Metropolitan Museum of Art brings Oceania collection to Shanghai
Wang Siwen

Major international exhibitions are heading to China as the country eases COVID-19 restrictions. Among these is an exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) titled "The Shape of Time," which is traveling outside the U.S. for the first time since joining the institution's collections. 


An exhibition of pieces from Oceania, "The Shape of Time" is being showcased at Shanghai's Museum of Art Pudong.  

Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Max Hollein, who is in China for the first time in four and a half years, is a guest on the first episode of "Art without Boundaries," a new series that features interviews with heads of museums and galleries from across the globe. 

Q: It's your first time visiting China after the pandemic, how do you like your trip so far? 

I love being back here in Shanghai. It's such a vibrant, powerful city. Last time I was here was 4.5 years ago, just before the pandemic. So for us, it's a wonderful occasion, on the one hand, to celebrate a new collaboration with the Museum of Art Pudong, being able to share some of the masterpieces of the Met with citizens of Shanghai, but really also reconnecting with our friends here in China and the cooperation with Chinese museums. 

Q: The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the United States. As for this exhibition, “The Shape of Time,” it’s the Met’s debut in Shanghai. Can you tell us more about your cooperation with Chinese museums? 

It's our Oceanic collection. For the very first time, it actually leaves the museum ever since Nelson Rockefeller put this collection together. This is a very special way to collaborate with the Museum of Art Pudong. We have other great collaborations going on and very strong ties with other institutions all across China. The Met is a universal institution; an institution that is connected not only to so many different cultures through its collections, but also connected to many different institutions around the world, especially with our friends in China. 

Q: What work of art is your personal favorite? 

This particular show is full of outstanding works, iconic works. I have many favorites; some of them are really special. Particular objects I like are those door boards. They kind of show faces of ancestors, and how these two door boards initially create this threshold between outside and inside, to a joint knowledge, a joint experience, and sharing ancestry. 

Q: The China-US relationship has faced twists and turns in recent years. What role can art play in bridging divides? Why are exhibitions like this important for both countries? 

I think museums in general, art also, in even broader sense, are about communication. It's about dialogue, it's about cultural bridges that we continue to build. Those are so important in our time. It's obvious that our world goes through a whole set of different challenges, and tensions building up between different countries. But art, culture, and cultural institutions are here to create these dialogues that we all share, like our shared common humankind and our way of living together. 

Q: The Met is one of the most prominent art museums in the world. What’s your typical day like as the director there? 

A typical day at work first starts with an early morning walk through the empty galleries, which is a very big privilege. Those are wonderful ways to go to your office. And then we are so involved in so many different areas around the world with so many different issues, challenges and opportunities. There are not so many meetings, but really thinking about what the museum can do next? Where can we seize an opportunity? Where should we react? We are still an institution that is acquiring a lot of works. Also, scholars research deeply into our collection and find new ways to share our collections with the world, to disseminate our knowledge to as many people as possible. 

Q: The Met is one of the top tourist attractions in the U.S. This is the fourth consecutive year the museum has surpassed 6-million visitors, drawing a huge number of Chinese tourists as well. Are there any strategic plans in place to attract more overseas travelers, especially Chinese? 

Chinese visitors are our most important international tourist community. Before the pandemic, 14 % of our total international visitors were Chinese. It's the biggest community of foreign visitors that changed during the pandemic; it's only slowly building up again. I think it's important, not only to wait, but also be here, like what we are doing right now here in Shanghai. We want to make sure that people see the beauty and possibilities of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Also, when they consider coming to New York, we are the number one tourist attraction in New York, the museum that they should be visiting. We are looking forward to receiving more and more visitors from China in the months and years to come. 

Q: Why is it important to come face to face with art, especially in the digital age? What is the meaning of artworks today? 

The Met was built on the strong belief that it is important for us to understand, not only the cultures of the world, but to understand where each other is coming from, what has been the origins of such cultures and how we connect. 

I think that's something that you can experience at the Met. You can get lost at the Met. You can wander from one gallery to the other. And you are in this area of the world; suddenly you are in another. All of that is a beautiful experience that a universal institution and encyclopedic museum can provide, connecting us with many different places in the world. 

The Met is not a New York institution; it's not a United States institution. It is a museum of the world, and for the world.

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