A monkey performing a somersault on a bamboo trapeze, a teacher scolding a precocious student, two eager brawlers restrained by concerned friends — these are among the myriad episodes of quotidian Chinese life from centuries past first captured on scroll paintings, now animated and brought to life in a pioneering collaboration between Suning Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. 

What happened

Shanghai’s Suning Art Museum (SAM) and the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) co-launched an online exhibition, Time Travel: Daily Life in Traditional China, on June 18. 

Time Travel offers a digital platform for users to playfully explore two scroll paintings; “Street Scenes from Times of Peace” from AIC and “Customs in Hangzhou” from SAM.   

How Time Travel works

Launched as a WeChat Mini Program, a non-downloadable application that runs inside Tencent’s signature platform, Time Travel presents four means of engaging with the scrolls: an animated panning video; a detailed explanation of the works’ specific stories, characters, and themes; a 25-minute behind-the-scenes video in which curators and scholars discuss the works; and livestreams in which viewers can participate in curator-led discussions. 

The jointly produced WeChat Mini-Program allows users to deeply explore two scroll paintings, features animated videos, and will host upcoming livestreams. Image: Time Travel WeChat Mini-Program

Why it matters

While there is nothing new to collaborations between Chinese and U.S. museums — institutions such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art have long established strong connections with peer organizations in China — the entirely digital nature of the project is certainly novel.

Time Travel is commendable for its use of new animation technology, meeting China’s cultural consumers where they are, i.e. online, and for engaging a range of audiences — from the vivid animated videos for casual browsers to academic analysis for those seeking a deeper experience.

An animated “Street Scenes from Times of Peace.” Image: Time Travel WeChat Mini-Program

The pandemic has rendered high-level, international blockbuster exhibitions a relative impossibility and Time Travel evidences a new type of show, one in which institutions don’t merely lend artwork, but share resources and expertise.

It also highlights the merits of non-Chinese museums developing a presence on WeChat. In the late 2010s, AIC responded to its increasing number of Chinese visitors by leaning into China’s leading social media platforms, it now has both the following and the know-how to launch a truly innovative cultural project on WeChat.

What they said

“We are honored to announce that Suning Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago will jointly present an online exhibition, Time Travel: Daily Life in Traditional China. Opening on June 18, 2021, this exhibition is co-curated by curators and scholars from Suning & the Art Institute.” — Suning Art Museum & Art Institute of Chicago


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