chapter  21
13 Pages

Standardising difference: the materiality of ethnic minorities in the museums of the People’s Republic of China

How do museums negotiate cultural difference in contexts where they are urged to represent national identity? What role do museum exhibitions have in such processes? And how is the material culture on display engaged with in such contexts? This chapter aims to address these broad questions through the analysis of the museum representation of ethnic minorities in China and its articulation with the definition of Chinese national identity. China is formally defined as a ‘unified, multinational state’, where the Han majority cohabits with some fifty-five officially recognised ethnic minorities.1 It follows that the dilemma inherent in the representation of cultural difference – given the tension between uniqueness and resistance to overarching unifying definitions of identity – is especially acute in China. Here, museums are challenged to represent the cultural diversity of fifty-five ethnic minorities and, at the same time, to closely adhere to the official rhetoric predicating the unity of all Chinese people on the basis of their allegedly shared ‘Chineseness’.