Shen Chen: Sto­ry­teller, ar­chae­ol­o­gist, movie-lover

China Daily (Canada) - - ONE WEEK FREE SMART EDITION - By LI MENG in Toronto For China Daily

Shen Chen, the vice-pres­i­dent of the Royal On­tario Mu­seum (ROM), be­lieves that mu­se­ums must re­late to their au­di­ences on a per­sonal level.

“It is the time for mu­se­ums to leave ar­ro­gance and high­brow sta­tus be­hind,” he said. Shen, who is also an es­tab­lished ar­chae­ol­o­gist, said that the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween au­di­ences and art pieces in mu­se­ums co­in­cides with the devel­op­ment of mu­se­ums in the 21st cen­tury.

“We are talk­ing about changes and in­no­va­tions ev­ery day,” he said. Even ROM, one of the largest mu­se­ums of world cul­ture and nat­u­ral his­tory in North Amer­ica, is fac­ing fi­nan­cial pres­sure.

Be­cause gov­ern­men­tal fi­nan­cial sup­port has not in­creased yearly, CEOs in mu­se­ums have to con­sider how to at­tract vis­i­tors and in­crease in­come.

“We need to com­mu­ni­cate with the au­di­ence,” Shen said. “It is the trend.”

As one of the se­nior cu­ra­tors at ROM, Shen spent most of his mu­seum time col­lect­ing an­tiq­ui­ties from China and mak­ing ex­hi­bi­tions of Chi­nese art and cul­ture for Canadian au­di­ences.

He still re­mem­bers the pop­u­lar­ity of The War­rior Em­peror and China’s Ter­ra­cotta Army four years ago.

That was the big­gest ex­hi­bi­tion on China’s Ter­ra­cotta Army in Canada, in­tro­duc­ing more than 200 ar­ti­facts from 15 mu­se­ums in Shaanxi prov­ince. A to­tal of 350,000 vis­i­tors dur­ing the six-month ex­hi­bi­tion learned how the First Em­peror of an old Eastern coun­try de­signed his un­der­ground palace.

Only the Egypt An­tiq­uity Ex­hi­bi­tion in 2000 sur­passed it in num­ber of vis­i­tors since the ROM opened in 1912.

Shen be­lieves that the pop­u­lar­ity of the ex­hi­bi­tion in 2010 is due to the rar­ity of art pieces and the sto­ry­telling skill of mu­seum staff.

Dur­ing a three-year prepa­ra­tion, Shen and his col­leagues had at­tempted to re­store for ex­hi­bi­tion at ROM, so­cial and mil­i­tary scenes of an­cient China from 2,000 years ago. The au­di­ence was told through book­lets and video clips var­i­ous sto­ries be­hind the stand­ing or sit­ting war­rior sculp­tures.

“Most of the au­di­ence in the West has known that the Ter­ra­cotta Army is an icon in the Chi­nese cul­ture, but they may not know why,” Shen said.

The why ques­tion, said Shen, can be an­swered by sto­ry­tellers in mu­se­ums who pro­vide de­tailed sto­ries in a vivid and com­pre­hen­si­ble man­ner.

Again, in later ex­hi­bi­tions such as The For­bid­den City: In­side the Court of China’s Em­per­ors, Shen con­tin­ued to play the role of sto­ry­teller. He wrote a col­umn for a lo­cal news­pa­per in Toronto on an­tiq­ui­ties in the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties, and a blog to share anec­dotes on the art pieces.

His tone is al­ways hu­mor­ous as he dis­cusses the big ice bar­rels in the For­bid­den City and the white cat of Puyi, the Last Em­peror of China.

“I, as a blog­ger, al­ways try my best to ex­plain the com­pli­cated and heavy his­tor­i­cal events in a vivid and com­pre­hen­si­ble way,” Shen said. He ex­pects that th­ese sto­ries can to some de­gree at­tract view­ers to visit the mu­seum and en­joy the trea­sures and an­tiq­ui­ties from great cul­tures.

Al­most 10 years ago, Shen as­serted in an in­ter­view with a Bei­jing news­pa­per that to­day’s mu­se­ums are en­cour­aged to pay more at­ten­tion on how to be­come as popular as pos­si­ble. In his eyes, be­ing “popular” should not be through “kitsch” or “awk­wardly sen­ti­men­tal”, but to re­duce the dis­tance be­tween renowned mu­se­ums and the public.

In his role as an ar­chae­ol­o­gist, Shen has been work­ing on the ROM-Luo­nan Project in the Luo­nan Basin, Shaanxi prov­ince.

The Luo­nan Basin Project has run for al­most 18 years, sup­ported by ROM, the Shaanxi Pro­vin­cial In­sti­tute of Ar­chae­ol­ogy and the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences. It is the first project by ROM and Chi­nese re­search in­sti­tu­tions. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, from the 1950s to the early 1990s, had not al­lowed for­eign schol­ars to at­tend the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tion in China.

The Luo­nan project was orig­i­nally sug­gested by Wang She­jiang, Shen’s class­mate in the Depart­ment of Ar­chae­ol­ogy at Wuhan Uni­ver­sity from 1983 to 1987. In 1997, Wang She­jiang, then on the re­search staff of the Shaanxi Pro­vin­cial In­sti­tute of Ar­chae­ol­ogy, in­vited Shen to come to Luo­nan to help ex­ca­vate sites of the Old Stone Age, in which homo erec­tus fos­sils might be dis­cov­ered.

Dur­ing the first few years, the work­ing con­di­tions there were fairly harsh. As Shen re­called, af­ter a 13-hour fight from Toronto to Xi’an, he had to spend eight more hours in an old Jeep to get to the ex­ca­va­tion site.

