Art and the City – Suzhou Museum 苏州博物馆

The second part of my 2-part post, and the 4th in the Art & the City series, takes me back to Suzhou, China – known traditionally throughout Chinese history as the city of culture and the literati.

The Suzhou Museum in China is a sister museum to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha; an older sister, since it had been designed by I.M. Pei and inaugurated in 2006, before he went into retirement.

At first glance, visitors to both museums will realise that the general architectural styles of the buildings are essentially variations on the same theme. Both buildings have the same geometrical / fractal theme of stacked cubes, with only the colour scheme being somewhat different.

The similarity ends there however. While the MIA was designed to be awe-inspring and iconic, the SM inspires a more intimate and nostalgic feel, having been inspired by the ornately landscaped traditional gardens of Suzhou, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Incidentally, I.M. Pei used to spend summers in Suzhou during his childhood in Shanghai.

Like the MIA, the Museum is a largely a historical museum, showcasing artefacts and artworks from the Suzhou and Greater Jiangnan region, as well as other pieces of traditional Chinese art. Being a much smaller provincial museum, its collection was more modest; a far cry from the collection in the MIA. In actual fact, I can’t quite recall what the highlights were. Except for an ornately carved lacquer box that would have carried a prized fighting cricket belonging to a young nobleman.

What otherwise really struck me as memorable about the museum was the landscape design of its gardens. Pei had rendered Modernist interpretations on integral aspects of a traditional Chinese garden – the pavilion, the carp pond, rock sculptures and lotus ponds.  A row of lotus stems turned out to be made out of steel. Large pieces of slate and granite had been arranged against a white wall to evoke mountains in traditional Chinese landscape painting.  In the meantime, there were still the obligatory proliferation of lotus plants and strategically-placed bamboo groves.

Overall – cutting-edge contemporary design that still felt inexplicably traditional.


Another key difference: this one was very much the people’s institution.  I was there first thing in the morning on a Wednesday. It was at least a 30-minute wait to get in. Everyone in the line was Chinese. Inside, the place was thronged – almost unpleasantly so. It was hard to get a glimpse of the artefacts. Which probably explained why I couldn’t remember much of them.

I could see how the architecture was meant to provoke reflection; meant to put one in the sort of meditative mood that the literati and noble families of time past would have cultivated as they prepared themselves for an idyllic (and idle) Summer afternoon composing poetry in their courtyard mansions.

But…ah well… there were too many people.

Crowds notwithstanding, my visit to the SM put me in a more positive and optimistic mood than that to the MIA. Mostly because it was clear to me that here was a museum that had actually achieved what it was meant to do: rejuvenate its city and secure a place in its citizens’ minds.

This museum was the pride and joy of Suzhou. The cab driver in the cab I was in when I got to Suzhou that morning told me to go immediately to the SM before seeing anything else or she would be very annoyed.  Seriously.  She took me there directly, no questions asked.  Everybody else I bumped into that day in Suzhou asked if I had seen the museum.  Clearly, it figured largely in everyone’s minds.

I end this post with scenes of the museum, (apparently) beloved by the public.


Next : The New Museum, New York City

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
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