The location of the new Shanghai Film Museum was selected with care. Situated off a busy thoroughfare south of Xujiahui, the museum occupies the site of the original Shanghai Film Studio, now part of Shanghai Film Group.
On the building’s latticed façade, the name of the state-owned production company presides over the entrance in elegant, gold italics.
In front is a bronze statue of the studio’s logo, used from 1949-1980, depicting a peasant and two soldiers: a reminder of Mao’s creed that art should reflect the life of the working class while advancing socialism at the same time.
For most of the 20th century Shanghai was the cradle of the Chinese film industry and this museum stands as testament. Spread over four floors, the museum contains 3,000 artifacts, multimedia installations, a 4D cinema, working production studios and a café.
Important events in the history of Shanghai cinema as well as the major players – actors, actresses and directors – are showcased through interactive panels (in English and Chinese) and video clips (with English subtitles). It has taken Shanghai Film Group, the investor, five years to build, and cost around 1 billion RMB.
‘Before 1949, most Chinese films were made in Shanghai and the city was the centre of filmmaking in China and the Far East,’ says Lu Qiong, the museum’s director of operations. ‘We hope our film museum will consolidate the confidence of filmmakers in Shanghai while promoting development.’
Visitors are immediately immersed in the museum’s content. As we ascend to the start of the exhibition on the fourth floor, the lift counts down from ten to one imitating the start of an old film. We emerge to become a ‘shining star’ for the 20-second shuffle along a red light bulb carpet, accompanied by the flashes of silhouetted paparazzi.
Surfaces are dark and lacquer-like, an aesthetic continued into the ‘Galaxy of Stars’, a 4D photo album where glowing touch-screen surfaces reveal personalities from the past to present day.
In display cases are some of their personal items, such as the screenplay from Sang Hu’s Strange Adventure of a Magician (1961), the first 3D Chinese film, and a script complete with annotation from Zhejiang-born writer Xia Yan.
It’s an impressively modern history museum. Tilman Thürmer, CEO of Coordination Asia, who created the museum’s visual identity, explains that one of the main challenges was ensuring that design and content worked together.
‘We created a design that functions as a modern stage for the museum’s moving content,’ says Thürmer, whose company also designed the Shanghai Museum of Glass. ‘It is based on the essence of film: light and shadow.’ A palette of black, white and greys puts the focus on the exhibits instead of on the space itself.
‘You could say it is just like going to the theatre or cinema; the base is a dark, state-of-the-art environment and the focus is on the stars on the silver screen, on the film, on the content,’ Thürmer adds.
For China film or history geeks there are many items of wonder. One of the most precious artifacts is a photo album containing set shots of Confucius
, a 1940 film directed by Fei Mu. The film, made in the pre-Communist era, was a call to value morality and patriotism in the name of the philosopher.
Shanghai Film Studio lost the film (though a copy was anonymously donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive in 2001), but these dusty photos, found in an obscure warehouse, are now on display for the first time.
While the exhibitions are engaging – we particularly enjoy the homage to Shanghai Film Dubbing Studio – there are some noticeable gaps. We would have been fascinated to see a room chronicling the role of film as a propaganda tool in the Cultural Revolution, for instance.
In lieu there is the ‘Wall of Film Posters’, featuring ruddy-cheeked peasants and furrow-browed generals, which give a general impression of the period’s favoured genres.
More space is given to film distribution (including scale models of the city’s first cinemas) and the history of Shanghai’s major studios. Props and vintage equipment, such as a 35mm multichannel sound reproducer from 1986, are showcased on the third floor.
Even these more traditional displays are infused with multimedia and interactive elements – this is museum design 2.0.
‘In the past, museums seemed to be not so much for people,’ says Thürmer. ‘In the last two decennia this has changed for the better. Museum concepts are now developed bottom-up, from the visitor’s point of view.’
Contemporary museum design, Thürmer says, assumes a more natural role in daily life. ‘Visiting a museum is still about absorbing knowledge and educating oneself, but it became a more interactive, engaging and fun experience, far from “boring” or “dusty”.’
Additional reporting by Xia Keyu.