Over 3300 museum people have descended on Shanghai for the 2010 ICOM conference. The main sessions are being held at the World Expo site next to the Huangpu River.

Things happen on a different human scale in China. This is by far the largest ICOM meeting ever. The World Expo closed at the end of October after attracting a phenomenal 70 million visitors. Just a few short years ago, Shanghai had about 6 metro train lines running through the city, now they have 11.

In a place that is changing so fast, what does heritage mean? What role do museums play in such a society. I was told that in China a new museum opens about once every three days.

This is possible because museums are not passive keepers of the past, but active "shapers" of the future. They are places of interaction where many different voices can be heard, places of discourse and dialogue between different cultures and different world views. Social harmony through intercultural exchange is the theme of this ICOM conference. Museums have become theatres in which we are all participants seeking engagement, inclusion, understanding and a better world.

Some great keynote talks on this theme today in the opening session. Delegates will now break up into their myriad international committees and regional alliances to pursue their more specialised and particular

In the backrooms of the ICOM machine, a "Shanghai declaration" is being formulated.

O the second day a the conference broke up into meetings of the various international groups. There was also a great opportunity to visit the Chinese Expo Pavillion. This was a breath taking experience, the building looms large behind the lines of people seeking entry to the site (during Expo this could take up to six hours). It is shaped like an ancient crown and embodies and contains the spirit of Chinese civilization.

Inside, ancient China is represented by a sixteenth century artwork that extends for what seems like an incredible distance. It depicts the life of early traders and represents the start of the market economy projected above a river of light. Before you realise it the artwork is alive as people move about their daily tasks and you become drawn into the narratives of any one of the individuals.

In another section surrounding screens show the struggle of the Chinese people as they rebuild in 1978 using the best hollywood techniques people work together building a new "beautiful life", a sea of high rise cranes towering above the clouds work at a frenetic pace. In another section you are transported along a tunnel and cities literally grow around you as you move through, buildings rise up from the ground at an alarming pace.

There are over 100 cities in China with a population above one million, some didn't exist just a few years ago. How can the world cope with such pressure? No one has managed a human society on this scale before, everything that happens is new. The sun set over Shanghai as seen from the China Pavillion with futuristic Expo buildings in the foreground is an exhilariting and challenging view of the future.

The answer is also represented in the pavilion, China will embrace a new green future. There is no debate about climate change, no question that action must be taken on an enormous social scale. It makes the arguments and the political paralysis in Australia on this issue seem somewhat pathetic and silly. China will achieve this by re-engaging with it's ancient cultural principles of respect for nature. Seeking answers to modern problems from ancient knowledge is not a new strategy, but perhaps it is one that many other societies have forgotten. There is also a practical shape to this strategy, provincial administrators will have targets for CO2 reductions, these must be met, there is no option for partial success in this area.

Meanwhile there are many contradictions, hordes of electric scooters provide cheap clean transport for many on the streets of Shanghai, at the same time the Bund dazzles the many international visitors each night with spectacular light shows.

Rumours have it that the natural history meeting came down to an argument about climate change yesterday.

The Universitty Museums International Committee held their meetings over the next couple of days. A new President was elected, Hugues Dreysse from the University of Strassbourg replaces Cornelia Weber from Humboldt University. There was also an opportunity to visit a uniquely Chinese University Museum, the University Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

It is set in a high technology biomedical precinct in Shanghai, another eclectic admixture of the traditional and the modern in contemporary China. The museum itself is grand and includes an extensive gargen with medicinal plants. Biological specimens of the source material of much traditional medicine are on display inside. Many visitors commented on the rarity of some of the animals represented in the museum and wondered if the massive demand from so many people is linked to the current depleted status of many of these species.

Two Macquarie students presented papers, Li Rong currently undertaking a Masters in Museum Studies presented a paper on the impact of Expo on 11 Shanghai University Museums. Recently graduated Master of Museum Studies student, Yingyod Lapwong presented a poster on his museum the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Natural History Museum in southern Thailand.

"!! Sacre blue, le grande padre !!" exclaimed a French couple when this surprise speaker walked on to the ICOM stage.

Jacque Chirac's appearance on the last day of the conference explained the upgraded security at the Expo conference centre.

Three hours later conference delegates found themselves at the farewell function in the city, each was presented with a lavishly illustrated book about the conference including images of Chirac. Producing a 300 page colour book for over 3000 peple in such a short time is somewhat remarkable!

Volunteers are thanked at the farewell party.

The final event was full of cultural performances, thanking of volunteers and an opportunity to say goodbye to ICOM regulars and many new friends. The food was abundant and the wine...........Jacobs Creek!

The next ICOM trienniel meeting will be in Rio in 2013. The best way to the airport when departing Shanghai is by the Maglev (magnetic levitation) train, there is even a Maglev Museum to be visited at the station. It travells at up to 430kms per hour and deposits you at the airport in startlingly quick time speeding above a mass of humanity moving about by more conventional means.

China is a remarkable place, especially for a first time visitor from a tiny nation like Australia, many contrasts, many challenges, but abundant optimism.

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Comment by Andrew Simpson on November 23, 2010 at 13:16
Hi Des,

Thanks for the comments. The "green future for China" was the main thing I learnt from the trip, it's a real government strategy. Interestingly, respect for nature through traditional knowledge stems from an intellectual wellspring that predates, and therefore doesn't recognise, the cultural/natural divide of western thought.

How engaged individual citizens are with this strategy is difficult for an outsider to discern on a short visit.

We have a small research project lined up with senior Chinese journalists next year. There are plenty of questions to be asked, as you correctly note there is no/little understanding of this in the west. I vaguely remember a panellist on Q & A earlier this year extolling the virtues of the Chinese approach and leaving fellow panellists, Tony Jones and the whole Q & A audience completely non plussed.

It also raises a raft of interesting questions about how natural history museums globally should respond the the challenges of climate change. I remember the Australian Museum doing an exhibition comparing two futures for the world, one with action against climate change and one without. Attention grabbing for sure, but interpreted by some as cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer. Whereas, to my mind, what was done in the China Pavillion was articulated with subtlety, style and with a certain cultural eloquence.

Mind you, some days in Shanghai the heavy atmosphere rapidly reddens the eyes and parches the throat.
Comment by Des Griffin on November 22, 2010 at 9:03
A wonderful blog Andrew. Thank you. I particularly noted the comment about a green future. China's actions in this area are not clear to western politicians. On the other than the gross emissions are still a serious problem notwithstanding that Australia is now the largest emitter per capita.

I also noted the stuff about the trains.

Thanks again.
Comment by Andrew Simpson on November 12, 2010 at 1:02
Hi Lyn,
It has certainly helped me to focus some of the museological questions for our Chinese media project in 2011.
Comment by Lyn Hicks on November 11, 2010 at 10:34
This sounds like an extraordinary experience and one that I am keen to hear more about. I am particularly interested in the size, scope and scale of the Chinese experience of modernity and am thinking that this trip of yours will lay ever stronger foundations for our Soft Power Research Group, and our linking of museology with public diplomacy, particularly in China and India.

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