Shen Chen: Storyteller, archaeologist, movie-lover
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.