Over the past millennium, Shanghai transformed from a relatively insignificant market town and county capital into a major global metropolis. A combination of technical advances in agriculture, waterway management, and the natural changes in the course of some rivers and the silting of others led, in 1292, to the founding of the county capital Shanghai. The town went through alternate periods of growth and stagnation, but by the mid-19th century, it was an international trading hub with a population of a quarter of a million people. One of the turning points in its history came in 1842, the year that the Treaty of Nanking was signed by the Qing Empire and the United Kingdom and the Treaty Port of Shanghai opened up. Over the following century, Shanghai was divided into three main sections, each operating under its own laws and regulations: the International Settlement, the French Concession, and the Chinese city. In the 1930s, the fate of the city fell into the hands of yet another foreign power: Japan. After Japan’s surrender on 15 August 1945, Chinese nationalists and communists continued their struggle for control of the city for another four years until the People’s Liberation Army “liberated” Shanghai on 25 May 1949.
From the first establishment of a museum in 1905 to the early-21st-century drive to build local museums, Chinese elites and officials have recognized the role of exhibitions in shaping the modern nation. Across this long 20th century, China’s exhibitionary culture has reflected three themes: the deployment of antiquity and tradition to inculcate national consciousness, the creation of revolutionary narratives to model political participation, and the presentation of modernity to inspire a vision of national “wealth and power.” During the Republican period (1912–1949), the Nationalists protected the imperial collection and established revolutionary memorial halls, and elites built local museums while businessmen championed native goods in national product fairs. The Communist Party, which came to power in 1949, created a Museum of the Chinese Revolution while also developing a cultural bureaucracy to preserve cultural relics. During the Mao years (1949–1976), exhibitions were part of everyday life, from rural exhibits about agricultural production to propaganda displays that justified class struggle. Since China’s period of “reform and opening-up” in 1978, exhibitions have played a central role in cultural diplomacy while also serving national aims of domestic tourism and “patriotic education.” The enterprise of the Chinese museum has always had a dual aim: to make the modern nation and to serve the pedagogical state.