which first began in 2009 in the Natural History Museum, is based on the hypothesis that architectural space - how is it perceived and experienced by the user - and exhibition narrative (storytelling) which, when combined, can provide an enhanced visitor and learning experience. This gave rise to a case study on the linguistics and architecture of the Natural History Museum, and it enabled him to set up research links with the Palaeozoological Museum of China (PMC) and the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) of China.
Spurred on by his lifelong passion for palaeontology and biology, in 2011, Dr Wang was able to further develop his research at the invitation of Dr Wang Yuan, the Director of PMC, who asked him to redesign the museum’s internal space in a bid to revitalise and update its offerings. One of the key findings that emerged from Dr Wang Qi’s research in China, was the absence of curators who could showcase the museum’s collections in a way that makes them accessible and engaging to the general public.
In addition, the PMC had to contend with a small space that needed to be better organised, along with a rigid exhibition narrative that was too scientific – without a curator, the scientists had stepped in to develop the information on the exhibits.
This led to a project to regenerate the PMC in late 2011, involving four undergrads and a postgrad student. The team, led by Dr Wang, drew up five schemes that explored the use of the PMC’s architectural space to enhance the narrative or storytelling around the theory of evolution and the diversity of prehistoric flora and fauna. The research broke new ground in China where it was hailed by the Chinese media and it enabled the museum industry to overcome the traditional division of exhibition and architecture by introducing the role of the curator.
The project was featured in the Journal of Architectural Techniques in 2012. At the same time, the impact of the research expanded and accelerated, enabling Dr Wang to set up international collaborations with other natural history museums around the world. The next year saw the publication of Dr Wang’s book on the research carried out at the Natural History Museum, entitled, From Crystal Palace to Darwin Centre, the Architectural Evolution of Natural History Museum in London.
The research, along with Dr Wang’s longstanding relationship with PMC, led to talks where he suggested the museum could exhibit their dinosaur collection at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham’s local natural history museum. Thus, the Dinosaurs of China exhibition was born.
Professor Deng Tao, a palaeontologist at IVPP who has made important fossil discoveries on Cenozoic mammals explained, “We are very grateful to Dr Wang because his research has meant that the newly-introduced role of the curator is important in linking architectural space and exhibition narrative, thus enabling the palaeontologists to ‘tell their stories’ and enhance the visitors’ experience. This has allowed us to strengthen our community engagement efforts, establish closer links with the public and further encourage children’s interest in the sciences.”
Professor Andy Long, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Engineering added, “I am delighted that Dr Wang’s research in architecture has led to groundbreaking developments in curatorial practices – both in China and the UK - and I congratulate him on his success. His research demonstrates the importance of architectural space in exhibitions and how curators play a crucial role in storytelling and delivering a meaningful experience to visitors. More importantly, his work underlines the importance of the research being carried out here as a tool for building knowledge and learning, helping our partner institutions in China and across the world to clearly understand issues and concerns, and also serves as an aid to business success.”
The forthcoming exhibition will enable Dr Wang to further his research and shed new light on the “minds-on” factor by encouraging visitors to reconsider interactive exhibitions and museum design. To this end, Dr Wang aims to fully engage schoolchildren to actively think about and interpret the exhibits in their own way. Thus, while the hands are engaged, the children’s minds should be questioning, sorting through sensory inputs and making connections to create their own unique experiences.
Dr Wang’s early research also led to the development of new Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses in China. The first of which involved more than 40 different museums in China, with over 50 participants and was organised in conjunction with the V&A Museum at the Ningbo Campus in December 2015.
Then in April last year, IVPP and the University ran the first Natural History Curatorship Professional Training course in China. Over 50 museum professionals attended the session which they found to be highly valuable.
Dr Wang promoted his theory of combining spatial organisation and exhibition narrative design with the minds-on exhibition narrative, which were positively accepted by the Chinese museum professionals. He also suggested a formal Mandarin translation of the term “curator,” which has now been accepted into general use in China.
Planning is underway for a new Master’s course in Critical Curatorship and Display for 2017/8, which will be run here and at the Ningbo campus.
Nottingham is set to benefit greatly from the forthcoming exhibition which will enable the city to integrate its exhibition and education resources, establish closer links between academia and the public, while also revitalising Wollaton Park, promoting the city’s reputation and enriching life here.
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