De­spite the tough con­di­tions, Shen was thrilled to be work­ing in the field. He had stud­ied a tech­nol­ogy called “use-wear anal­y­sis” in North Amer­ica for seven years, so it was the first time he got to use the tech­nol­ogy, which was new among his Chi­nese peers in the process of ex­ca­vat­ing Pa­le­olithic caves in his home­land.

Usu­ally Shen and his group had to work un­der the strong sun of Shaanxi, one of the hottest ar­eas in China in the sum­mer, and lived with lo­cal peas­ant fam­i­lies. More­over, the tools owned by Shen’s Chi­nese peers were sim­ple and crude, com­pared with his dig­i­tal cam­era and GPS hand­held de­vices that he brought from Canada.

“Now the sit­u­a­tion is much bet­ter com­pared with 10 years ago,” Shen said. Since the G40 Ex­press­way was built, it takes only 90 min­utes from Xi’an In­ter­na­tional Air­port to the camp of Luo­nan project.

The staff ’s de­vices and equip­ment have been up­dated as well, which helps in­crease the speed of ex­ca­va­tion. Be­cause the date of sev­eral ar­ti­facts found in Luo­nan Basin can­not be con­firmed, ar­chae­ol­o­gists test the age of the soil in which the ar­ti­facts were buried. The his­tory of an­tiq­ui­ties can then be de­duced. A sur­vey­ing tech­nol­ogy named op­ti­cal stim­u­lated lu­mi­nes­cence is ap­plied by physi­cists to con­firm the age of the soil.

Dur­ing the past decade, around 1,000 square me­ters of the homo erec­tus site has been ex­plored, and more than 10 pieces of stone axes have been un­earthed.

The num­ber of axes un­earthed by Wang, Shen and col­leagues is a record. Few re­search staff in China or East Asia had found so many stone axes within a sim­i­larly sized area.

There are two other largescale projects be­tween ROM and re­search in­sti­tutes on the Chi­nese main­land: The Ni­he­wan Basin Project and the Shan­dong Project, set up in 1998 and 1999, re­spec­tively. The for­mer, in He­bei prov­ince, is be­lieved to be the only mul­ti­lay­ered Lower Pleis­tocene site in China.

The devel­op­ment of the lat­ter is also ex­cit­ing as Shen and his group found that the mi­crob­lade tech­nol­ogy had been used by pre­his­toric hu­mans in pro­duc­ing stone tools. The dis­cov­ery of mi­crob­lade tools in Shan­dong prov­ince, to some de­gree, can be re­garded as ev­i­dence that there prob­a­bly ex­isted cer­tain re­la­tions be­tween peo­ple in North China and North Amer­ica thou­sands of years ago.

Although Shen has spent al­most 20 years dig­ging out caves in Shaanxi, He­bei and Shan­dong, homo erec­tus fos­sils have not yet been dis­cov­ered. Most of the find­ings are bunches of “bro­ken rocks and an­i­mal bones”.

The most fre­quent ques­tion Shen and his col­leagues get from the public is “what did you find? The an­swer is not so easy,” he said.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists, ac­cord­ing to Shen, are not trea­sure-dis­cov­er­ers whose aim is to un­cover ex­quis­ite bronzes or jew­els in tombs and un­der­ground palaces. They are, in­stead, re­searchers who in­volve them­selves in “search­ing for clues that hold the story of our hu­man past”.

As a mu­seum vice-pres­i­dent, part-time pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto and the owner of a black cat, Shen is fairly busy.

“It is rel­a­tively dif­fi­cult to bal­ance my life now,” he said. He re­laxes by watch­ing movies and TV dra­mas, and do­ing things such as wait­ing out­side the theater of the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val with his son to catch a glimpse of ac­tor Den­zel Wash­ing­ton.

Shen’s taste in TV and movies varies ranges from Hol­ly­wood block­busters to French indies, to Chi­nese TV dra­mas to Korean love sto­ries.

Sev­eral months ago, Shen vis­ited Gyeong­bok­gung, the royal palace in Seoul. It re­minded him of the scene of a TV drama You Who Came From the Stars. It is a love story be­tween an alien and a Korean film star. The alien lives in a space 400 years re­moved from the hero­ine. The dis­tance, how­ever, does not pre­vent the lovers from be­ing to­gether.

Af­ter the visit, Shen up­loaded sev­eral pho­tos of the palace via Wechat and wrote: “Let us go through the past.”

What Shen has been en­gag­ing in the past 18 years at ROM and more than 30 in the field of ar­chae­ol­ogy can be viewed as a jour­ney be­tween past and present.



Shen Chen holds a hand axe which is dis­cov­ered from Luo­nan Basin.


Age: Ed­u­ca­tion: · BA in ar­chae­ol­ogy, Wuhan Uni­ver­sity, Hubei prov­ince, 1983-1987 · MA in an­thro­pol­ogy, Uni­ver­sity of Tulsa (US), 1990-1992 · PhD in An­thro­pol­ogy, Uni­ver­sity of Toronto 1993-1997 Ca­reer: · As­so­ciate cu­ra­tor, Depart­ment of Near Eastern and Asian Civ­i­liza­tions, Royal On­tario Mu­seum, Canada, 1997-2002 · Cu­ra­tor, Depart­ment of World Cul­tures, ROM, 20022007 · Se­nior cu­ra­tor, Depart­ment of World Cul­tures, ROM, 2007-2011 · Vice-pres­i­dent, ROM, 2011-present · Ad­junct pro­fes­sor (Depart­ment of An­thro­pol­ogy, Depart­ment of East Asian Stud­ies, Uni­ver­sity of Toronto; Ori­en­tal Ar­chae­ol­ogy Re­search Cen­ter at Shan­dong Uni­ver­sity


Shen Chen in his of­fice of ROM.

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